The Best Picture Project – Hamlet (1948)

Amleto48-01.jpgDirected by Laurence Olivier

Screenplay by Laurence Olivier

Starring Laurence Olivier

When you look at the credits listed above for this version of Hamlet, you’ll see I included no mention of any actors other than Olivier that might have been in the film, nor any other technicians or behind-the-scenes people at all.  This was not an oversight on my part, but was by design.  Yes, it is true that Hamlet requires a great many people to fill the roles, and yes, making a movie requires a greater number of people, working in concert, to get it made.  But though the film and story need more bodies to make it happen, the fact is that really, this movie is Olivier’s baby.  He acted the part in the theater, he adapted the play for the screen, he produced the film, directed it and starred in it.  Rightfully, he wins the plaudits for it, such as being listed as the sole creative force on the film for the purposes of this post.  And when there is criticism to be had – some of which you can see here – he takes the brunt of that, as well.

And given that Hamlet is basically Olivier’s baby, we’ll start – and end – with him.

Given the material Olivier had to work with, it’s no surprise he won Best Actor.  After all, he is easily one of the most-identifiable Shakespearean actors, playing Shakespeare’s flashiest role.  Just watch his ‘To be, or not to be’ speech, for any other proof you need.

Still, just because it would have been a real surprise if he hadn’t won Best Actor, for my money, it wouldn’t exactly be a travesty.  As well as Olivier carries the film, when watching it one can’t help but feel he’s simply too old for the role, and maybe just a little too-cunning, and not nearly unhinged enough to really make it his own.  Yes, he says the lines with the proper cadence, and gives them all the gravity they deserve, but there is something just a little too…perfect…about it that makes me hesitate to give him the award.

Still, he won, and it’s hard to mount much of an argument against it other than to say Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobs.  End of mounted argument.

But while Olivier isn’t a surprise winner for Best Actor – even if I don’t really agree with it – that the film took the top prize clearly is.

Most of the surprise comes from the fact that, contextually, Hamlet is completely out of place with the other Best Picture winners around it.  After all, the prior three winners were ‘issues’ pictures – The Lost Weekend, The Best Years of Our Lives and Gentleman’s Agreement – and the plot of Hamlet is so weird and foreign to reality that nobody in their right mind would call it an ‘issue’ picture.  Worse is that, leading into the 50’s, the Academy turned its back on issue pictures and instead started handing out awards to epics and fluff.  That Hamlet and All The King’s Men won Best Picture Oscars in back-to-back years, surrounded by issue pictures on one side and colorful musicals and epics on the other, looks like the worst case of schizophrenia in the history of film.

Shakespeare in Love 1998 Poster.jpgAlso, there’s the fact that, for all the films that have been made of Shakespearean works, Hamlet is the only one to produce a Best Picture or an acting award.  Hell, the movie Shakespeare In Love does that record one better, winning Best Picture and two acting awards.  Point being, there isn’t really a strong history of rewarding Shakespearean films and that Hamlet is the sole champion of the all looks more like an anomaly than any sort of breakthrough.

Now, on the one hand, I’m offended the film won Best Picture, because it’s clearly not the Best Picture of 1948 – that honor goes to my favorite, The Red Shoes.  In fact, of the nominated films, it’s only third best, at best, also behind The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  But on the other hand, I’m completely offended it didn’t win Best Director, because of all the awards Olivier took for the film – he only took two – that is the one he really should have won.

Looking back, it’s clear that when talking about the Oscars of 1948 there are really two films to discuss: Hamlet and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Between them they won seven Oscars, which would be a pretty impressive haul if they were one film and so that makes them the big boys of 1948.  (Sadly, The Red Shoes won none.)  Anyhow, despite the split of awards, the films only competed against one another in two categories: Picture and Director.  And as heretical as it may be, I think those two awards were given out to the wrong film.  By far the better picture of the two was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and that it didn’t win Best Picture is yet another travesty at the Oscars, something that seems to happen annually.

But as much as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre deserved Best Picture, because it is better acted, and mines richer emotional and dramatic territory, Hamlet is by far the better directed of the two.

Think about it this way: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was shot on location and seemingly had all the advantages a Hollywood film could have.  It had John Huston as writer/director, Humphrey Bogart in the lead, and all that gorgeous Mexican landscape to look at.  Except, the film is shot in such a decidedly straightforward manner, devoid of any of the visual flair the story deserves – because Huston started in films as a writer, it makes sense he doesn’t let his directing intrude on the words.  This also explains why his films tend to have a varying sense of quality – if you choose to live by the script and performances, occasionally you have to die by them.

On the other hand, Hamlet is essentially a stage-bound production and makes no bones about it.  Whether this is a product of the times, the budget or a stylistic choice, the fact is that Hamlet is shot nearly entirely on a stage and yet Olivier the director does a marvelous job of using the stage to his advantage.  If Olivier has directed the film as Huston might’ve, that would have meant just plopping the camera down and making a filmed play, i.e. simply replicating a theater experience.  But he doesn’t just plop the camera down, instead he gives the camera life, gives the stage shadows and plays with deep-focus photography at every turn.  In many ways, the film is a Shakespearean drama mixed with German expressionism – Shakespeare’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, if you will.

The Red Shoes (1948 movie poster).jpgIn the end, though, I suppose it doesn’t really matter who won what.  Olivier won something, John Huston won something, and everybody went home happy.  Well, everybody except The Red Shoes, which won nothing – well, none of the sexy awards anyway.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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