The Ides of March. The notorious date when Julius Caesar was betrayed by one of his closest friends, Marcus Junius Brutus, stabbed 23 times, and – if you believe William Shakespeare – then uttered the immortal Latin barb: “Et tu, Brute?”
This week we at The Thread spin out our tangled web starting from House of Cards and its Shakespearean power couple Frank and Claire Underwood. Who, like Brutus, betray even their nearest friends.
House is sort of Julius Caesar meets Macbeth, as performed by Richard III, with villainous soliloquies and labyrinthine plotlines that The Bard would’ve loved.
HOUSE OF CARDS (2015)
As Beau Willimon’s political thriller returns this week for its third season, the debate is on: tragedy or melodrama? Either way, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright make one of the most deliciously psychopathic couples this side of Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers.
This match-made-in-hell pair don’t lift a finger unless it inches them closer to the ultimate prize: the Presidential throne.
So… Are we actually going to compare Willimon to Shakespeare? Well, all we’ll say on that subject is that most of Big Willy’s tragedies would play as soap operas too, if the writing wasn’t so damn good.
JULIUS CAESAR (1953)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Marlon Brando, John Gielgud, James Mason, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, and Louis Calhern. In a desperate attempt to restore the Republic, Brutus and Cassius lead a conspiracy to kill Caesar, only to be outmaneuvered by Mark Antony.
In ’53, the big question was whether the actor who so memorably bellowed “Hey, Stella!!” could do justice to The Bard’s language. With Anthony’s “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” speech, Brando proved he was indeed a contender, a year before his iconic line in On The Waterfront.
Brando gives the big speech his usual intensity, but adds a verbal precision not demonstrated in his previous performances. He even gives Marc Anthony an amazing little hint of English accent by broadening his American “ay’s” to British “ah’s”.
The result was the third Best Actor nom in a row for Brando, who would win the next year for Waterfront.
BTW — All the big speeches from films mentioned in this post are excerpted on YouTube. Fun to watch.
THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH (1971)
This is a frightening vision of Shakespeare’s tragedy about lust for power, directed by Roman Polanski soon after his wife was murdered by Charles Manson and gang. The resulting film is even bleaker and more violent than your typical Polanski.
This is our favorite screen version of “the Scottish play”, even though the stars – Jon Finch and Francesca Annis — are not that well known in America.
Critics at the time were split. Many felt the over-the-top violence and nudity (the witches are naked and Annis performs the sleepwalking scene nude) detracted from the nuances of the play. But for us, the meta-drama of Polanski re-enacting his wife’s murder via Shakespeare only deepens the resonance of the film.
Shot on gloomy location in Wales and Northumberland.
And trivia note on Francesca Annis’ considerable allure: she would later be Ralph Fiennes’ girlfriend for 11 years.
RICHARD III (1955)
We wavered a couple of minutes before including two Olivier films – but just look at the difference between his face here as Richard and below as Hamlet. You don’t usually think of Olivier as someone who transformed himself physically for roles like a method actor. But he really did.
This was the third Shakespearean film that Olivier made as producer, director, and star. When it came out it was a flop — at least compared to the earlier Henry V and Hamlet. Mixed reviews, no Oscar noms. For some reason it made much more of a splash when it was re-released in ’66.
This mesmerizing incarnation of unscrupulous villainy comes closer than any of the others here to Frank Underwood. Even though he hides it better than Kevin Spacey, you can tell how much fun Olivier is having.
The supporting cast of British nobility includes Ralph Richardson, Gielgud, and Claire Bloom. Sixty years later, a lot of critics like this performance even better than Hamlet. And even though the Oscars snubbed him, Richard did win Olivier two BAFTA’s (Best Actor, Best Film).
You can keep your Branagh and Burton. Forget about Mel. And, Ethan…interesting, but weird.
For us, Olivier’s Hamlet is still the one to beat. Sir Larry’s second film as director/producer went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
The whole film is very much of its era – music, cinematography, effects are all a little over-the-top. But this is theatre after all, and the artificiality of the production just serves to frame the heightened language. The “To be, or not to be” soliloquy alone is worth the price of admission. Olivier is the only Hamlet who’s made us feel like he actually gets suicide.
And just for the record — we will be scrambling for tickets when the National Theater Live theatrical simulcast of Cumberbatch’s Hamlet goes on sale next month.
Coriolanus is not one of the big ones. The play doesn’t have any famous speeches or even famous stage directions (a la Titus Andronicus). But the Roman general does have a lot in common with Frank Underwood. For instance, hatred and contempt for the plebians of the world.
Coriolanus is pushed by his ambitious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) to become Consul. But he soon shows his true colors and is expelled from Rome. Driven by a lust for vengeance against the city, he allies himself with former enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler). As you might imagine, it doesn’t all go exactly as planned.
There are two especially good things about Ralph Fiennes’ directorial debut. First, how commanding Fiennes himself is as the revered and feared general at odds with Rome and her citizens. Second, how relevant he makes this offbeat choice of play to the modern world. War, famine, riots. Ego, betrayal, blood lust. Exchange breastplates and skirts for army fatigues, and voila!
Gotta say we also love the promo image of Fiennes — half Frank Underwood, half Colonel Kurtz. It’s amazing how the blood makes his eyes pop.