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Sir Laurence Olivier. The name still conjures images of theater acting at its most erudite and unapproachable. This was the man responsible for making Shakespeare a mainstay of the silver screen as well as the stage, undeniably one of the most important figures in the history of Western cinema. And up until recently, I had no clue who he was.

Sure, I'd seen him in films before, usually as the villain. There he was in "Spartacus" as the evil Roman general, and in "Marathon Man" as a nazi dentist. He was one of the leads in the original "Sleuth," one of my favorite crime films, and a strong supporting presence in Alfred Hitchcock's spectacular "Rebecca." I'd come across plenty of references to Olivier when reading up on the lives of Vivien Leigh and David Niven. And his influence, of course, is inescapable. Kenneth Branaugh's career, for instance, often seems to be patterned directly after Olivier's. Yet I'd never seen the films that Olivier was best known for, the Shakespeare adaptations.

I decided to fix that. I recently sat down with "Henry V" (1944), "Hamlet" (1948), and "Richard III" (1955), the famous Shakespeare trilogy that Olivier directed and starred in. All three films are currently available on Netflix Instant Watch. I know I'd seen "Hamlet" a long time ago in an English class, but didn't remember much, and I've seen several other versions of "Hamlet" since then. Better to start over from the beginning. I spaced the films out over a couple of days - they don't run much longer than two and a half hours apiece, and significantly abridge the original plays, but the text is dense and I'm not as familiar with Shakespeare's "War of the Roses" tetralogies as I should be.

So, what do I think of Laurence Olivier now? As Bette Davis is rumored to have said of Errol Flynn, "Damn, he's good."

My biggest surprise was that Olivier turned out to be a tremendous director. His "Hamlet" is a moody, gothic piece, where the camera skulks around a chilly Elsinore Castle with the tormented Danish prince. "Richard III" makes the viewers complicit in the machinations of the murderous hunchback, as he has a habit of addressing the audience directly. And then there's "Henry V," which starts in the famous Globe theater with a lively period performance of the play, that slowly transitions into a full-scale epic cinematic retelling. Far from being the stuffy, formal, overly faithul adaptations I was expecting, the films livened up the material with plenty of action and a few gory killings here and there. I can see why they were so popular when they first hit theater screens in the 40s and 50s.

As an actor, Olivier lives up to his reputation. His performances as Hamlet and Henry are big and exciting. His thunderous Saint Crispin's Day speech in "Henry V" is the best one I've ever heard. And he doesn't just stab Claudius at the end of "Hamlet," but leaps off a platform and tackles the evil king to floor before running him through. I preferred his quieter moments though, getting existential with Yorick's skull as Hamlet, and delicately wooing the French princess as Henry. This is where he gets to be funny and subtle and charming, and he's terribly good at all of it. There isn't a moment where Olivier doesn't seem to be giving these roles everything he's got.

But far exceeding either of those previous outings is Olivier's transformation into Richard of Gloucester, one of Shakespeare's great misanthropic bastards. With a fake nose, affected limp, and some good costuming, suddenly he's unrecognizable. And oh, the odious ambition and the twisted jealousy and the seething self-loathing coming off of this man! Sometimes Olivier goes well over the top, but he is so much fun to watch as Richard. It's no wonder that everyone wanted Olivier for villain roles in his later career. "Richard III" was the hardest of his films to get through, but it was worth it for the finale, where all of Richard's bad deeds finally catch up to him on the battlefield, and Olivier gives him a really great death scene.

And now I want to see his King Lear and his Othello and his Shylock. I want to see his Mr. Darcy in the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice," and his Heathcliff in the 1939 "Wuthering Heights." Because now I know what Laurence Olivier is capable of. Now I know what Kenneth Branagh and every other Shakespeare-loving actor out there has been trying to live up to for the last six decades, with varying degrees of success. I've seen better Hamlets. I've seen better Henrys. But there's no question that it was Olivier who set the bar, who was the touchstone and the starting point for so much of Shakespeare on film. That's why he's important. That's why he's remembered.

I'm so glad I finally got to know him.
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The only reason I watched the new TV adaptation of the recent Royal Shakespeare Company's staging of "Hamlet" was for David Tennant in the title role. I'm glad I did.

I don't dislike Shakespeare, and I've seen "Hamlet" performed live before, as well as about half a dozen filmed adaptations. The trouble is that it's always been out of a sense of obligation. I read the play in class during high school, playacted a few scenes for assignments, and watched film clips for reference - none of them very engaging for an adolescent viewer. The Mel Gibson, Niccol Williamson, and Laurence Olivier versions were too remote in the past, and the Ethan Hawke version was still to come. The five-hour 1996 Kenneth Branagh production had just been released, I think, though I don't remember if I watched it in theaters or on video later. I do remember that Branagh's "Hamlet" came off as overly grandiose and stuffy, though I did appreciate the celebrity cameos by Robin Williams, Charlton Heston, Gerard Depardieu, Jack Lemmon, and Billy Crystal as the gravedigger. But for a play where the hero shouts accusations of incest and murder, and the last act features about half-a-dozen onscreen deaths, it was a remarkably tame experience.

So roughly fifteen years later, after reading a lot more Shakespeare in college and becoming mildly infatuated with Julie Taymor's spectacularly bloody "Titus Andronicuis" adaptation along the way, I was ready to give the melancholy Dane another go. The new RSC version version that aired on many PBS stations last night was a modernized update in all respects except for the original language, and trimmed down to a brisk three hour length. And I loved it. Not only was it gratifying to see the play again, but I realized that I now understood nearly all the language, the puns, the wordplay, the humor, and the naughty bits that had been too obtuse for me to grasp as a teenager. The dialogue was rattled off in conversational fashion instead of recited, mostly, which made it far easier to grasp. I could remember sitting in English class, listening to my fellow inmates droning through the then-impenetrable lines with all the vigor of boiled noodles. And what an amazing contrast to hear the same lines again as natural speech, shrieked or sighed or simply thick with sarcasm. You could understand what was going on from the characters' behavior even if you couldn't decipher the words.

David Tennant might have come acoss as too manic for some, but he brought an energy and a vitality to the role I thought was sorely missing from most of the other versions I'd seen. His Hamlet broods only briefly, before throwing impulsive temper tantrums and aggressively pursuing his reputation for madness. Maybe it's because I'm older now, but Hamlet as a character never seemed younger, a grieving son called home from school to the unpleasant shock of his mother's remarriage. In one act he pads around the set barefoot, in a printed orange T-shirt and skinny jeans, and then totes around a camcorder in another to record his uncle's response to provocation - no doubt to be subsequently uploaded on Youtube. Most of his later scenes result in physical altercations of some sort, including the confrontation with Gertrude that ends with him sobbing into her lap. English teachers everywhere are likely thanking their lucky stars to finally have a decent Hamlet their students may actually be able to identify with. No, Ethan Hawke doesn't count.

The rest of the cast suffers a bit in comparison to Tennant, but certainly holding his own was Sir Patrick Stewart as an excellent, enigmatic Claudius. He also doubled as the Ghost, which added some interesting dimensions to the filial and marital relationships. Mariah Gale as Ophelia and Penny Downie as Gertrude both had strong moments, and Oliver Ford Davies' played his Polonius as more broadly comic than I remember the character being. Considering the intensity of the rest of the cast, though, it was a welcome addition. Most of the minor character suffered from the cuts to the play, which excised nearly all the political intrigue involving Fortinbras, the pirates, and even the famous declaration that Rosencranz and Guildenstern are dead.

As for the presentation of the film, it was about on par with most British television productions. The set design was clearly transplanted almost directly from the stage play, with various props like the shattered mirrors and omnipresent cameras providing odd distractions. However, I have to give kudos to them for pulling off an oppressive modern setting that wasn't overly utilitarian, and all of the modern costumes worked with a minimum of clashing. Though the director was good about keeping the pace brisk, there were some odd cuts and strange shots that I could have done without. Whenever the POV would switch to that of a security camera or the Ghost, I felt like I had been plunked down into an episode of "Doctor Who."

Is this new filmed version of "Hamlet" one for the ages? Maybe, and maybe not, but for this age, it's not a bad one to have.

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