To be, or not to be an Oscar winner

Adaptations of plays by William Shakespeare have regularly made a showing at the Academy Awards over the decades. This year, Ralph Fiennes throws his hat into the ring with a modern interpretation of “Coriolanus,” which he stars in and directs. Vanessa Redgrave – already an Oscar winner for “Julia” (Best Supporting Actress, 1977) – is also generating major awards buzz for her supporting turn as his mother, Volumnia. If successful, they will join an auspicious list of films and stars that have achieved Oscar glory with a little help from the Bard.


George Cukor‘s version of “Romeo and Juliet” (1936) picked up two acting nominations and an art direction bid to go along with its Best Picture nomination. The young lovers were played by 43-year-old Leslie Howard, who was snubbed for Best Actor, and 34-year-old Norma Shearer, who became the first actress to be nominated for a Shakespearean role. Professional scene stealer Basil Rathbone, as Tybalt, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Laurence Olivier had the best track record in adapting Shakespeare, starting with 1944’s “Henry V.” Nominated for Best Picture, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, and Best Actor for Olivier, it was an enormous morale booster when it was released at the end of WWII, as Henry V emerges victorious at the Battle of Agincourt. Though the film didn’t win any of its nominations, the Academy awarded Olivier an Honorary Oscar for his collective achievement as actor, producer, and director.

Ronald Colman won Best Actor for Cukor’s 1947 film noir “A Double Life.” As Anthony John, Colman plays a Broadway actor who can’t separate himself from his character, Othello. Several scenes take place on stage with Colman playing the Shakespearean tragedy, emphasizing the climactic moment when Othello kills his beloved Desdemona in a rage. John begins to feel the same murderous jealousy, which doesn’t bode well for his ex-wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), who’s playing Desdemona.

Laurence Olivier returned to the Oscar race the following year with even greater success. His definitive 1948 “Hamlet” is the only direct Shakespeare adaptation to win Best Picture, and Olivier won Best Actor as the brooding Prince of Denmark, though he lost Best Director to John Huston for “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Jean Simmons, portraying Ophelia, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Claire Trevor (“Key Largo”).

The Academy lent Marlon Brandon their ears – and their votes – when he played Mark Antony in the 1953 “Julius Caesar.” The swaggering method actor showcased his range and picked up his third consecutive Best Actor nomination (following “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Viva Zapata!”), but he had to wait one more year to finally win, for “On the Waterfront.” This adaptation by Joseph L. Mankiewicz was also nominated for Best Picture and won Best Art Direction.

“Richard III” (1956) was the last Shakespeare adaptation directed by Olivier, though not the last one he starred in; his physical transformation into the deformed Duke of Gloucester earned him yet another Best Actor nomination, which he lost to Yul Brynner (“The King and I”). It was Olivier’s only Shakespearean film as a director not to contend for Best Picture.

George Chakiris and Rita Moreno won Academy Awards for their supporting performances in “West Side Story” (1961), a musical reimagining of “Romeo and Juliet.” The Montagues and Capulets became singing, dancing rival gangs the Jets and the Sharks. Chakiris played Sharks leader Bernardo, based on Shakespeare’s Tybalt, and Moreno played Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita, a composite of Juliet’s nurse and Lady Capulet from the play. “West Side Story” remains the most successful Shakespeare adaptation at the Oscars, winning ten awards including Best Picture.

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Stuart Burge‘s screen version of “Othello” (1965) is actually a filmed stage production by the National Theatre, but Oscar voters didn’t mind the film’s stage-bound production values, nominating the entire primary cast for their performances. Laurence Olivier received a Best Actor nod as Othello (a role he played in blackface), while Frank Finlay (Iago), Maggie Smith (Desdemona), and Joyce Redman (Emilia) earned supporting nominations. None of them won, but no Shakespearean film has ever received more acting nominations.

The most recent star to be nominated for filming Shakespeare is Kenneth Branagh, who earned comparisons to Olivier with his 1989 “Henry V.” The then-29-year-old filmmaker also earned nominations for Best Actor and Best Director. He has since tried his luck with screen versions of “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (2000), and “As You Like It” (2006). Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996) – which he also wrote, directed, and starred in – earned him a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Like “A Double Life,” 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” is not directly adapted from a Shakespeare play but revolves its story around one. It stars Joseph Fiennes as the Bard, who falls in love with aspiring actress Viola (Best Actress-winner Gwyneth Paltrow) while writing “Romeo & Juliet.” Though Steven Spielberg‘s “Saving Private Ryan” was expected to win Best Picture that year, “Shakespeare in Love” staged a shocking upset, winning the top prize along with six other awards.

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