Despite debates about dumping William Shakespeare from classrooms, April 26th marks the Bard’s 458th birthday. But anyone thinking of canceling the writer’s words should be prepared to stop using his phrases, which include “break the ice,” “all that glitters isn’t gold,” “clothes make the man,” “wear my heart upon my sleeve,” “in my heart of hearts,” “star-crossed lovers,” “brave new world,” “the world is my oyster,” and “it’s Greek to me.”
Another loss would be the source for a bounty of films, such as West Side Story (1961) and Romeo Must Die (2000) based on Romeo and Juliet (1597); Kiss Me Kate (1953), 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Deliver Us from Eva (2003) based on The Taming of the Shrew (1594); My Own Private Idaho (1991) based on Henry IV (1597); Just One of the Guys (1985) and She’s the Man (2006) based on Twelfth Night (1602); O (2001) based on Othello (1603); The Lion King (1994) based on Hamlet (1603); Ran (1985) and A Thousand Acres (1997) based on King Lear (1606); Throne of Blood (1957) based on Macbeth (1606); and Forbidden Planet (1956) based on The Tempest (1611).
Of course, this modest list doesn’t even factor in all of cinema’s traditional adaptations of Will’s work, from the silent film A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909) to The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) adapted and directed by Joel Coen.
Outside of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021), Coen’s abridged version of Macbeth and Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story (2021) boast the best production values of any film released last year. The finely-crafted sound design, editing, costumes, and art direction make them a feast for the eyes and ears.
Both of these Shakespeare-inspired films also offer bold yet totally different visual tones. France’s Bruno Delbonnel infuses the sparse sets of Macbeth with contrasting shades of black and white as Polish cinematographer Janusz Kamiński colors West Side Story with vibrant hues reminiscent of Hollywood productions from the 1950s and ’60s.
Newcomers Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, and Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose energize West Side Story with authenticity and enthusiasm, while contemporary acting veterans Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand convincingly portray centuries-old Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively. These American pros make Elizabethan English sound natural as they artistically align themselves with hundreds of performers who’ve played the same roles throughout history.
Unfortunately, in an effort to flesh-in the characters and modernize the sensibilities of West Side Story, Tony Kushner’s script sacrifices poetic nuances for a clunky self-consciousness that sometimes feels like a public service announcement.
There’s also an unevenness to Spielberg’s earnest yet intrusive direction. Still, his handling of “America” by composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim is the best five minutes of footage produced in 2021. To use a Shakespearean phrase, this musical number is “the be-all and the end-all.”
West Side Story and The Tragedy of Macbeth can be streamed online.