The List: Top 10 Romeo and Juliet screen adaptations
A new “traditional” adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” with Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame rendering Shakespeare’s text, opens at movie theaters Oct. 11. This version stars Hailee Steinfeld and Douglas Booth in the key roles. Ed Westwick, Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti star in the film. The List this week looks at the 10 most notable versions of “Romeo and Juliet” brought the screen which tried to stay true to the Shakespearean text.
- 10. Feline Shakespeare — “Romeo.Juliet” was made in 1990 and starred John Hurt — the only human in the film — as an eccentric bag lady who rescues the stray cats of Venice and puts them on a boat to set sail for the New World. The voices of famed British actors Robert Powell and Francesca Annis were used in the key roles. Vanessa Redgrave, Ben Kingsley, Maggie Smith and Victor Spinetti of “Hard Day’s Night” fame all participated in the film, which has rarely been seen.
- 9. A classic BBC style — Kika Markham, who recently starred in “Mr. Selfridge,” played Juliet in this BBC Play of the Month version of “Romeo and Juliet” that aired on Dec 3, 1967. Hywel Bennett starred as Romeo. Other prominent British stage actors in leading roles were Thora Hird as the Nurse, Michael Gambon as Gregory, Ronald Pickup as Mercutio and John Gielgud as the Chorus.
- 8. First feature length adaptation — The first feature length adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” was made in 1916 starring Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne in the lead roles. It was released to celebrate the 300th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Bushman, who was born in Baltimore, was the first to earn the title “King of the Movies” and had a bevy of female fans until in 1917 when it was revealed his was married with five children.
- 7. Theda Bara steams up the screen — Silent film actress Theda Bara starred as Juliet in this version of “Romeo and Juliet” made in 1916 and produced by the Fox Film Corp. It was rushed to the screen to try to beat out our No. 8 version released three days early. Bara, nicknamed “The Vamp.” was one of most popular actresses of the silent era, and one of cinema’s earliest femme fatales. She starred in the epic “Cleopatra” in 1917 wearing revealing costumes. The film is now considered lost.
- 6. Gorgeous, but thin on substance — Laurence Harvey, 25, and Susan Shentall, 20, played the love-struck teenagers in the 1954 postwar British film “Romeo and Juliet” which used a number of unknown actors. Wholesale cuts to the story by Italian director Renato Castellani reportedly ruined this gorgeous-looking film shot on location in Italy. Harvey went on to find fame as the assassin in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Shentall, who was chosen for the role after being spotted in a hotel in Paris while on holiday, never made another film.
- 5. MTV overload — Excess cinematic stylization doomed this 1996 version of “Romeo and Juliet” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. One critic noted that director Baz Luhrmann buried this modern version of the play “under an avalanche of gaudily queer decor and overemphatic, kaleidoscopic imagery.” The film was set in a fictional modern-day location called “Verona Beach” in Florida and retained Shakespeare’s language. The story begins with a shoot-out at a gas station. The late Pete Postlethwaite, playing Friar Laurence, is worth watching.
- 4. Youngest Juliet ever — Director Alvin Rakoff admitted he took a risk by casting 14-year-old Rebecca Saire as Shakespeare’s Juliet in this British made-for-TV version of “Romeo and Juliet” in 1978 that appeared on PBS in America. The gamble didn’t pay off. One critic wrote that Miss Saire was more “petulant child than a passionate young woman.” John Gielgud, Anthony Andrews and Alan Rickman of “Harry Potter” fame played supporting roles, while Patrick Ryecart fared better as Romeo.
- 3. First film version — Director J. Stuart Blackton is reported to have made the first American film version of Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” in 1908. This short silent film was shot in New York City’s Central Park. Paul Panzer starred as Romeo. He went on to earn roles — often uncredited — in hundreds of films, including playing a waiter at Rick’s in “Casablanca” (1942). Florence Lawrence, who played Juliet, committed suicide in 1938 after years of unhappiness and illness.
- 2. Leslie Howard’s aging Romeo — Directed by George Cukor, this 1936 version of “Romeo and Juliet” was MGM’s most expensive sound film up to that time. It starred Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer. At ages 36 and 42, Shearer and Howard were clearly too old to be cast as the teenage lovers. John Barrymore, who played Mercutio, was 54. Irving Thalberg, who produced the film and was married to Shearer, died at the age of 37 from pneumonia before the film’s premiere.
- 1. Franco Zeffirelli creates a hit — Shakespeare purists scoffed at Franco Zeffirelli’s take on “Romeo and Juliet” in 1968 in what became a celebrated film. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting played the tragic couple from feuding families. It was probably the most successful version of the play ever produced on screen, with a wonderful musical score and beautiful locations in Italy. The film earned four Academy Award nominations and won two but missed out for best picture and best director to the film “Oliver!”
Sources: The Sunday Mail (South Australia), Daily Mail (Britain), the Chicago Tribune, Wikipedia, The Washington Times, The Associated Press and imdb.com
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