STAGE TO SCREEN: "The Merchant of Venice" and Your "Phantom" Thoughts

Stage to Screens   STAGE TO SCREEN: "The Merchant of Venice" and Your "Phantom" Thoughts “Most films of Shakespeare don’t attract me, to be honest,” Michael Radford says. “And apart from ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ which is fantastic all the way through, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film of a Shakespeare comedy that’s actually funny.”

So Radford, whose “Il Postino” was briefly the highest-grossing foreign film of all time, wouldn’t appear to be the likely director of “The Merchant of Venice,” one of Shakespeare’s trickier blends of comedy, romance and courtroom thriller. The tone shifts wildly throughout the play, and it’s hard to ground the piece with any one of the four protagonists. (As Radford puts it, “Antonio is the title character, Bassanio is clearly the hero, Portia has the biggest part, and Shylock is the most famous character.”) But with the addition of stars like Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, the Oscar-nominated director signed on.

Why? “First, it’s got a lot of modern themes. Here is an immigrant community . . . suffering from overt or tacit abuse every day until their world is threatened to the point where they do something about it. Second, it’s set in Venice, which is fabulous and you can still shoot there. And third, it has a really, really good plot.”

That it does, and Radford has condensed the story into a crisp potboiler of a play, its painterly visuals matched by its intelligent performances and a propulsive momentum. With just a handful of terse visuals and a few sentences of text, he has added a prologue that gives a very useful context to the anti-Semitism and usury plot lines. Al Pacino is as impressive as Shylock as he was in the criminally underrated “Looking for Richard,” and Lynn Collins is a major find as the beguiling, intellectually formidable Portia.

Irons, also very good, was actually a last-minute replacement when the original Antonio, Ian McKellen, had to drop out due to scheduling concerns. “It’s been a passion of Ian’s to play Antonio,” Radford says. “I’m rather glad, in a way, because Jeremy is a much better film actor. Although Ian is one of the great Shakespearean actors, age-wise, too, I think Jeremy is more appropriate.”

Radford says he had little trouble hacking the “Merchant” script down to a 131-minute film. Act V is essentially gone, but “that’s in the nature of the beast. . . . My point is to make a judgment about what can be told cinematically and what can be told through the poetic language. You can slice out great lumps of metaphor in a film.” You can also add gorgeous visuals, and “Merchant” succeeds wildly in this regard. The sumptuous textures and deep, rich lighting bring the Old Master painters to mind, and Radford moves crowds and cameras beautifully. With the possible exception of some of Kurosawa’s reinventions, I’m hard-pressed to think of another Shakespeare film that avails itself so successfully of the tools that film has to offer.

Radford may bring an Italian play — “a monologue, really” — called Novecento Pianista to New York with Irons; when we spoke on the phone, he was in Chile checking in on a Spanish-language production of the play. And he’s also interested in working again with his Shylock: “I’d like to do another [Shakespeare movie] with Al. The obvious one is ‘Lear,’ but it’s so theatrical that it’s really hard to think of how to break out of it.” Radford has also considered Pacino as either Timon of Athens or Macbeth. “I sort of like the idea of Macbeth being an older man,” he says, “a loyal retainer to the king who’s been passed over endlessly. Plus, we could try to get Meryl.”

***

Allan Knee had a busy week: Sunday saw the Broadway opening of Little Women, for which he wrote the book, and “Finding Neverland,” based on a Knee play, got seven Academy Award nominations on Tuesday morning. David Magee is the credited screenwriter, but unless I’m mistaken, Knee’s name will be announced on Oscar night as the creator of the source material.

Beyond that, stage-based films met with mixed success with Oscar this year. This is what I said about last month of the prospects for “Phantom of the Opera”: “It doesn’t look like ‘Phantom’ will generate the kind of Oscar buzz that ‘Chicago’ did . . . but I wouldn’t rule out an ‘Evita’-size response, with five or six technical nominations and an award for the new song tacked onto the credits.” Well, that proved to be a little optimistic: It got the song nod plus just two others, Art Direction and Cinematography. I also said this back in October, when I talked with Annette Bening the night of the “Being Julia” premiere: “This could be the movie that finally gets Bening her Oscar.” Looking at the competition, I think my hunch was right.

Let’s see, what else? Clive Owen and Natalie Portman got supporting nods for “Closer.” Playwrights Jose Rivera and Mike Leigh were nominated for their “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Vera Drake” screenplays. Alan Alda almost found himself in the same situation Alec Baldwin was in last year, when the Roundabout shut down Twentieth Century for the weekend so that he could attend the awards show. Luckily, “Glengarry Glen Ross” starts previews a few weeks later, so Alda can head to L.A. with a clear conscience. (The bigger question mark is screenwriting nominee Ethan Hawke, whose play Hurlyburly was extended and now overlaps with the ceremony. And Sidney Lumet, the man who gave us ”12 Angry Men,” “Deathtrap,” “Equus,” “The Wiz” and a pair of major Jason Robards-Eugene O’Neill films, will receive an honorary Oscar. February 27 is the big night. I predict awards for Bening, Owen and probably Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

***

All you Philip Bosco fans who can’t stand the two months between his leaving 12 Angry Men and starting previews at Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should check out the Will Smith comedy “Hitch” (Feb. 11). Other than that, nothing much to do in February besides speculate about the casting of Bill Condon’s proposed “Dreamgirls” film (see Tim’s letter below) and catch up on Oscar releases.

***

My Favorite Thoughts: Dozens of you weighed in about “Phantom,” and almost as many had opinions about who should replace Nicole Kidman in “The Producers.” The latter topic has been resolved with the casting of Uma Thurman, but Jane Krakowski, Cady Huffman, Naomi Watts and Charlize Theron all got plenty of votes. And Jude leans toward European singer Anastacia, “who would kick ass and guarantee worldwide box office, since she is a household name in every country but the U.S.”

As for “Phantom,” the opinions were all over the board. I’d say the positive reviews outweighed the negatives about two to one, but all opinions were well represented. Nancy had a legitimate problem with the movie, while Chris enumerated the three concerns he had coming into it.

I hadn’t thought of the fact that seemed to irk Nancy:

“The movie was fine. My biggest complaint is that the whole ending is now ridiculous as a result of a change made from the show. In the show, the Phantom has some otherworldly powers. Specifically, at the mausoleum, Raoul doesn't have a prayer of catching him as the Phantom shoots bolts of light at him. So Raoul of necessity is forced to hatch the scheme of having Christine sing in the Phantom's opera as the only hope of physically trapping him. But in the movie, presumably to make the Phantom more human, he and Raoul engage in a sword fight at the mausoleum—and Raoul gets the better of him. But then inexplicably Raoul lets him go, heeding Christine's ridiculous plea ('No, Raoul, not like this'). Well, then how? Let's not catch him like a regular person. No, let's hatch this ridiculous scheme that places Christine's life in danger—and she still sings the same lyrics about not having Raoul force her to do this, but it's her own fault now, since she didn't let Raoul kill him when he had the chance. But since Raoul knows he's just human, he didn't need the scheme anyway—he could be killed without putting Christine's life in danger.”

And here’s Chris with his breakdown:

“(1) How was the new song going to fit in? Simple—it doesn't try. Only on second viewing do you hear odd snatches of the new tune, and most people won't notice it anyway. There was no need for it. Typical of most adaptations of stage musicals, the obligatory one new song gets put on the closing credits where it cannot do any harm.

“(2) Minnie Driver. Too young for Carlotta? And what about the voice? Age-wise, she's all right—after all, Angela Gheorghiu isn't that old. As for the singing voice, Driver is dubbed by someone who has sung Carlotta on stage (ALW's concern going in was that the three main performers could sing it—so Carlotta didn't have to!)

“(3) I can see the sense of moving the chandelier crash, but does that leave an anticlimax after the ‘All I Ask of You’ reprise? Slightly; you still get the crash music as it fades to black. But you cannot do much else under the circumstances.”

Finally, Tim responds to the rumor that Bill Condon hopes to cast Beyonce Knowles (as Effie, no less) and odds-on Oscar favorite Jamie Foxx in the “Dreamgirls” movie:

“Seeing as how Beyonce is wrong for this role not only physically but also voice-wise, I can think of only two possible explanations for this. Her camp released this news item themselves in the hopes that the producers would consider her. Or, more likely, whoever first picked up on this bit of gossip is not familiar with the musical and Ms. Knowles is actually being considered for the role of Deena (one for which she is better suited). I do hope the part about Jamie Foxx is true, however, as he would make a great C.C.

“P.S. Regarding Hugh Jackman's deal with Disney for three movie musicals for him to star in, am I the only one that feels he would make a great Sky Masterson in a remake of ‘Guys and Dolls’? Throw in Nathan Lane and Megan Mullally as Nathan and Adelaide, and I think it would be a great film.”

****

Your Thoughts: No arguments about “Guys and Dolls,” although I’d personally rather see Jackman in a musical that forces him to stretch a bit. Jackman with Judy Davis and Charlize Theron in “Pal Joey”—now you’re talking. Onward: What about “Merchant of Venice”? Has it reached your town yet? And what are your thoughts on the “Closer”/”Neverland”/”Phantom” Oscar nominations?

Eric Grode is associate editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage. He can be reached at egrode@hotmail.com.

Today’s Most Popular News: