I was mostly on board with the subtlety & restraint exercised in December’s Movie of the Month, 1990’s Wings of Fame, but there was one glaring area where the film’s delicate approach to its surrealist premise could have benefited from a stronger hand. The film establishes a version of the afterlife that runs on a kind of fame economy, where the level of a historical figure or celebrity’s postmortem notoriety determines their privilege & prestige in an Eternal Limbo. Our introduction into this world is through a Shakespearean actor (Peter O’Toole) and his bitter assassin (Colin Firth) as they die near-simultaneously and blindly enter the fame-economy afterlife. Mostly, the breathing room allowed by the film’s patient, delicate approach to surrealism invites philosophical discussion & audience hypothesis on how, exactly, this fantasy realm operates. That exact openness to interpretation is likely the movie’s greatest strength. Where the restraint frustrates me, however, is in not populating its afterword with real life historical figures & dead celebrities. Besides familiar names like Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Lassie, the movie’s ranks are mostly filled with fictional, archetypal placeholders: a psychedelic rocker, a Freudian psychologist, a Russian political poet, etc. Not using familiar personalities to fully explore the absurdity of its premise seemed like a missed opportunity, especially when it came to the comeuppance of the movie’s chief cad, played by Peter O’Toole. It seems obvious that a pompous Shakespearean actor obnoxiously blowing hot air in an afterlife populated by famous historical figures would have an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, but it’s a moment that never arrives. Oddly, his co-star did have that confrontation with Shakespeare many years later, despite Colin Firth not being nearly as closely associated with the bard.
It’s strange to say that Peter O’Toole is known mostly as a Shakespearean actor, when he has never appeared in any Shakespearean films. Before he transitioned to TV & film work in the late 1950s and eventually achieved infamy as the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole was already a well-known thespian, respected for his work on the British stage, especially in the coveted role of Hamlet. Once he blossomed into a screen actor, however, he mostly left Shakespeare behind, possibly out of fear of being typecast, possibly by simply aging out of the Hamlet role. He did portray King Henry II in two Shakespeare-esque films (Becket & Lion in Winter), but mostly left his Shakespeare career on the stage, not onscreen. Still, he was closely associated enough with Shakespearean drama as a medium that his casting in Wings of Fame was a meta reflection of his real life persona. His co-star in the film, Colin Firth, was also “discovered” while playing Hamlet on the stage, but was much more closely associated with another infamous literary author: Jane Austen. Firth’s role as Mr. Darcy in the 90s adaptation of Pride & Prejudice (and, parodically, in the Bridget Jones franchise) would command much of his career onscreen for well over a decade, falling into the exact kind of restrictive typecasting Peter O’Toole managed to avoid. It’s strange that despite both actors emerging through a British stage tradition in the same Shakespearean role and both separately working with Lawrence Olivier, the only thing they’ve happened to collaborate on together was this single Dutch picture about fame in the afterlife. What’s even stranger is that where Wings of Fame withholds the satisfaction of seeing famed Shakespearean actor Peter O’Toole get into an onscreen confrontation with William Shakespeare himself, the Jane Austen-associated Colin Firth would later play Shakespeare’s nemesis for the entire length of a high-profile, Oscars-sweeping feature.
John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is one of those decent, mildly entertaining pictures that seems to draw a lot of critical heat merely because it was showered with a heap of Academy Awards. Although the film is dressed up like a prestige costume drama, it’s much more spiritually aligned with Shakespeare’s more frivolous farces (and not necessarily the exceptional ones). Everyone can enjoy a decent screwball comedy once in a while, though, and the film maintains its endearingness as such, especially now that the unfair, tremendous weight of its many Oscar wins has faded. Joseph Fiennes stars as (a forgettable, bland) William Shakespeare, who is suffering severe writer’s block as his romantic life hits a major rut. He finds his manic pixie dream muse in a noblewoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who auditions for his latest play (eventually titled Romeo & Juliet) in disguise as a man. Surface level meta humor about the hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (drag, comic misunderstandings, drunken fools, confusion with Christopher Marlowe, exact lines & scenes from Romeo & Juliet, etc.) unfolds along with this new romance and shapes the course of the play the couple are collaborating on. Enter Colin Firth as Lord Wessex, an empty-pursed nobleman who arranges to marry Paltrow’s disinterested theatre nerd for her dowry. As Shakespeare’s romantic rival and an all-around cad, Colin Firth’s mustache-twirling villain brings life to an otherwise light romantic romp. Similar caricatures from Judi Dench, Geoffrey Rush, and (Bostonian sore thumb) Ben Affleck are amusing in flashes, but Firth is so over-the-top as the villain it’s near-impossible to focus anywhere else. First of all, his look includes the world’s worst goatee and a dangly earring. He’s introduced negotiating marital terms with his intended’s father by asking questions like “Is she fertile? Is she obedient?” Minutes later, before he even announces his marriage plans to their shared love interest, he pulls a knife on Shakespeare “for coveting his property.” He only gets more dastardly from there, singlehandedly setting up the forbidden love oppression that required two whole families of brutes to establish in Romeo & Juliet.
This romantic rivalry between Wessex & Shakespeare, enforced through violence & wealth, is far more intense than what I was hoping to see in Wings of Fame. My hope was for a mere Shakespeare cameo, where the bard could offend Peter O’Toole’s posh sensibilities either by insulting his acting skills or by acting like an Al Bundy-modeled slob in a moment of don’t-meet-your-heroes disillusionment. Wishing for for something that specific to happen in a movie’s script is usually an idiotic way to approach cinema, but Wings of Fame feels like it sets up that conflict (or any kind of interaction, really) by sending a fictional, famous Shakespearean actor played by a real-life, famous Shakespearean actor to an afterworld populated by dead famous people, Shakespeare blatantly excluded. That’s what makes it so strange that Colin Firth would later be the actor to participate in an onscreen rivalry with the bard. What’s even stranger is that Wessex’s contentious relationship with Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love is not too dissimilar to the main rivalry that drives Wings of Fame. Once they arrive in the afterlife, O’Toole’s Shakespearean actor and his professionally bitter assassin get caught up in a (passionless) love triangle as they compete for the affections of the same demure French pop singer. Of course, O’Toole plays the blowhard cad in that scenario, not Firth, who would assume those duties in Shakespeare in Love. Shakespeare in Love is a much lesser film than Wings of Fame (although the pair are largely incomparable), but it both complicates & satisfies the two caveats I had with the otherwise impeccable surrealist comedy that had managed to unite Firth & O’Toole onscreen. All of the romantic rivalry intensity & onscreen conflict with Shakespeare himself I felt was missing from Wings of Fame was oddly misplaced in Shakespeare in Love; it also happened to feature the wrong actor of the duo.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the delicately surreal afterlife puzzler Wings of Fame, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, and last week’s look at its less restrained Harmony Korine counterpoint.