Monday, 18 April 2011

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

On a number of levels the above film seems a strange choice from the BBC to commemorate the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, since it is not one of her award-winning roles nor one of her 'classic' performances. If the truth be known, it is probably one of her lesser-known movies, one of several many made with Richard Burton during the period of their tempestuous first marriage. These ranged from the highpoint of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" to the definite lowpoint of the disastrous "Boom".  However it proved a felicitous selection to broadcast, insofar as it stands as a wonderful testament to Taylor's beauty and screen presence; it also gives the viewer a privileged peek at the real-life chemistry that existed between her and Burton.  If you really want to know what is meant by "the look of love", you have only to watch those two here.

In his first proper theatrical film, the noted production designer for grand opera, Franco Zeffirelli,  brings a colourful, luscious eye and some wonderful mise-en-scene to Shakespeare's bawdy tale.  The film is less about the bard's words than about the opened-out Italianate romp that Zeffirelli  provides.  Taylor brings her full-bodied beauty and passion to the tempestuous shrew Kate, while Burton, who was known for his Shakespearian stage performances, creates a towering and crude Petruchio.  Some might find his interpretation over the top or even a little hammy, but the character he portrays, who has come to 'wife it well' in Padua, is certainly meant to be larger than life.  The fire burning in both performances is what makes this movie most memorable, together with its rich design and costuming and a remarkable score from Nino Rota.

No one would argue that Taylor was not a great 'movie star' and an unforgettable presence.  It is a little more difficult to convince people that she was a great actress as well.  She certainly made some very memorable movies, but her standard of acting could be variable.  Certainly she is not one's first choice for Shakespearian dialogue and her occasionally squeaky, little girl voice is hard to temper.  However as a spectacle for the eye, this movie reinforces her screen luminescence, and one barely notices the delivery of her lines when they are surrounded by such sumptuous staging.

The film's other delights include the incomparable Michael Horden as Kate and Bianca's father, Cyril Cusack as Petruchio's crafty servant, and Michael York in his screen debut as Lucentio. The film musical "Kiss Me Kate" may well be the most popular version of the oft-told tale, but this lovingly crafted, lusty version has so very much to commend it.  So, yes, it was a wise choice after all to serve as the BBC's tribute to a Hollywood legend.
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