Tag Archives: Mel Gibson

Hamlet first night first review: how great is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dane?

25 Aug
Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet. Photo: Johan Persson

I predicted in my previous blog that Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet would be more of an action man than a thinker, and, having now seen the much talked-about Barbican production, so it proves – to a fault. Even when soliloquising about suicide (“Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”) he leaps nimbly up on to a table – the first of two such leaps. I haven’t seen such an Action Hamlet since Mel Gibson in the Zeffirelli film.

Wait, I tell a lie, I have. It was the wonderful bit in The Last Action Hero where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Hamlet (“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – and Hamlet is taking out the trash!”). “To be or not to be”, says Big Arnie, lighting a huge cigar. “Not to be,” he decides, and the whole castle explodes in flames.

But I digress.

Benedict Cumberbatch is hugely entertaining to watch throughout, and never more so than when he elects to “put an antic disposition on”: he reveals such a wonderful gift for physical comedy when pretending to be a toy soldier while acting mad, you’d love someone to sign him up for an out-and-out screwball comedy. But aye, there’s the rub. In the hoary old question of how much Hamlet is really mad, and how much he is just pretending, this production plumps so squarely for the latter that it makes a nonsense of the play.

Most damagingly, this interpretation turns Hamlet into such an irredeemable shit that you lose all sympathy with him. In the original play, one of the most troubling scenes is “Get thee to a nunnery”, where Hamlet is unremittingly horrible to the poor innocent girl to whom he once so movingly professed, “Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt thou that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt that I love.”

In the context of a man who is haunted by the ghost of his father, who is utterly turned off sex by the thought of his mother lying with his uncle in “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed, honeying and making love over the nasty sty”, who has had his love letters rejected, and who has just been thinking about suicide before they meet, the scene can make sense.

In the Barbican production, however, they cut the scene where Ophelia talks about how Hamlet recently came to her and “raised a sigh so piteous and profound as it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being”; AND they moved the “To be or not to be” speech to the beginning of the play (apparently this has been rethought during previews, and that soliloquy, at least, has been returned to its usual place). The result is that Hamlet goes straight from telling Horatio that he’s going to pretend to be mad, to the Nunnery scene where he is horrible to Ophelia – from which we can only conclude that she is deliberate collateral damage.

HAMLET by Shakespeare,There are many other ways in which a Hamlet in full possession of his senses becomes odious: the killing of that “rash intruding fool” Polonius; the summary execution of his old friends Rosencrantz and Gildenstern; Hamlet’s startlingly casual (in this production) semi-apology to Polonius’s son, in which he defends himself by copping an insanity plea – a plea we know to be a lie. It also makes it even more peculiar that this Action Hamlet fails to take action in avenging his father’s death.

I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets. I started with Jonathan Pryce’s, in 1980, when studying the play for A-level. That plumped for a mostly mad Hamlet – the voice of the ghost came from deep within Hamlet himself. I next saw Steven Berkoff’s at the Edinburgh Fringe – transfixing, stylised, with elements of mime, performed in a simple circle with no props to give the audience’s imagination wing. I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes’s Oedipal Hamlet in 1995, where the “nasty sty” scene with his mother was so overpoweringly sexual that it was little surprise to discover that he and Francesca Annis became lovers. Michael Sheen’s was the maddest, set in an actual lunatic asylum; Nick Hytner’s production at the National was the most well thought through and all-round brilliantly acted and staged production of the dozen I have seen.

What does Benedict Cumberbatch’s add?

Certainly, like David Tennant’s, it has reached out to a new audience. The set is so wonderful it is bound to win awards. Many of the cuts are good, and keep the production rollicking along at a fair pace. Some of the more confusing words have rightly been changed: “Pat” has been axed (in the original text Hamlet says, contemplating killing his uncle, “Now might I do it pat”, which led generations of sniggering schoolchildren to wonder who Pat was); “I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me” has been changed to “him that stops me”, since most people don’t realise the original meant the opposite of what is now understood; the “union” thrown into the poisoned drink is now called a “jewel”.

But – and as Sir Mixalot would say, it’s a big but and I cannot lie – it didn’t fire the imagination of the Hamlet neophyte that I took along, my son Sam; whereas I’m quite sure Nick Hytner’s more cerebral version would have.

Benedict’s is a very good Dane, then – but it could so easily have been a great one.

NB: Having bought my tickets a year ago and seen the play last week, in order to satisfy critical convention I have held off reviewing it until First Night — which is tonight. 

Before Gotham: interview with original TV Batman Adam West

6 May

Fox announced yesterday that it had commissioned Gotham (click on the image above to watch the trailer), a TV series which will tell the childhood origins of Batman, along with The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin. Alfred will be played by Sean Pertwee, son of Jon Pertwee, who played Doctor Who in the early ‘70s, which makes Gotham feel like some Hadron Collidor of primal geek forces. It will air next year, nearly half a century after the TV series played with the new spread of colour TV sets to produce a hallucinatorily vivid show inspired by pop art.

It’s also more than a quarter of a century since I interviewed its star, the original TV Batman, Adam West. Having been obsessed with the show as a small kid growing up in Canada, it was unbelievably weird to hear him drawling my name, “Dahminic”. Let alone to hear him say ‘f**k’.

There’s a whole generation out there who know the 85-year-old actor only as the voice of Mayor Adam West in Family Guy. So for those newbies, and the old guard like me who watched it (nearly) first time around, I’ve rescued my 1988 interview with Adam West from the vaults. It appeared as a two-page feature in Time Out magazine, where I had recently started work as a sub-editor:

Having devoted half his life to walking up horizontal walls in leathers and skin-tight nylon and foiling fiendish death traps, Adam West is feeling the pressure. He speaks slowly and softly, his voice just occasionally tinged with that famous steel, lying flat out on his bed in the Mayfair Hilton. Even now the phone never stops ringing. In the few days he has spent in London, his first visit in seven years, he has been besieged with requests for exclusive interviews and had to turn them all down, save television appearances and this one. He is tickled when I tell him I am interviewing him for Time Out. ‘You mean you’re elevating me to the status of The Arts?’

At 58, he now tries to roll with the punches, but there was a time when he tried hard to shake off the role which keeps coming back to haunt him. ‘I made the mistake of allowing myself to be rushed into several movies very quickly when Batman folded (after three seasons), because I knew I’d have the typecasting problem, with Batman like an albatross round my neck. There was The Girl Who Knew Too Much, which was really awful, then another one, and I said “That’s it, f**k it, I’ve had it.”

‘So I just sat on the beach and licked my wounds for a year; carousing, boozing, anything just to get away. And then I began to realise I’ve given a lot of my life to this, this is what I want to do, I love the process of performing and acting. So I started doing anything I could. I did circuses, dinner theatre, avant-garde theatre … My God, I did The Happy Hooker Goes to Hollywood!’

Modest though he is, he can’t feign surprise at the virulent outbreak of Batmania when the series was revived, first on Night Network and then TV-am — causing ratings to leap by 25 per cent. He knows better than anyone the secret of its success: playing the straight-man with deadly seriousness week after week to anchor a sit-com whose wacky guest stars ranged from Eartha Kitt and Joan Collins to Vincent Price and Liberace. When the first series was broadcast in 1966, he was mobbed by admirers even in small mountain towns; and fame came with a high price-tag. “People would get a little ugly and say “Hey, you’re not so tough, I can take Batman.” I usually try to be reasonable, then turn round and run.’

Adam West and Frank Miller's Dark Knight comic -- how the interview first appeared in Time Out

Adam West and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight comic — how the interview appeared in Time Out

The current passion for all things ’60s is no hindrance to the new burst of popularity — ‘An Italian paper said, “in the ’60s, it’s the three Bs: Batman, Bond and the Beatles”.’ But the groundwork had already been laid by a peculiarly ’80s phenomenon: the huge sales and hype surrounding Frank Miller’s audacious adult comic book, Return of the Dark Knight. In it, Batman emerges from retirement grey-haired, embittered, determined to wage war against the increasingly mindless violence on the streets with equal brutality, his youthful sidekick no longer Robin the Boy Wonder, but a feisty feminist.

‘Isn’t that something,’ says Adam West of the book. And indeed he bears some similarity to the Dark Knight: still in good shape, his famous paunch if anything less noticeable, but the years showing in his greying locks, thick glasses, and the trenches in his cheeks. ‘I enjoyed it, its inventiveness, its artistry, a bit nihilistic and violent. If I were to do a Batman movie, I would like to have aspects of that.’

Ah, the Batman movie. Ever since Dark Knight appeared in 1986, rumours have been rife of a hard-hitting film that would forever banish the memory of the Camp Crusader. Last spring Dick Giordano, Vice-President of comics publishing giant DC which owns the rights to Batman, confided it had been scripted, would shortly enter production, and that — snigger — Adam West had applied for the part: anathema to the new, more serious breed of comics fan, particularly when rivals for the role include Mel Gibson.

But, after talking with him, the idea of West updating his role is by no means absurd. It would be entirely in keeping with the idea of Return of the Dark Knight, and he displays an intelligent, even poetic approach to film-making. When I show him a proof copy of The Killing Joke, Batman’s latest foray into the ’80s, he is enrapt by the brooding artwork, evidently visualising it as a storyboard. But when his eye alights on a page featuring a graphic shooting, he is suddenly angered.

‘On film this would be Peckinpah, slo-mo Wild Bunch. You don’t need to do this — blow people away with huge holes, blood splattering all over the place. But you can (and here his tone becomes conspiratorial) lop off a villain’s head with thin Batwire (chuckles) that snakes out of your utility belt — wssst! — and the head lops off and rolls across a full moon, bloodless.

‘I think in the final scenes of something, if it’s bizarre and mysterious, you can still have Alfred the butler driving the old Batmobile to the rescue. In the picture we’d have been using all hi-tech, wonderful slick new stuff, so you haven’t seen it before, and at the critical moment, there’s Alfred, driving the old Batmobile. People would stand up and cheer, it’s like the cavalry.’

But unlike the Dark Knight, Adam West is powerless to effect his own return, and frustrated at his new enemy: he can hardly sock the face of the corporate power which prevents him from using the character he has made his own. ‘Yes, I care about the character. It’s 20 years of my life, my career. I’ve seen so many people, signed autographs, shaken hands, done television — South America, the Amazon even; anything I can do to keep this thing fresh and alive. I don’t mean to sit here and weep about sacrifice in roles or other directions my career might have taken; I just put a hell of a lot of work into this thing and dammit, I know, better than anyone else, the best opportunities to do a smashing Batman movie. I hate to see the character denigrated, experimented with. Ruined.

‘Integrity,’ he continues, hammering out each syllable with very Batman-like force, ‘is vital, organic to the project! Sometimes I just don’t know. I mean we sit here and talk, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very relaxed… Sometimes I think, I really don’t give a damn. Now, am I tired? Am I losing a little energy, am I getting older? No, I just think I really don’t give a damn because I already did it!’

But West isn’t resting on his laurels. No less than three features are in the can, to be released, in America at least, sometime this year: Doing Time On Planet Earth, an off-the-wall comedy; Mad About You, a romantic comedy; and Return Fire, an action pic.

As for the spirit of ’66, that will be recreated in April in a two-week stage show for charity at the Bloomsbury Theatre, called Batman and Robin: The Last Re-run (the show was produced and directed by John Gore, now a major producer and CEO of Key Brand Entertainment). West won’t be appearing, but preliminary glimpses of the script suggest it will be hysterically funny, with the shadow of Dark Knight nowhere evident, and walk-on parts suggesting other TV shows of the era like Star Trek and Man From UNCLE. Huge, colourful cardboard cut-outs will supply the full array of Batgadgets, as well as the BIFFs, KA-POWs and ZZWAPs.

And what of Burt Ward, aka Robin? How has he weathered the Dark Knight era? During the ’60s he had problems coping with his overnight success, going on about his ‘million-dollar face’. Now, says West, ‘Burt’s a kind of super-businessman. Robin the mogul!’

 

LSF #5: From Showgirls to mad Mel, Joe Eszterhas’s glorious disasters

1 Nov
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Cult: Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls

We’re not done with Joe Eszterhas yet! At the London Screenwriters’ Festival, the wildly entertaining raconteur discussed some of his less successful projects, and the lessons to be learned. From the crazed fiasco that is Showgirls to the even more crazed fiasco that is Mel Gibson, these are the best bits:

Showgirls, 1995. Lesson: don’t do so much “research” you forget about the movie.

“I’ve always done a lot of research for my films. For Showgirls, Paul and I went to Vegas and did a lot of research – that was before I met Naomi here! [Aha, that kind of research.] Paul accused me of being relentless about it. But yeah, we really got nailed both commercially and critically for Showgirls. The problem is it was an NC17, and I desperately wanted it to be an R.

“The movie is over the top – flagrantly, violently, viciously over the top [laughter]. It’s globally over the top [laughter]. Perhaps that’s why it’s found a cult audience. I saw the movie last about 12 years ago, at a special screening in New York, where the audience were dressing up and reciting lines of dialogue. So many people over the years have come up and whispered to me, ‘I love Showgirls’. It is what it is. It became something I never intended, but if so many people found something they love in it, God bless ‘em even if I didn’t intend it.”

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Cu*t: Mel Gibson in two police mug shots: after anti-Semitic remarks and drunk-driving in 2006, and booked for alleged battery of his former girlfriend in 2011

The Maccabees, unproduced. Lesson: if Mel calls, hang up.

“I was commissioned to do a piece [Eszterhas always says ‘piece’, not script or screenplay] on The Maccabees for Mel Gibson. As I researched, I thought it was one of the most profound and moving stories about Jewish independence I had ever read. I asked Mel why he wanted to do it, he said, ‘Because I think I should.’ We took it to be a sign of repentance for his anti-Semitic statements, which were undeniable.

“Then one day, he said, ‘What I really want to do with this movie is,’ quote, ‘convert the Jews to Christianity.’

“I came to realise there is a dark well of wild-eyed anger and hate there towards people he has worked with, and an overall volcanic rage. Mel needs an intervention. We were in his house in Costa Rica once when he went off completely, screaming at the guests, knocking over totem poles – my 15-year-old son was so frightened he grabbed a butcher’s knife from the kitchen and slept with it under the bed. But I loved the story, so I decided I would write it in my way, and let the chips fall where they may.

“Then it hit the fan.

“Part of the experience that was very painful is I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever done. It was very violent in the fight scenes, but it ended with the words ‘Never again’, which had an echo across the ages. I was fired because Mel didn’t like the script, and I can’t now do anything with it because he commissioned me. It truly was a tragic and heart-breaking human experience on all levels.”

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Did you know Mel Gibson went on to make a film called The Beaver? Why Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct 2 reminds me of that, I don’t know

Basic Instinct 2, 2006. Lesson: take the money, do nothing.

“The executive in charge thought that Basic Instinct was misogynistic, and she wasn’t going to let the sequel be. So they made me an offer I could easily refuse. My deal on Basic Instinct called for me to get $2m for any sequel, whether or not I worked on it. They offered me $2m. For the sequel to the biggest-grossing movie of 1992 [NB: he often claims it’s the biggest, but it’s actually No9 domestically or No4 worldwide], they offer me the same as I would get if I did no work at all. Hollywood does these screwy things. They’ve got the golden egg and they screw it up.” [Basic Instinct 2, which Joe had no hand in, grossed only $39m worldwide. Sharon Stone’s salary alone cost a third of that.]

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Debra Winger and Tom Berenger, Betrayed by the margins

Betrayed, 1988. Lesson: don’t cheat the margins.

“My original script for Betrayed was too long – so I just made the page margins wider! That made the right page-count. I got a call half-way through filming from the producer, saying ‘Come up here, we’re screwed, the film’s going to be too long because the margins are too wide, so we have to cut’ – from what hasn’t yet been shot. It was the ugliest creative process. I never cheated the margins again!”

Original Sin, unproduced. Lesson: the postman always fakes twice.

“I wrote a piece called Original Sin, and they had trouble putting it together. I’m in Hawaii a year later, and I get this desperate call that a scriptwriter had sold this script to a TV company – he was paid $350,000 or something. And it was my physical script: I always type on a manual typewriter, he’d just put his name on the top!

“I discovered it was a mailman who’d taken a screenwriting course, and they gave out scripts as samples, and one was Original Sin. He just Xeroxed it and put his name on it. The final pinpoint I love is that they discovered that a couple of years before he had tried to sell another of my scripts, and this one he couldn’t sell – but then it was a film called Sacred Cows, about the President having sex with a cow!”

More Joe Eszterhas: click here for his advice to screenwriters; click here for the origins of Basic Instinct; click here for his blow-by-blow live commentary. NEW: for my one-on-one interview, from his dying father to Hunter S Thompson and his syringe, click here

Easter special: Dave McKean picks his Passion films

29 Mar
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Dave McKean, illustrator, director and dead ringer for Orson Welles

Dave McKean is an astonishingly brilliant and prolific illustrator, graphic novelist, animator and director. His credits are too numerous to mention, but his films include Mirrormask, written by long-time collaborator Neil Gaiman, Luna (as yet unreleased) and last year The Gospel of Us, in which he filmed Michael Sheen being crucified on a beach in Port Talbot.

I’ve interviewed Dave a few times, and had the pleasure of asking him about his favourite movies involving Christ and crucifixion, to get us all in the Easter spirit:

“There are a lot of screen depictions of the Passion of Christ that I love. King of Kings, the silent film, has a beautiful atmosphere. There’s the Christ sequence in Ben Hur, which goes from a sepia image to glowing  Technicolor. Pasolino’s The Gospel According to St Matthew has these incredible faces of these non-actors he got to play the parts. Jesus of Montreal is probably the closest to The Gospel of Us. The Last Temptation of Christ is fantastic, it’s close to being my favourite Scorsese film. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ is brutal and over the top in the scourging sequence but it has some amazing stuff in it. But nothing beats Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain.

Holy Mountain was hard to find for a very long time. The original prints were embargoed by the producer and it was only available in Japan in degraded and often heavily censored form: glowing orbs would appear over people’s genitals. But Jodorowsky finally got the rights back recently, and it’s an astounding film to look at, though it makes variable sense depending on who you are and how much you’ve had to drink.

“Jodorowsky has said he basically rounded up his actors and kidnapped them, kept them in isolation, broke them mentally, then put them back together on screen. In a key scene the Christ figure, who is a complete innocent, gets cast in papier mache by his followers. When he wakes up, he sees a thousand versions of himself and is driven insane, smashes them all up, and the last sequence is him eating one, ripping great chunks out of it.

“But the whole film is incredible. You start with this man, who wakes up, covered in flies… it doesn’t make much sense but it’s incredibly compelling. It’s one of those films where you arrive somewhere, look back, and you think ‘How the hell did I get here’ and you can’t imagine where you’ll be in ten minutes’ time.

“My own approach to Gospel of Us wasn’t much more sensible. We basically raced down to Port Talbot, where Michael Sheen was re-enacting the Passion over 72 hours with a cast of a thousand locals, taking ten cameras to shoot what the hell we could. It took eight months to whittle it down to a two-hour film.”

So there you go. That’s your Easter weekend movie viewing sorted. And we didn’t even mention The Life of Brian

A shorter version of this post first appeared in The Book magazine