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Othello, Shakespeare's dark tale of the brooding Moor driven by jealousy and the machinations of a scheming aide to murder his innocent young wife, has been adapted for the screen numerous times since the dawn of the motion picture. This is the 16th of more than two dozen versions to date and generally considered one of the best. And why wouldn't it be, starring as it does the foremost Shakespearian actor of his time - some argue the finest actor of our time - Laurence Olivier?
The great English star of stage and screen followed in the footsteps of such illustrious (and not so illustrious) performers as Emil Jannings (a 1922 silent made in Germany), Orson Welles (in a visually arresting 1952 version), and Bonanza's Lorne Greene (a 1953 television adaptation). There was even a version updated to swingin' 60s London - All Night Long (1961) starring Richard Attenborough and featuring several of the finest jazz musicians of the day (Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, etc.). It would be several more years before the African character was actually played by a black actor on film (Yaphet Kotto in 1980). Since Olivier, the role has been taken by Anthony Hopkins, William Marshall, Raul Julia, Laurence Fishburne and, in an updating to an American high school called simply O (2001), Mekhi Phifer. There was even a 1989 version directed by and starring Ted Lange (bartender Isaac Washington of TV's The Love Boat).
Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, as he was for a number of his Shakespearian roles: Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948, which won him the award) and Richard III (1955). More than anyone, Olivier made Shakespeare accessible and entertaining for mass audiences. His film versions of the Bard's stories, which he nearly always directed himself, were notable for finding the ideal cinematic approach while maintaining the integrity of the play itself. Othello, however, unlike the first three Olivier Shakespeares, was directed by someone else.
Stuart Burge was no stranger to bringing great theatrical works to the screen, although most of his work was on television. His career encompassed adaptations of Chekhov, Gilbert & Sullivan, Sheridan, D.H. Lawrence, Wilde and Lorca. His Shakespeare work included TV versions of Much Ado About Nothing (1984) and Julius Caesar (1959), as well as a big screen version of the latter with an all-star cast that included Charlton Heston, John Gielgud and Richard Chamberlain. He worked with Olivier once before, in a feature of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (1963). His work on this project amounts to little more than capturing a stage production on film (unlike Olivier's cinematically imaginative Shakespeare movies), but with Olivier in the title role, the focus was on the performance.
Olivier's interpretation of the role, however, was controversial. When the idea of doing the part on stage was first floated, he initially insisted he was all wrong for it, because he thought Othello should have "a dark, black, violet, velvet bass voice." But he decided to take on the challenge, working independently and with a coach to achieve a deeper, more booming tone than he was known for. He also rejected the usual approach white actors took. Past productions depicted the Moor with a deeply tan, coffee-colored complexion. Olivier felt this was a stereotype based on the notion that if the character were to be seen as truly noble he couldn't be "too black."
Following Shakespeare's description of Othello as having thick lips and "sooty bosom," Olivier piled on a deep blackface, donned a kinky-haired wig, smeared his lips thickly with a dark raspberry red, and worked on a gait and bearing he felt would be more African. American critics in particular found this to be offensive, contrary to the actor's aim to break apart an unacceptable stereotype. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said that rather than appearing to be a Negro or even a West Indian chieftain, Olivier actually came off "like a Rastus or an end man in a minstrel show." Even lambasting Olivier's vocal efforts, Crowther said he sounded like a character from the old Amos 'n' Andy radio show: "You almost wait for him to whip a banjo out...or start banging a tambourine."
In spite of these criticisms, this movie does have the distinction of being the only Shakespeare-based film in which all four of the leads were nominated for Oscars® even though it didn't come close to capturing the same acclaim of Olivier's first three Shakespeare movie adaptations. In addition to Olivier's Best Actor mention, Maggie Smith (Desdemona), Joyce Redman (Emilia) and Frank Finlay (a dastardly Iago) all received nominations in the supporting categories. The latter three, as well as the film itself, also got nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes), which snubbed Olivier (perhaps because by the 1960s an actor in blackface, no matter how great his reputation, seemed out of touch with the times). The film was banned in South Africa, not for the reasons Crowther found so objectionable, but because in that country's apartheid climate at the time, the depiction of interracial love was taboo.
Othello also has the distinction of being shot by the great British cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, an Oscar® winner for Cabaret (1972) and Tess (1979). Unsworth was also nominated two other times and honored multiple times by his native country's film academy for such work as Becket (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and A Bridge Too Far (1977). George Lucas wanted Unsworth to handle photography for Star Wars (1977), but he was already committed to Superman (1978), a film for which he advanced the art of special effects to achieve a more realistic look in the title character's flying scenes.
Although uncredited, John Dexter must be mentioned for his work on this film, since it was his direction of the stage production that was essentially transferred directly to the camera.
Director: Stuart Burge
Producer: John Brabourne, Anthony Havelock-Allan
Screenplay: William Shakespeare
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editing: Richard Marden
Production Design: William Kellner
Original Music: Richard Hampton
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Othello), Maggie Smith (Desdemona), Joyce Redman (Emilia), Frank Finlay (Iago), Derek Jacobi (Cassio).
by Rob Nixon