Sunday, August 27, 2017

Casting Decisions

Films: Othello (1965)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on rockin’ flatscreen.

When one looks at the 1965 version of Othello, there are a lot of places one can start. Kind of. In reality, there’s a single place to start, and that’s the fact that the title character is portrayed by Laurence Olivier. If you know anything about the play, you may well be aware of the problem. Olivier was about as white as I am. Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a black man. This means that this film is 159 minutes of blackface. Honestly, that’s not an easy thing to overcome mentally.

How did this come about? This version of Othello is a production of the National Theater Company, and evidently Olivier performed the role on stage. It still seems like a very strange choice, especially since there are other options for Olivier. When Kenneth Branagh filmed a version of this play in 1995, he got Laurence Fishburne to play the title role, while he took on the role of Iago. It’s a complete distraction. Olivier doesn’t look like anything other than a white man in black makeup. Even the color chosen for his skin doesn’t look natural.

Anyway, this is the story of a general of Venice named Othello (Olivier) who, through stories of his battles and hardships, wins the love of a woman named Desdemona (Maggie Smith) and marries her in secret. This sets to work the plans of one of his lieutenants, Iago (Frank Finlay), who hates Othello because he has promoted a man named Michael Cassio (Derek Jacobi in his first film role) above him. Iago, knowing his friend Roderigo (Robert Lang) is in love with Desdemona, convinces him to follow Othello to Cyprus when he is dispatched there, promising him that he will have Desdemona for his own once Iago has brought about his own revenge.

That revenge centers on a handkerchief. Othello once gave one to Desdemona, who one day drops it. It is brought to Iago by his wife Emilia (Joyce Redman), since he has asked her to get it for him. This comes after Iago has managed to get Cassio drunk and into a brawl, thereby getting him removed from his post. He then tells Cassio to have Desdemona plead on his behalf, which she does. With her handkerchief in Cassio’s possession, and with her constant pleas for Othello to take him back, Iago has an easy time convincing Othello that Desdemona is stepping out on him with his former lieutenant, which causes Othello to go into a blinding rage. Eventually a good number of the principle cast ends up dead, since this is a Shakespearean tragedy.

There are a few other things that cause me to look at this film in the same way my dog reacts when it hears a noise it doesn’t understand. Frank Finlay was nominated as a Best Supporting Actor for this film despite the fact that he has several hundred more lines (1117 to 856) than the title character and is on screen only three minutes fewer. There’s no way that Iago is a supporting character in Othello; he’s the main villain, and if Finlay were to be nominated, he should have been nominated in a leading role. In fact, were I to nominate only a single actor from this film, Finlay would be my choice.

Both Maggie Smith and Joyce Redman were nominated in supporting roles as well. Redman, except for her outburst near the end of the film, doesn’t really do a whole lot here. Smith’s nomination is one that I understand, though. She has always been good on the screen (a notion confirmed by her many nominations and two wins), and she’s compelling here. But it’s Olivier’s nomination that had me watch the film. I understand it in some respects. Olivier is widely considered the greatest actor of his generation, and this is the sort of story/play/film for which he was most highly acclaimed. But Olivier’s version of Othello is of a screaming man barely in control of his faculties. There isn’t a piece of scenery that goes unchewed here, with everything he says after the first hour or so of the film coming out as a shout playing to the back of the theater. Were histrionics what determined Oscar winners, the man would have had this in the bag.

Because the film was made with very little budget, it is really little more than just the stage play filmed, with an occasional change in camera angle to remind us that it is in fact a film and not something we are watching on stage. There is nothing done here to make use of the particular strengths of film as a medium, giving us just the drama instead, something not much different in experience than simply watching the play.

All of these problems conspire to make Othello very much less than the sum of its parts. Certainly there had to be a black actor capable of this role in 1965. If there was not, that’s a failure of the British National Theater Company for not developing such a talent. There are simply some roles that not everyone gets to play; Shakespeare didn’t write a lot of non-white characters. If Olivier wanted to be in this play, well, Iago is a better role anyway. The almost complete lack of music, the boring use of camera, and the odd nominations make this, more or less, an oddity. Couple that with the fact that it’s not even that great of a play (the plot has been essentially summarized as “Wives should tend to their linens”), and we end up with something that takes a long time to sit through, goes nowhere, and does so managing to give potential offense with its casting.

That said, I am curious to see Branagh’s version, and possibly that of Orson Welles. This one? I won’t watch it again.

Why to watch Othello: It’s one of Shakespeare’s most acclaimed dramas.
Why not to watch: It’s almost literally just a filmed version of the play.


  1. A friend of mine saw the stage version starring Patrick Stewart with an otherwise all-black cast in a deliberately race-reversed subversion of the way the play was meant to be cast. My friend's comment, on briefly meeting Sir Pat after the play was done, was the usual "He's shorter in real life." My friend also noted that the actor who played Iago kept messing up his lines.

    I've never seen the Olivier version you just reviewed, but that photo at the top of your post is positively horrifying.

    1. Yeah, I wasn't lying when I said that the skin color isn't natural. It's 159 minutes of looking at that, pretty much.

      A complete race reversal of the story actually works.

  2. Apparently even back in its own time Olivier's Othello was criticised for the latter's sheer blackness. The Welles version is quite good, though not everyone was happy with its restoration in the 90s; the upcoming Criterion release looks like it'll be worth waiting for.

    1. One of my main problems with this is that I don't really care for the story that much. I'm a lot more likely to watch a version of Henry V, Macbeth, or King Lear, since I think those are better stories.

  3. I agree that this is a slog and I think it's the story. I've seen both the Welles version and Branagh's and wasn't enthralled by any of them.

    My takeaway from this was that Maggie Smith can do almost anything but I knew that before watching this turgid exercise. Ya Olivier's makeup is a horror great actor or not.

    1. Yeah, this is a one-and-done for me, and a lot of that is the story. Really, Iago is the only interesting character in the whole thing. I'm not a Shakespearean actor (or an actor at all), but if I were, that's the role I'd want.