The 1995 film version of William Shakespeare’s Othello didn’t light the box office on fire and was quickly forgotten as soon as it came out.
Not that it’s a bad film, but it seems to lack the certain spark necessary to make a classic. But when it came out, it was considered quite important, since it was declared to be the first time that a black actor, Laurence Fishburne, played the role in a film version of the play, along with Kenneth Branagh as Iago, and Irene Jacob as Desdemona.
Until then, of course it was always white actors in blackface, like Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles in the part. However, the thing about this is that it wasn’t exactly true.
There had been other black actors who had played Othello in earlier film productions, though those were smaller films, made outside the Hollywood mainstream, so in many people’s eyes they didn’t exist.
First there was Yaphet Kotto who played the role in an independently made film version of the play in 1980; and the next year, in 1981, William Marshall (forever to be in Blaxplotation glory as Blacula) played the role in a over 3 hour long, complete indie production that was released on video and DVD. Though there’s no information on if it was ever shown in theaters anywhere or on television.
And of course there’s the infamous “lost” film version starring and directed by Ted Lange. Yes that’s right, Ted Lange. The same guy who played Isaac the Bartender on the 1970’s TV classic ABC’s The Love Boat. It was his long-time dream project and he actually got it made and released it in some theaters in 1989, but the film hasn’t been seen since then.
And then if we’re talking about Othello inspired films, there’s Richie Havens who played an Othello-type role in a rock musicial film version of Catch My Soul, which I wrote about recently HERE.
And then there’s the 1962 British film All Night Long which is a jazz version of the story with Paul Harris, playing a jazz musician married to a white singer who a jealous drummer rival wants to sign up for his group, and convinces Harris that his wife is cheating on him. (The film is shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies)
But getting back to Fishburne’s Othello, one of the main problems with the film, which was the cause of much criticism at the time, was with the ruthless cutting down of Shakespeare’s text.
Granted most of his plays are rather long, so some editing is necessary for a film version, unless audiences want to sit though four-hour-long movies like Branagh’s own (and actually really excellent) 1996 film version of Hamlet. But in the case of Fishburne’s film, it is rather extreme, retaining only about a third of the play’s original text.
The director of the film, Oliver Parker, who also did the screenplay adaptation, defended the severe editing, saying he did it because he “thought it would be interesting to make it more of a punchy, pacy number.”
Unfortunately the editing actually takes a serious toll on Shakespeare’s words, removing a lot if its poetic flow, and much of the characters’ motivations.
However, if you want to see Fishburne give it a go as Othello, now you can, since, starting this week, it’s available through Warner Home Video’s very successful DVD-on-demand label Warner Archive.
Below is a clip from the film, and for your amusement, Olivier from his 1966 film version, and Anthony Hopkins from a 1981 BBC TV production – both who ham it up like crazy.
What is it about the role that makes actors go off the rails?