Thursday, May 14, 2015

Neglected Gem #75: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999)

Stanley Tucci and Rupert Everett in A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999).

I’ve seen so many productions – professional and amateur – of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that, much as I love the play, for some time I’ve been fairly sure I could live my life happily without seeing another. But Michael Hoffman’s 1999 film of it is so fresh and so supremely acted that my first impulse on leaving the theatre was a desire to come back again with other friends to show it off to them. Hoffman has turned Shakespeare’s Athens (which doesn’t even try to pass for ancient Greece) into turn-of-the-century Italy (“Monte Athena”). That turns out to be an inspired choice, right from the opening sequence where the feast is being prepared for the wedding of the duke, Theseus (David Strathairn), and his bride, the stranger queen Hippolyta (Sophie Marceau, whose French accent makes a suitable division from Strathairn’s American-ness). Italians would, of course, of course, focus on the sensuality of the food; the glimpses we get of the duke’s kitchen are lush. Those aren’t the very first images. As we hear the famous Mendelssohn music drift in, we see the fairies –beams of light dancing over a violet dawn that turn into butterflies as the morning light takes over the sky. There’s a tendency (unfortunate, I think) in modern productions of Midsummer to de-emphasize the ethereal quality of the supernatural elements and make them not only carnal – which they certainly are – but earthy, even brutal. Some of the directors who have gone in that direction may have taken their cue from Jan Kott’s essay “Titania and the Ass’s Head” in Shakespeare Our Contemporary. But it would be a waste to put the play on screen and ignore the resources that enable filmmakers to make the kind of magic you can’t conjure on the stage.

The only previous American movie of Midsummer, which the great theatrical director Max Reinhardt did for Warner Brothers in 1935 with William Dieterle – it was Reinhardt’s only film – certainly took advantage of those resources. Its style was in some ways similar to that of The Wizard of Oz, which came four years later: a combination of elaborate fantasy and American vaudeville. The cast included such Warners stalwarts as Jimmy Cagney (as Bottom), Dick Powell (as Lysander), the beautiful young Olivia De Havilland (as Hermia), and, among the mechanicals, Hugh Herbert and Frank McHugh – regulars, like Powell, in the Busby Berkeley musicals. And it feels like a musical, not only because of all the music and dance in it, but in the non-musical scenes, too, like the one where Theseus (Ian Hunter) woos Hippolyta (Veree Teasdale), and especially the clowns’ interludes with Cagney and Joe E. Brown as Flute/Thisbe. These are sublimely funny, especially when Brown shows up for the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding feast in drag, his cheeks rouged, a ridiculous braided blonde wig plopped on his Plasticene face, holding a floppy papier-maché flower, reading his verse in exaggerated meter and stuttering over the difficult words, his brow knitted in befuddlement. But Reinhardt’s visuals are more closely linked to the high Romantic style of German fairy tales than to the Warners backlot, and he really comes to the forefront in the fairy scenes, which have a shimmering, soft-focus splendor and offer some truly spectacular images: a deer silhouetted against a sky, a unicorn stepping delicately into a boiling fog out of which fairies with long platinum tresses appear like phantoms. Reinhardt’s Oberon (Victor Jory) and Titania (Anita Louise) embody the darkness and the light respectively, the moon and the sun. She always seems to be shrouded in mist, while he’s bejeweled, as if we were seeing him through raindrops or snowdrops (and his attendants are winged, like bats or moths). Their disappearance at the end of the dream ballet into the star-studded, inky sky – all that’s left, finally, are her fluttering arms, like butterflies, then nothing – must have influenced their appearance at the beginning of Hoffman’s version.

The 1935 film of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The opening scene of Shakespeare’s play calls up the anti-comic premise requisite to all of his comedies. Hermia (Anna Friel) is in love with Lysander (Dominic West), but her father, Egeus (Bernard Hill), insist that she marry his choice, Demetrius (Christian Bale), and if she refuses, he demands the force of the law be set in motion against her – which means that either she be executed for disobeying him or enter a convent. The law is all Egeus has on his side, since Demetrius really shouldn’t be pursuing Hermia at all, but remaining content with Hermia’s close friend, Helena (Calista Flockhart, in a lovely, light-hearted performance), whom he once loved and who is still crazy over him. In Shakespearean comedy, the anti-comic force is also anti-life, and the erotics of the plot defeat it rather easily (except in the problem comedies, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, where the obstacles are tougher to level). In Hoffman’s film, it’s clear that no one is sympathetic to Egeus except Demetrius. Not Sophie Marceau’s Hippolyta, who makes it clear without actually interfering that she has a point of view about the case: she disdains the patriarchal bent of this antiquated law. And not even Theseus, who rolls his eyes when he sees Egeus (obviously a chronic complainer) approaching and interrupting his lovemaking with his fiancée. He has no choice, however, and accedes to Egeus – a decision he regrets when it upsets the harmony between him and Hippolyta. It’s smart of Hoffman to introduce this proto-feminist note, which bridges the gap between the old-fashioned opening and the contemporary audience. And the modern age is a player in this movie’s transcription of Midsummer. All four of the lovers’ line readings are contemporary-sounding, in their rhythms and in the muting of the lyrical flourishes in the language. And Helena, with her beribboned hair bedraggled – an emblem of her desperation as she chases after the faithless Demetrius – is a bicycle rider; so is Demetrius.

The mechanicals, whom we first glimpse in the village square, meeting to cast the play they’re hoping to perform at Theseus’s wedding feast, are played by a wonderful band of character actors: the English Roger Rees as a very gentlemanly, very Victorian Peter Quince; Max Wright, a cigarette eternally in his mouth, as Robin Starveling; Gregory Jbara, with his big, clownish face, as Snug, who talks slowly and is “slow of study” (and who is cast in their play as the Lion); Bill Irwin, with a not-quite-walrus mustache, as Snout; Sam Rockwell as Francis Flute (who will be Thisbe); and Kevin Kline as Nick Bottom the weaver, their star. Kline sports a mustache and a goatee, his curled hair has a silvery frost, and he wears his boater at a rakish tilt. His Bottom appreciates women, and they smile at him, but he’s unhappily married to a shrew (Robin Wright). (She speaks in Italian – lines that Shakespeare, of course, didn’t write – and seems entirely alien to the romantic comedy, even more so than Bernard Hill’s pain-in-the-ass Egeus.) Kline, ideally cast, plays Bottom as the kind of ham who would thrill other amateurs; his line readings (as opposed to the lovers’) are embossed, and he dearly loves to make a spectacle of himself. Some local ladies hear him reciting and applaud, and when he suggests to his comrades that maybe he could play the Lion, too, as well as Pyramus, his sample roaring entertains a group of children. But then some boys spill red wine on him from a balcony as a joke. Bottom’s embarrassment, in front of a lady he’s clearly trying to impress, is a trifle upsetting; we assume this is what happens to him whenever he tries for a grandiloquent romanticism. We’re sad for him – for his unhappy domestic life, for his public humiliations. We can see why he likes to perform, to play a role that suits his vision of himself as bigger-souled than people realize he is. Bottom is one of Shakespeare’s most likable characters, but this is the first time I’ve seen his boisterous scene-stealing presented not as benign narcissism but with a (smart) psychological subtext. As he tiptoes home, hoping his wife won’t hear him come in and see him soaked in wine, we hear the famous aria “Una furtive lagrima” from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore on the soundtrack. Of course she sees him and glares at him scornfully. She’s not surprised that he looks like a fool; clearly that’s how she always sees him.

Kevin Kline as Bottom.

Hoffman manages the shift from the court to the woods with a thunderstorm (which enhances the promise of woodland magic), and the moonbeam fairies lead us into this enchanted world, where Oberon’s fairies are satyrs and other ancient Mediterranean mythic creatures. (His visual inspiration seems to have been – partly, at least – the painting Titania and Bottom by the pre-Raphaelite Henry Fuseli.) Graying, balding Stanley Tucci is older than traditional Pucks; he looks pretty ticklish with little horns and pointed ears, and he gives a sly, confident performance. (His Puck always looks a little wasted.) The fairy who identifies him (Deirdre A. Harrison) is in the style of the tough dames from hard-boiled comedy, and their exchange takes place in a bar, where he gets her drunk. These are carousing, lascivious spirits, cavorting in a realm clearly devoted to Eros. But the appearance of Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer) is majestic, and they read their banter wittily. Everett and Pfeiffer are the sexiest and most glamorous fairy king and queen I’ve ever seen, and both of them are terrific. He’s the more understated of the two – he plays subtle tricks with the verse, and his readings have a sleepy, sex-drenched quality. She’s full of feeling, especially in her speech about her love for the Italian votaress who died giving birth to the child she and Oberon are now quarreling over (it’s that quarrel that has rent the fairy kingdom and must be resolved in the play’s quest for a happy ending).

When Oberon, sending Puck out for the magic flower, love-in-idleness, describes how Cupid’s arrow turned the white blooms blood-red, we see Cupid in a painting. The movie contains a number of references to painting and sculpture that remind us what part of the world we’re in: Italy, the birthplace of so much magnificent art. Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography is very rich – vivid reds and greens for the fairies, roseate for the lovers. (It’s a gorgeous-looking film.) When Titania is bathed by her ladies-in-waiting, one swings like the figure in the famous Fragonard painting (though Pfeiffer’s Titania is more like a pre-Raphaelite models). Yet the movie is old-world and new-world at the same time; in a way, it’s about the old world adopting the ways of the new without altering its essential magic. The thieving fairies we see passing for workers in the Duke’s kitchen at the beginning of the movie bring along a cart of purloined goodies, including a Victrola, but they have no idea what it’s for; one of them, assuming it’s merely decorative, floats a record down a stream. Oberon, seeking to get at his embittered queen with the flower whose juice will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees, bribes one of her attendants with a mirror, which mesmerizes her the way it can mesmerize a baby who doesn’t know what it’s seeing. I love the image of Puck riding on the back of a turtle, but when he sees Demetrius’s abandoned bicycle, you can see he prefers it – once he figures out what the hell it’s for. (He attacks it at first as if it might be alive, and the horn scares him a little.) The way these mechanical trappings of the still-young modern age find their way into the ancient culture of the fairies is charming. They don’t know what to make of them at first, but they’re open to progress when they find out how much fun these new inventions can be. The bicycle, which is in its heyday in this era, is perfect for Hoffman’s concept, because it’s both spanking new and, in the way it calls up romantic images, fondly old-fashioned.

Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer,

In the Reinhardt version, when Puck (a very young and over-the-top Mickey Rooney) turns Bottom into an ass, he blows magic bubbles like feathers at him, and through the sorcery of the movies, Cagney acquires a great flurry mask (designed by Max Ree) and then, seeing his head in the reflection of a pond, he weeps as he clings to the side of a tree and sings. (This touch of melancholy is one of the many surprises of the film.) Hoffman has Puck leave, for Bottom (who is in mid-rehearsal with his mates), a top hat he can’t resist donning and then blows magic dust on him; when he raises his hat again on his entrance, he has ass’s ears and wild hair and his face is both hairier and grayer. The ass’s head (Gabriella Pescucci designed the costumes) is more of a suggestion than an all-out mask like Cagney’s. For some reason the transformation makes Kline talk in an Irish brogue that seems improbably perfect. When Titania awakes and falls in love with him, and he, a little frightened, tries to retreat from her, her fairies trip him up with a grass rope and he lands in her hammock – not a bad fate. Pfeiffer’s Titania offers untold delights, and her scenes with Kline are very sexy. And because of the way Hoffman and Kline have drawn Bottom in the early scenes, his idyll with the queen of the fairies isn’t just a comic lark; it’s the romantic escapade we feel he deserves. (And in a sense he pays his way. Her fairies offer him fresh berries on vinyl, but he knows the record isn’t meant to be a serving tray and introduces them to recorded music, which they adore.)

By morning, the erotic enchantment of the fairy world has infected the landscape; it’s dotted with love-in-idleness. When the royal party – Hippolyta riding ahead of Theseus because she hasn’t forgiven him for Hermia’s intended fate and she isn’t interesting in hearing him boast about his hounds – comes across the lovers, now reunited by Oberon’s charm, they’re naked and they, too, are covered in those tiny scarlet flowers. Theseus wins back his bride’s love and respect when he adds the lovers to his own wedding party, overriding Egeus. Meanwhile Bottom awakes as the record comes to an end, and finds he’s been deposited back in the grass in his old form. Kline’s reading of the “Bottom’s dream” speech is very gentle and lyrical; you can see he remembers the beauty and glory of his night with Titania. Kline stands head to head with Cagney here, whose rendition of the soliloquy I had thought couldn’t be equaled. When his Bottom accompanies his fellow players to the palace to propose their tragedy for the celebration, he’s entranced by the classical statues in the courtyard; they remind him, in some way he can’t express, of what he’s just been through.

The camaraderie of the mechanicals is touching too. Bill Irwin does a sweet little pantomime of Snout’s stage fright when Quince tells him, “Our play is preferred.” The amateur theatrical is funny, of course – Bottom improvises charmingly, while Quince gets so irritated with his variations on the lines that he forgets himself and yells out corrections. But it’s also visually imaginative and even rather elegant, in nineteenth-century style. And it’s unexpectedly affecting. Jbara’s Lion, in papier-maché curls, is delighted with his own performance, but in a way that’s completely free from vanity. And though Thisbe’s discovery of Pyramus’s body is greeted with laughs – as everything is that Rockwell does in that absurd falsetto – suddenly he drops it and something amazing happens: authentic feelings take over, and we get a scene of genuine grief as he throws off his wig. This inspired moment (Rockwell is superb) alters everyone’s experience of the play within the play, including the three sets of lovers, who are moved by it. Afterwards, when Philostrate (John Sessions), the Master of the Revels, brings the players a program inscribed by the Duke, “Very notably discharged,” they go off, drunk and overjoyed, repeating the phrase. This night is a highlight of their lives. Bottom returns home with the ring that is his only souvenir of his lovemaking with the queen of the fairies. There’s a nostalgic sadness in his eyes. Standing at his window, he sees the fairies flying past and one – the brightest of them all – is his lady, whom he will remember all his life.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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