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Shakespeare's 450th birthday in April is feted in film festival near D.C.

Laurence Olivier's "Richard III" (1955) will be shown April 27 at AFI Silver Theatre in its tribute series for Shakespeare's 450th birthday. Film festival continues into 2016 for 400th anniversary of his death. AFI Silver's in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Laurence Olivier's "Richard III" (1955) will be shown April 27 at AFI Silver Theatre in its tribute series for Shakespeare's 450th birthday. Film festival continues into 2016 for 400th anniversary of his death. AFI Silver's in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Laurence Olivier's "Richard III". Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection and AFI Silver Theatre

The AFI Silver Theatre near D.C. is launching a film festival to celebrate Shakespeare's 450th birthday, and continuing into 2016 to honor the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death -- on his 52nd birthday April 23

Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles in "10 Things I Hate About You", to be shown in AFI Silver's Shakespeare 450 birthday festival
Courtesy of AFI Silver Theatre, Silver Spring, Maryland

The series will offer many filmed adaptations of his plays, plus a wide variety of movies that draw upon Shakespearean source material -- often in "adventurous and unusual ways," says the AFI Silver.

In addition to interpretations by Olivier, Branagh, and Zeffirelli, variations on the theme of Shakespeare include:

  • "Henry IV" is a gay hustler (River Phoenix) smitten with rich kid (Keanu Reeves) in "My Own Private Idaho", adapted and directed by Gus Van Sant. Two years after making the movie, River Phoenix died of a drug overdose at age 23 on Halloween 1993.
  • "The Taming of the Shrew" also was moved to America in the 1999 teen classic, "10 Things I Hate About You". It was a breakout role for Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 at age 28 from an accidental overdose of prescription medications.
  • "Macbeth" is transported from Scotland to feudal Japan in Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood".

(If "Romeo and Juliet" could be transported to New York City slums in "West Side Story", why-o, why-o can't they.)

  • Falstaff, the popular portly character in several Shakespearean plays, is imagined by Orson Welles in his rarely seen "Chimes at Midnight". Falstaffian Welles stars in the film he wrote and directed. It also features French femme fatale Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet, Sir John Gielgud as King Henry IV, and local Shakespeare Theatre regular Keith Baxter as Prince Hal.

Here are the series' initial films, with descriptions excerpted from AFI Silver:

  • HENRY V (1944)

Fri., Apr. 25, 7:15 P.M.

Laurence Olivier’s directorial debut—on top of starring and producing—was filmed and released near the end of World War Two, and played as a patriotic spirit-raiser to wartime British audiences. Famous for its progression from a stage-bound Globe Theatre setting in Act I through ever more realistic and opened-up settings, it culminates in location photography, and uses a large cavalry for the climactic battle scenes. Released in the U.S. in 1946, it was awarded an honorary Oscar®, citing Olivier’s “outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing ‘Henry V’ to the screen.”

  • HAMLET (1948)

Sat., Apr. 26, 4:30 P.M.

Among the many notable screen versions of “Hamlet”, Laurence Olivier's sets a particularly high standard, with shadowy black-and-white cinematography and probing psychology. Best Picture and Best Actor for Olivier were two of its four Oscar wins among seven nominations.

  • RICHARD III (1955)

Sun., Apr. 27, 4:00 P.M.

Laurence Olivier serves up the legend of the most evil king in English history, as imagined by Shakespeare, from “the winter of our discontent” to “my kingdom for a horse!” Although unsuccessful in its 1955 release, the film enjoyed a landmark U.S. television broadcast that year (the British Film Institute has claimed that this "may have done more to popularize Shakespeare than any other single work.") It was a hit when re-released a decade later, and its critical reputation has grown with time. With Ralph Richardson, Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, and Claire Bloom.


Sun., May 4, 8:45 P.M.

Franco Zeffirelli’s lush, romantic and wildly popular adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet”, at the time the most successful Shakespeare screen adaptation, struck a chord with youthful audiences around the world. It broke with stage tradition to cast younger actors (newcomers Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting), closer to the star-crossed lovers’ actual ages. Nominated for four Oscars, it won for Best Cinematography and Costume Design. The narration is by an uncredited Olivier.

  • HENRY V (1989) -- 25th Anniversary

Sat., May 10, 4:45; Thu., May 15, 6:45 P.M.

Kenneth Branagh soared to international stardom with this winning screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. For Branagh, as for Olivier, this was his feature directorial debut. The cast includes Branagh as the newly crowned king, and Judi Dench (Mistress Quickly), Robbie Coltrane (Falstaff), Paul Scofield (Charles VI), Brian Blessed (Exeter) and Emma Thompson (Katherine). Narrated by Derek Jacobi.

  • THRONE OF BLOOD (1957)

Mon, May 12, 9:20; Wed., May 14, 9:45 P.M.; Thu., May 15, 9:30 P.M.

Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of “Macbeth” finds Toshirô Mifune in feudal Japan as a victorious warlord who becomes obsessed with and enslaved by his quest for power. When his calculating wife cajoles him into taking the throne by force, a series of bloody events, and unexpected twists, ensues.

  • WEST SIDE STORY (1961)

Tue., May 20, 6:45 P.M.; Mon., May 26, 4:00 P.M.

Ten Oscar wins, including Best Picture, for the dazzling screen adaptation of Broadway's "Romeo and Juliet"-inspired musical smash, starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. Unforgettable for the brilliant Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim score (with songs including "Maria," "Tonight," "Jet Song" and "America") and Jerome Robbins' vibrant choreography, featuring the Oscar-winning dancing of George Chakiris and Rita Moreno.


Sat., May 31, 6:30 P.M.; Sun., Jun 1, 6:30 P.M.

This teen fave, "10 Things I Hate About You" transports Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” to Padua High School. Rebellious outcast Patrick (Heath Ledger) is bribed to woo strong-willed riot girl Kat (Julia Stiles). Although their courtship begins on a false note, the two realize reluctantly that they might be made for each other.

The June offerings include more Shakespearean plays relocated to American settings:

  • In "My Own Private Idaho", Gus Van Sant transposes Shakespeare's “Henry IV” into a male hustler's world. River Phoenix gives a heartbreaking performance as a dreamy, actually narcoleptic, gay prostitute in love with pal Keanu Reeves.
  • In "O", "Othello" goes from a royal court to a basketball court in a high school in the American South, thanks to Brad Kaaya's adaptation.

Collaborating with AFI Silver on this project are: The Folger Shakespeare Library, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries, and the British Council.

Most of the area's Shakespearean festivities are at the Folger, which is making much ado about the 450th anniversary, including the annual birthday party April 6. Like the AFI Silver, the Folger's special activities continue through the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.

So here's to "Bardolatry", as George Bernard Shaw called Shakespeare worship -- including Shaw's own idolatry of the Bard.

For more info: AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland, 301-495-6700. Folger Shakespeare Library,, 201 East Capitol Street, S.E., Washington, D.C., 202-544-4600.

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