STAY CLASSY: Richard III (1955)


Year released: 1955

How it fared back then: Following the success of 1948’s Hamlet, Laurence Olivier had established himself as THE Shakespeare boy. His turn as the wicked and spiteful title character garnered much hype and it was the first film to debut in the U.S. theaters and on television simultaneously. Also tackling the role of director, Olivier then attempted to bring to one of Shakespeare’s most unlikeable, yet captivating characters to the screen. Unfortunately, the film was a financial failure, effectively ending Olivier’s aspirations as a Shakespearean film actor/director, which would have included him taking on Macbeth.

Why it’s lasted: As often happens, financial failure does not indicate quality. Olivier was nominated for an Academy Award for Richard III. Many contend he should have bested the more high profile Yul Brynner, who took home the prize for the commercially successful The King and I (and would have had he not won previously for Hamlet). The 1995 update starring Ian McKellen is a fun alternative, but not replacement, for this brilliantly acted original.

Classic moments:

  • Richard’s soliloquies delivered directly to the audience in which he basks in the perverse joy of his devious nature, boasting of his crimes and detailing his future plans. We are then part of the film, cast as helpless bystanders who must watch without being able to intercede, a mean fete for a film.
  • Olivier’s Prince Valiant wig, twisted figure and false nose. The physical transformation of the handsome Olivier is shocking and grotesquely comical. He uses long shots to play with the physical ridiculousness of Richard in contrast to his venom-filled line delivery.
  • The depths of Richard’s diabolical ambition knows no limit. Even his cousin Clarence, played by the fantastic John Gielgud, isn’t safe: “I do love thee so, but I will shortly send thy soul to heaven.”
  • Olivier’s spitting delivery of the title of “Lord” to every person he addresses. The word may be simple, but he uses it like a dagger.
  • His seduction of Lady Anne (Clarie Bloom) — he masterfully turns a woman who despises him into his bride, only to reveal his plans to discard her once she’s served her purpose.
  • The moment when Richard realizes he’s conquered the world, but those he most wishes to lord it over are all dead.

Does it still hold up? So many Shakespeare films now rely on a “spin,” (i.e. modernization, plays on theme, gimmicks) that it’s nice to enjoy a more traditional version. It is a fabulous reminder of why Olivier is the standard to which all other Shakespeare actors are held.


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