Recommended films vol. 4

MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (1934)

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Why you should see it: This is a poignant drama, about the Wiggs family who live in poverty and give thanks, even though they do not have a turkey for Thanksgiving. Mrs. Wiggs (Pauline Lord) has quite a few children, and the girls are all named after continents. A very young Virginia Weidler plays Europena. And while there may not be enough money to go around to raise the children decent-like, there is plenty of love to make up for it, and kindness from Mom’s friend Miss Lucy who gives them a turkey. The family is equally surprised when another turkey shows up: their ne’er-do-well father played by Donald Meek.

More reasons: W.C. Fields is a neighborhood bachelor that a love-starved neighbor lady, played by ZaSu Pitts, is trying to get her hooks into! Don’t ask why, because I haven’t figured out why anyone would want to marry Fields.

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THE ASTONISHED HEART (1950)

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Why you should watch it: Noel Coward wrote the original play and the screenplay, plus he performed the lead role in the film. He also composed the score, and I must say that even though the story is not one of his best, and his acting is not as good as other men of his generation, he has crafted a most superb piece of music.

More reasons: Costars include Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton, both adding considerably to the film’s value.

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LADYBUG LADYBUG (1963)

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Why you should watch it: This film provides a unique glimpse into an era just after the Cuban missile crisis, when bomb shelters and emergency drills for nuclear attacks were commonplace. In this case, an east coast school, which frequently conducts such drills, experiences a wave of terror when a false alarm is believed to be the real thing. Educators are told to take the children home, and along the way, some very shocking (and tragic) things happen. The best scenes involve a bossy young girl who refuses to let anyone in or out of a bomb shelter; and a teacher, played by Nancy Marchand, who must face her own fears during the journey.

More reasons: The film ends on a very intriguing and ambiguous note, because some of the participants, especially Marchand’s character, seem to still believe that the United States is under attack.

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AUDREY ROSE (1977)

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Why you should watch it:  this is a supernatural thriller about reincarnation (with some Catholicism mixed in) that screams for repeat viewings. Anthony Hopkins, years before his frightening turn as the cannibalistic Hannibal Lector, is a man convinced that his daughter was reborn to an unsuspecting couple (Marsha Mason & John Beck). When the girl in question begins to experience powerful sensations of a past life, Hopkins steps out of the shadows and into their lives.

More reasons: it’s directed by Robert Wise, who previously helmed THE HAUNTING. Also, it uses flashbacks in a way that no other film does.

Stars that never married

Some stars never married, because quite simply they did not live long enough. It’s interesting to speculate which starlet James Dean might have wed if he hadn’t died so young. He did date Ursula Andress for awhile.

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Other stars did not marry, because they were involved for years with a person married to someone else. Marion Davies was the long-time mistress of publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and she even had a child by him. But he never obtained a divorced from his estranged wife to make it official with Davies. After Hearst’s death, Davies finally did get married (to a man who looked a lot like Hearst actually).

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Then there are stars that did not marry, and did not even have weddings of convenience, because of their (sometimes alleged) sexual orientation. There were no marriages for Farley Granger, Roddy McDowall, Lizabeth Scott or Tab Hunter. Though Tab has had the same partner since 1983.

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Some stars did not marry, due to other more unique reasons. Actress Dolores Hart who left movies to enter a convent was prohibited from marrying as a Roman Catholic nun. But at least she has her memories of kissing Elvis. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Taylor died a single woman who had not been married from 1996 until her death in 2011– probably because she had already been there and done that, many times. For her, marriage wasn’t something she needed anymore.

Names hard to pronounce

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Recently, TCM reran THE MIRACLE WORKER and host Ben Mankiewicz mentioned the supporting cast in the wraparound. The gentleman who played Helen Keller’s authoritarian father in the movie was well-known character actor Victor Jory. Ben pronounced the last name with a J-sound. I always thought it was a Y-sound. So I learned something new.

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For years, I have been wondering about how to pronounce a few other last names in Hollywood. I am still unsure about how to say Katina Paxinou’s name, though I do consider it a major accomplishment to be able to spell it correctly. Or what about Warner Brothers contract player Ann Dvorak. Supposedly, she pronounced it ‘Vorjak,’ meaning the ‘D’ was silent and a ‘J’ sound was added. Surprised her agent or Jack Warner didn’t make her Anglo-cize it and go by Devore. Then there’s Pedro Armendariz. His has several different pronunciations in various movie trailers.

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A few first names foul me up, too. For a long time I wondered if Chico Marx was Cheek-o or Chick-o. Apparently, the correct way is Chick-o.

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And what about those two well-known Bettes. One of them sounds like Betty; while the other one goes by only one syllable– as in you bet.

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Perhaps the reason all this fascinates me is because my first name is a variation of my father’s. And my younger brother is the junior. At first, people would call me by my father’s name, until my brother was born, and then they had to use my real name. And for some reason, without meaning any harm, one ethnic group (didn’t matter if they were male or female) would always add an extra ‘r’ making it the French version of my father’s name.

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Maybe my mother should have named me Methuselah. That might have been easier. Yes, that’s it–in a parallel universe I am a movie star named Methuselah Jory, and the costars of my latest picture are Chico Paxinou and Bette Armendariz. Hmmm, I think I’ll shut my mouth while I’m ahead.

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Crime films based on fact

In the late 1960s, Hollywood began turning out a series of true-crime pictures. In the past, stories about real-life criminals were usually fictionalized and the more salacious aspects toned down. For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO was in all likelihood inspired by the serial killings of Ed Gein, but the director’s film does not use Gein’s name and many fictionalized elements have been added.

But with the end of the production code, filmmakers were freer to tell hard-hitting stories that did not shy away from the truth. Bestselling books about grisly murderers had captured the public’s attention, and they would be adapted without much changed in the way the crimes had been committed.

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One of the novels was IN COLD BLOOD, which writer Truman Capote spent years researching. It’s the story of two young killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who slain a Kansas farmer and his family in November 1959.  For a while, Hickock and Smith had managed to evade law enforcement, until they were eventually caught and brought to justice. After the trial, as they appealed their death sentences, Capote was able to interview the men several times. Of course, this made the coverage in the book all the more realistic.

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Following the executions of Hickock and Smith in 1965, Capote’s novel was published and quickly made into a motion picture by Columbia the next year. Playing the troubled leads were Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (who would ironically be involved in a real-life murder case years later). The film did well at the box office and its success led to Hollywood studios adapting stories about other sadistic murderers in the news.

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One of those other stories was THE BOSTON STRANGLER. Thirteen women had been violently attacked and killed in the Boston area during the early 1960s, and the entire city was on edge until the culprit– Albert DeSalvo– had been identified and prosecuted. DeSalvo’s guilt regarding the last victim’s death was confirmed by DNA testing, though to this day there is still some doubt whether he killed all twelve of the earlier ones, despite his confession. The confession was obtained by detective John Bottomly.

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When 20th Century Fox decided to make a motion picture about DeSalvo’s crimes and apprehension, they selected a unique cast. Starring as the deranged killer was Tony Curtis, mostly known for lighter movie roles. And the detective was played by Henry Fonda. George Kennedy and Hurd Hatfield also appeared on screen, and a young Sally Kellerman was one of the victims.

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Overweight in the movies

Recently when I watched a film on TCM starring Alexis Smith, I noticed there was a very chubby costar in a serious dramatic role. She was not used for laughs and in fact there is no mention made of her being quite a bit overweight.

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Usually in movies when someone is overweight they are assigned comic relief roles. But in ONE LAST FLING, there is a young woman who is not perfectly glamorous, and she is not made to act like a clown or a freak.

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I looked up the actress’s filmography to see if she made other movies, and she did. Quite a few of them in fact, mostly in minor roles. However, some of the descriptions for the characters she played are fairly blunt.

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1. She’s billed as Fat Woman in SERGEANT YORK.

2. She’s billed again as Fat Woman in MAISIE GETS HER MAN.

3. She’s billed as Large Female Native in WINGS OVER THE PACIFIC.

4. She’s billed as Plump Hostess in HI YA, SAILOR.

5. She’s billed as Fat Woman in TOGETHER AGAIN.

6. She’s Buxom Woman in LIFE WITH BLONDIE. A little bit better.

7. She’s Burly Woman Cab Driver in MUSIC FOR MILLIONS. Doesn’t sound so good.

8. She’s Large Woman in TWO GUYS FROM MILWAUKEE.

9. She’s Tiny in DEADLINE FOR MURDER. Someone had a sense of humor that time.

10. She plays a character named Full Moon in HELLFIRE.

11. She’s Fat Woman again in MY FRIEND IRMA GOES WEST.

12. She’s Fat Lady in SLAUGHTER TRAIL.

13. She’s Fat Girl in HOUDINI.

14. She’s Large Woman in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID.

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I wonder if it was discouraging for her to be sent by an agent to casting calls, where producers were looking for hefty actresses. Was it discouraging to play parts that often did not have names but were just referred to by their size? Any woman dealing with such unflattering descriptions, and succeeding in spite of it, seems like a trailblazer.

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Jody Gilbert

Looking ahead in May

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5.01        Overweight in the movies

Jody Gilbert was a trailblazer for plus-sized women in Hollywood during the 1940s.

5.02        Crime films based on fact

Two films from the sixties will be used for this essay– THE BOSTON STRANGLER and IN COLD BLOOD.

5.03        Names hard to pronounce

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To this day, I still do not know how to pronounce Pedro Armendariz’s last name.

5.04        Stars that never married

There may have been a variety of reasons that big name performers never married– some of those reasons are quite obvious, others less obvious.

5.05        Recommended films vol. 4

More films worth seeing.

5.06        Watching movies online

Do services like Netflix and Amazon Prime change the way we enjoy our classic movies?

5.07        Funniest Lucille Ball movies

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Looking at three of Lucy’s comedy movies.

5.08        When film stars retire

Some leave the business while they’re still on top.

5.09         Popular lead-and-support combinations

Some stars like teaming up again with the same supporting actors.

5.10        Mothers and daughters in the same movie

Examples in this column will include Ann Sothern and Tisha Sterling in THE WHALES OF AUGUST; as well as Diane Ladd and Laura Dern in RAMBLING ROSE.

5.11         Written by Raymond Chandler

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Looking at films based on stories by one of the best crime writers of the 1940s and 1950s.

5.12         More what their parents did, part 1

Last month I had a two-part column about what stars’ parents did for a living. I have more to share.

5.13         More what their parents did, part 2

Concluding the topic with a few more examples.

5.14         Videos inspired by classic movies

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What would Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ music video be without Monroe’s musical number ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend?’

5.15         Shakespeare by Orson Welles (repeat)

Rerunning a column from March, to coincide with TCM’s special airing of MACBETH; OTHELLO; and CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT.

5.16         Movie star discoveries part 1

Looking at how stars are discovered.

5.17        Movie star discoveries part 2

More star discoveries.

5.18         Peter Falk’s business is murder

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From MURDER, INC. to Columbo, Peter Falk is on the scene.

5.19         Here’s my number, call me

A fun column about telephone technology in classic movies.

5.20        Actors & Oscars in the 1940s

An analysis of best actors and best supporting actors during this particular decade.

5.21        Actresses & Oscars in the 1940s

An analysis of best actresses and best supporting actresses during this particular decade.

5.22         In both the original and the remake

Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum appear in both versions of CAPE FEAR.

5.23         Hats off to Hedda, part 1

An appreciation of actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

5.24         Hats off to Hedda, part 2

Looking at a column Hedda Hopper wrote in 1939.

5.25        Blindness in the movies

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A column about the ways visual impairments are depicted in classic films.

5.26         The setting is Philadelphia

A look at a film set in a well-known Pennsylvania location.

5.27         Dale Rogers & Roy Rogers movies

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When they first began costarring in pictures at Republic studios, they were not romantically involved.

5.28         Miracles on the big screen

Comedies and dramas that depict miraculous events.

5.29         Blacklistees in foreign films

Several blacklisted actors, directors and writers found work in other countries.

5.30        Specialty acts

Specifically, I am going to look at the Nicholas Brothers and Ethel Smith.

5.31         Looking ahead in June

What’s coming up next month.

Stars on soaps

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It’s always fun if you are a fan of daytime soaps and one of your most favorite stars turns up for a special episode or two. There are many reasons this happens. In some cases, it might be a musical guest who has a new album to promote. Whitney Houston sang on an episode of As the World Turns in the mid-1980s, years before she appeared in hit movies. In the 1990s, it was Reba McEntire who dropped by the One Life to Live studio in New York City to perform a tune. And in the 2000s, American Idol champ Clay Aiken, already with a few hit songs to his credit, made a special appearance on NBC’s Days of Our Lives. 

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But not all the big name guests are musicians. When All My Children was going off the air, long-time fan Carol Burnett made a brief cameo appearance (she had done a similar walk-on thirty years earlier with pal Elizabeth Taylor). And speaking of Liz, she had been involved in a short-term arc back on the hit daytime drama General Hospital in 1981. In fact, that particular appearance generated a great deal of excitement and helped propel the soap to the number one spot where it remained for most of the decade. Even People magazine got in on the act and did a special cover story featuring Liz and the show’s two hottest stars.

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Someone of Liz Taylor’s stature would normally not have done work on a soap opera. But the legendary screen actress had seen her movie career decline, and perhaps the money was just too good to turn down. Not long ago, Shirley Jones did a short-term role on Days, and she stated in an interview that someone would have to be insane to turn down such a lucrative offer, plus it was the chance to a do a different character so she said ‘yes.’

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One of the more interesting examples of this involves Joan Collins. In the summer of 2002 she was approached by Paul Rauch, the executive producer of Procter & Gamble’s Guiding Light to bring back a popular character named Alexandra Spaulding. Another actress had originated the role and was not interested in returning, so Rauch thought it might be fun to bring someone larger than life like Collins on to the show to reignite interest in the ratings-challenged series. In this case, Collins was not hired as a guest star. She actually signed a six month contract and with a major advertising campaign to kick things off, she began airing on the sudser in late September.

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Unfortunately, Collins only lasted three months, because she was in the middle of launching a new novel and needed to honor prior commitments to promote the book on a special tour. There was talk that she would return to the soap at a later date, but Rauch was replaced and the new producers went in a different, probably less expensive direction, with another actress. But for those three months, Guiding Light experienced a wave of publicity. And it showed that even a daytime soap was not beneath the great Joan Collins, who was game for anything.

Rat Pack classics

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There were several incarnations of the notorious bunch known as the Rat Pack. Originally, it started at the home of the Bogarts in the mid-1950s. Frank Sinatra was always a member of the group, but membership evolved significantly after Bogart died– and it would change again in the 1960s, after Sinatra had feuds with two members he had been close to: Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

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But it was probably the assortment of entertainment types that comprised the Rat Pack from the early to mid-sixties that people most remember. And this group would have included Sinatra, Lawford and Bishop with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. (plus a few women in a lesser capacity, considered group mascots, like Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine).

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The first OCEAN’S 11 film had them all in a plot involving a heist and high-stakes criminal activity. The story, which focused on a series of robberies in Vegas, had been owned by Lawford, who envisioned William Holden in the lead. But when Sinatra heard the idea, he wanted to make the film with Lawford and include their other friends. Needless to say, it worked. This was followed by SERGEANTS 3, which was a reworking of the old classic GUNGA DIN, directed by John Sturges. It, too, was a hit.

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For their next movie project, the group decided to try a western comedy called 4 FOR TEXAS. In the film, Sinata and Martin get caught up in a tug-of-war, while having to deal with an outlaw played by Charles Bronson. New Rat Pack mascots Ursula Andress and Anita Ekberg were cast in supporting roles. But Lawford was written out of the script, when he and Sinatra had an insurmountable falling out.

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Next came the musical comedy ROBIN AND THE 7 HOODS about gangsters in 1930s Chicago. Sinatra crooned ‘My Kind of Town,’ which became a huge song for him; and there were cameos by notables like Edward G. Robinson and Peter Falk. Also, Bing Crosby appeared in a supporting role, taking over for Lawford who was still on the outs with Sinatra.

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From this point forward, members of the Rat Pack sort of splintered off in separate directions. Sinatra and Martin would continue to make movies together; while Lawford and Davis made their own movies. Martin also made a film with Bishop, without Sinatra. And in addition to the films that were produced, some of them would appear unannounced at each other’s Vegas shows to the delight of audiences throughout the sixties and seventies, even after they had stopped doing films. In the late eighties, before Davis’ death from cancer, there was an ‘ultimate’ event concert tour, which became the farewell tour. But by that time, they were not the Rat Pack of olden days. A lot had changed– except for one thing: their ability to entertain audiences, and themselves.

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On-set birthdays

Some occasions are best celebrated in the company of movie costars. After all, who wouldn’t welcome a short break in filming for a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ and a delicious slice of cake prepared by the chef in the studio commissary…?

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At MGM, boss Louis B. Mayer usually came down to the set to partake in the festivities. In the above photo, the special day belongs to Myrna Loy. That’s Mayer to her immediate left.

Several years later, after Myrna had left MGM and was freelancing at Republic, she starred in the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s THE RED PONY. Her costar in that movie had a birthday during the production. And as we can see in the following photo, everyone is doing their best to make it a fun time for Robert Mitchum:

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Myrna’s former costar Cary Grant observed one of his birthdays while working on the set of NOTORIOUS. Here he is cutting a few slices for his director and leading lady:

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Back at MGM, it was a treat to be invited to a party for one of the studio’s youngest stars. This time it was Judy Garland’s turn, and her costar Mickey Rooney happens to be on hand:

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Joan Crawford was on a loan out to Columbia when she had one of her birthdays. During the making of THEY ALL KISSED THE BRIDE, she enjoyed feeding some cake to leading man Melvyn Douglas:

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Years later, she liked recommending that people wash down their cake and ice cream with a bottle of her favorite soda:

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Shakespeare by Kenneth Branagh

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Previously, I looked at Shakespearean roles played on screen by Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles. Why not make it a trilogy, I figured, and mention Kenneth Branagh.

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Branagh caused a sensation in 1989 with his Oscar-nominated version of HENRY V. Like his predecessors Olivier and Welles, Branagh starred in the main role and directed. His leading lady was played by his then-wife Emma Thompson, who would later receive Oscars in the best actress and screenwriting categories for other films. Additional members of the distinguished cast included Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench. Critics lauded the performances, as well as the way Branagh restructured the text by including flashbacks from two plays written earlier by Shakespeare about Henry IV.

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In 1993, Branagh and Thompson paired up again in another adaptation of a Shakespearean play. This time it was the comedy MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, which featured supporting performances by Keanu Reeves, Kate Beckinsale, and Michael Keaton. Thompson’s mother, actress Phyllida Law, also had a role. Whereas HENRY V barely broke even, this film was a much bigger hit, earning $58 million on an $11 million budget.

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The next production would be 1995’s OTHELLO. This time Branagh did not direct (those duties were assumed by Oliver Parker), and he did not play the lead role (it was done by Laurence Fishburne). Instead, Branagh focused on the third-billed part of Iago, and turned in a sharp villainous performance that earned him recognition by the Screen Actors Guild that year.

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The following year Branagh was back in charge of directing and acting in his big screen adaptation of HAMLET. He also oversaw the script, adapted from the Bard’s original text, which earned him an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. Unfortunately, this production did not catch on at the box office, but it contains memorable performances from people like Charlton Heston, Billy Crystal, Jack Lemmon, Robin Williams and Kate WInslet.

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The next film was LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST in 2000. Branagh decided to turn Shakespeare’s romantic comedy into a Hollywood musical set in the 1930s. It was a risky undertaking; and though it featured stars like Nathan Lane and Alicia Silverstone, audiences were not very receptive to the version, and it flopped badly. So badly in fact the studio (Miramax) cancelled its three-picture deal with Branagh to make more films. After such a stinging defeat, Branagh would wait until 2006 to try another Shakespearean adaptation, when he did a production of AS YOU LIKE IT. However, it also failed to connect with movie goers and as a result, Branagh has not brought any more Shakespeare to the screen.

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