King Lear cock-up from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I was always rather disappointed by the live TV King Lear directed by Peter Brook which Orson Welles starred in. I pretty much loathe Brooks’ film of KING LEAR with Paul Scofield too, but that’s based on my love of the play, my reading of it, and my feelings about what I’d want from an adaptation. Brooks’ film certainly has the courage of its convictions, and is almost a compelling and well-made film, if it weren’t for his ridiculous habit of cutting to the backs of people’s heads. (There are times, explained the Great Director, when you don’t want to see anything, you just want to listen to the text; but as it’s unacceptable to have the screen go black, he opted to show the backs of the heads. This, needless to say, perplexes and distracts the viewer far more than the faces of excellent actors ever would.)

The TV Lear, heavily cut to fit into a one-hour time slot, isn’t as radical a reinterpretation of the play as Brook’s later film, which strips it of emotion and nobility and tragedy and settles for a kind of lumpen, petrified grimness. What wrecks the TV play is Orson’s makeup, probably the worst he ever wore. To see his Lear, who looks like Krankor from PRINCE OF SPACE, with his cardboard beak, is to suddenly think far more highly or Gregory Arkadin’s tonsorial choices. Wearing a false beard on top of your head, matching the one on your chin, at least suggests a kind of symmetry, like a playing card. As with his regrettable IMMORTAL STORY makeup, Welles is attempting suggest old age by painting shadows on his face like a set from CALIGARI. But he’s gotten carried away, and ended up darker than his Othello, and blotchy with it. Welles as Lear is somewhat embarrassing to look at, and I love Welles too much to take any pleasure in being embarrassed about him.

The worst moment in the telecast is the best moment in the play. The reconciliation scene is the bit that moves audiences to tears. I saw a Kenneth Branagh production with Richard Briers as Lear, and THAT moved me to tears. I don’t recall feeling anything except disgruntlement at the Scofield version, mirroring the Scofield performance, but in general the scene seems almost impossible to screw up.

Welles, alas, blows his lines. Lear says to his loving daughter, Cordelia, whom he has wronged ~

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

This refers to Lear’s casting out of Cordelia, for which she should hate him, and to his other daughters’ casting out of him, after he gave them his kingdom.

But what Welles says, unfortunately, in the last line, is ~

They have some cause ~

Here, he pauses. He has just made Lear say that his wicked daughters, who kicked him out in a storm, had good reason to do so. This makes no sense. Worse, Welles realises that if he finishes the line, he will be making things much, much worse. But the alternative is to go back and correct himself, making the mistake completely obvious to the television public. I think we can see him thinking, calculating, for an anguished second. He decides to plough on ~

you have not.

So now he’s saying that his banishment of Cordelia was justified and she’s not entitled to hold it against him. Worse, this means that Cordelia’s next line, “No cause, no cause,” is not a daughter forgiving her old father’s terrible flaws and saying that she loves him and nothing has stood in the way of that. Now it means that she’s just agreeing with him that he was right to give her the boot.

Fortunately the scene gets back on track after this and they do the lines as written. But Welles is still wearing a ludicrous great hooter.

6 Responses to “Flub”

  1. Welles looks like a Muppet here. His other false noses and the like were more fun.

    As for Lear my favorite version is Ran

  2. Ran is the best, by some way, though Kurosawa had it easy since he wasn’t trying to do it in iambic pentameter.

    When Welles had Maurice Seidelman to do his makeup, not only the makeup but the performances are better.

  3. The makeup and the performances have to be connected. Welles looked great as Hank Quinlan, and I imagine the success of that makeup gave him a self confidence which resulted in one of his best performances. The other side of that coin would be Arkadin; he must have realized the disguise was unsatisfactory, and I think THAT did nothing to reinforce his playing of the character onscreen. Lear’s makeup LOOKS like a makeup and doesn’t really convey the a decayed regality that’s useful to a portrayal of Lear. The nose is indifferent, but as this was only a few years after Guinness glued on his joke-store schnozzle for OLIVER TWIST, perhaps it could’ve been worse.

  4. Looking deeper, the nose isn’t so much a problem as those cheek-paintings, which echo the angle of the conk — those bruised triangular etchings to try and make him look gaunt, as if that was ever going to be possible.

    Actually, the beard would have been enough for TV, we could imagine the rest, and why shouldn’t Lear be chubby?

  5. revelator60 Says:

    I’m a big fan of the Brook’s film of King Lear, but I can understand why many hate it for giving viewers “the drear far side of the moon,” as Pauline Kael put it. It’s an undeniably reductive version of the play, but often savagely brilliant (the flash cut of Cordelia dropping from the noose still horrifies me, while I doubt anyone will do a better job with the storm scenes or Gloucester’s torture).

    You’re right to knock Welles’s bizarre make-up as TV Lear–it makes the substandard visual quality of the surviving kinescope a relief. For me the production’s three great flaws involve the play being mutilated to fit into an hour’s length (which destroys the pacing and dramatic rhythm and leads to oddities such as Oswald becoming the big bad villain), an unmemorable supporting cast, and the tentative nature of Welles’s performance (changing lines certainly didn’t help). It’s a tragedy that Welles wasn’t able to make the full-scale film of Lear he envisioned in the early 80s.

    Ran is undoubtedly a triumph of some kind, but for me it’s a terribly disappointing version of the play–an elephantine production that privileges stylized pageantry over emotion. For my money the best film of King Lear is Grigori Kozintsev’s 1971 Soviet version, which has Kurosawa’s epic scale but also preserves the original’s depth of feeling.

    Regarding TV Lears, the BBC version has an excellent cast but comes off like a shrunken mummy, thanks to Jonathan Miller’s overly dry direction, and Michael Hordern (the best Prospero I’ve seen onscreen) was encouraged to play the role as a tetchy crank. Though the Olivier Lear is visually nothing to speak of, it has my favorite cast and Olivier is very affecting in the role, which he expertly milks for its personal parallels.

  6. I’ve seen the Kosintsev but don’t remember it too well. I do remember feeling disappointed — I wasn’t moved, but I couldn’t say why.

    Kurosawa doesn’t reach the emotion Shakespeare creates in the reconciliation, but he seizes on the apocalyptic aspects of the play and for me evokes the most epic quality, and the vengeful villainess is extremely compelling.

    Jonathan Miller’s decision that Lear has senile dementia seems to stomp all over the reconciliation and emotion in much the same way as Brook’s decision that Lear is a tectonic plate. Michael Kitchen is a terrific Edmund, though — and clarly the model for Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder. My main memories of the Olivier are Leo McKern being great (although Esmond Knight must have been wondering why he didn’t get the part) and Colin Blakely as an ideal Kent.

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