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Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Othello (1965)

The major garnerer of acting nominations in 1965 was Othello, which had four performers nominated: Laurence Olivier as the Moor, Frank Findlay as Iago, Maggie Smith as Desdemona, and Joyce Redman as Emilia (Findlay was nominated for Supporting Actor even though his part is larger than Othello's). It didn't win any, but it's a sign that the Academy has always respected top-shelf Shakespeare; it's as if they think that Shakespearean actors are inherently better.

They might not be wrong. Some great actors wouldn't be a right fit for the Bard--Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart, whose American accents are too strong, and Michael Caine, who never lost his Cockney. But Shakespeare requires the consummate skills of an actor, both in handling difficult language and in the incredibly complex characterizations.

This was the fourth Oscar nomination for Olivier in a Shakespearean role (and his last). It is also likely that it was one of the last times a white actor used blackface to play the part. In fact, to watch this film requires one to get used to the notion of a man looking like he stepped out of a minstrel show, the whites of his eyes set against coal-black skin; the pink of his lips gleaming when he smiles. But if one can get past that, this is a smashing production, and the type of film that should be done more often--it's the film of a play, a production put on by England's National Theatre, with minimal sets. If outfits like Fathom Events can put on the Metropolitan Opera at theaters around the nation, why not stage plays?

This Othello, directed by Stuart Burge, gives us a straightforward adaptation--no modern dress. Olivier is the Moor of Venice, a great general who has married Desdemona, much to her father's consternation. But Othello is so well regarded that the old man is told to chill. Iago, Othello's aide-de-camp, is furious over being passed over for promotion, so he schemes to destroy him by making him think that Desdemona has been dallying with an officer named Cassio (here played by a young Derek Jacobi). Iago is found out, but too late, as Othello has murdered Desdemona in a fit of jealous rage, and then kills himself.

As with most of Shakespeare's villains, Iago is the more interesting character, akin to Richard III. Iago comes up with most of the best lines, and introduced the phrases "heart on my sleeve" and "the green-eyed monster." He also has one of the most enigmatic lines in Shakespeare: "I am not what I am." Findlay, whom I have only seen in two other films, Richard Lester's Musketeer films, is thrilling in the part. Olivier, of course, is unparalleled. He alters his voice, lowering the register to make Othello seem more powerful. But damn that skin makeup.

Maggie Smith has endeared herself to so many in recent years, through the Harry Potter films and Downton Abbey, that it's hard to remember she was once young, and here she is a beautiful and sad Desdemona. Redman, playing Iago's wife Emilia, has one big scene, when she reveals his treachery, and she knocks it out of the part.

I would also like to mention Robert Lang, who makes an especially oafish Roderigo.

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