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Hamlet Machine

Campbell Scott brings the Dane to the screen for the 64th time. logo
Campbell Scott in Hamlet
The title role of Shakespeare's Hamlet is the sine qua non for actors regardless of age, race, country of origin, and occasionally even sex. The play has been performed non-stop since its first production in 1601. This past spring, we saw dueling Hamlets--Adrian Lester and Simon Russell Beale--on stage at BAM. Through September, in celebration of the troubled Dane's 400th birthday, the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival is presenting yet another stage version co-starring Jared Harris and Lili Taylor (director Tom Gilroy is meanwhile seeking a suitable venue for a possible New York run). At the same time, from actor/co-director Campbell Scott comes the 64th film adaptation of the play--not counting 21-plus television versions--playing August 17-24 at The Screening Room in TriBeCa. To the immediate question "Why another film of Hamlet?" comes Scott's immediate answer: "Why not?"

The myriad, extant movie versions of the property include a 10-minute, French silent film (1907); the glorious, black and white, British oedipal fantasia of Sir Laurence Olivier (1948); and the American techno-update starring Ethan Hawke (2000). Hidden amongst the lot are such gems as a 1900 sound-on-wax-cylinder dueling scene featuring the great Sarah Bernhardt in her most famous "pants" role, a TV film of the Richard Burton "rehearsal-clothes" Hamlet of the early '60s, and Kevin Kline's 1990 P.B.S. version. The '90s produced not one, but two all-star film Hamlets: the straightforward 1990 Mel Gibson/Glenn Close effort and the stultifying, four-hour, 1996 extravaganza from Kenneth Branagh. Now, the oughts have already produced one movie Hamlet per year. Is this a pattern? Are we all as fascinated with the problematical prince as are the actors who've played him?

Campbell Scott, the genial scion of the extraordinary George C. Scott/Colleen Dewhurst acting gene pool, explained his motivation for filming Hamlet the day after the movie's invitational New York premiere on August 13. "I played Hamlet on stage twice," said Scott in a telephone interview. "The first time was at the Old Globe, directed by Jack O'Brien, and then I did it in Boston at the Huntington for Eric Simonson [co-director of the current film]. But, after both stage productions, I still didn't feel 'done' when we closed. I felt as if we were just beginning to understand what we were doing, and so the play and the part stayed with me. I tried to drop it, but I couldn't. From acting it, I had also developed an intimate way of seeing the story and all of the characters. That's when Eric and I started discussing a film. Roughly the same cut [edited text] was used in both stage productions, and the play was set somewhere in the same time frame, between 1890 and 1918 or so. I had loved both of those very different casts and I didn't want to think about, perhaps, having just a few actors from each; they were each so perfect as they were. So we opted for a whole new group. When time is this short [a 29 day shoot, with three weeks of intensive rehearsal], you go to people you know. I'd worked with almost everyone in the cast, or they were friends."

The stellar, theater-trained cast includes Jamey Sheridan (Claudius), Blair Brown (Gertrude), Roscoe Lee Browne (Polonius) John Benjamin Hickey (Horatio), Byron Jennings (Ghost/Player King), LisaGay Hamilton (Ophelia), Roger Guenveur Smith (Laërtes), Denis O'Hare (Osric), Sam Robards (Fortinbras), Marcus Giamatti (Guildenstern), and Michael Imperioli (Rosencrantz), plus Simonson himself in a cameo as the second gravedigger to Dan Moran's first. "Campbell insisted I be in it as well, so I chose a really small part," Simonson recalls. "Campbell wants everyone on the set to have fun, because he does." Although Scott and Simonson are old college chums and had "done some stuff together in school," they hadn't worked together again until the Boston Hamlet. Simonson, a longtime actor/director member of Chicago's Steppenwolf company, returned to Los Angeles the day after the New York premiere of the film; he spoke to me via cell phone on his drive home from the airport.

Another moment from Hamlet
"I wanted to preserve Campbell's performance in the title role," Simonson explains, "and we kept talking about how we could do our production for the screen. From the start, we wanted to make an accessible Hamlet with American actors for an American audience, but it was a really hard sell for three years. Campbell would say, 'Okay, we've got the script finished, we've got the casting finished, let's go location scouting.' So I'd fly in and we'd get in Campbell's car and follow the New York Film Office lists up along the Hudson and out on Long Island. There are a lot of estates on Long Island that belonged to the old 'robber barons.' We finally found the Jay Gould 'castle,' modeled after some castle in Ireland. It was perfect." Says Scott, "When the money finally came together from cable TV [the former Odyssey, now Hallmark Channel, which has already screened the film], they also allowed us this theatrical shot. But it was crazy, with only six weeks of prep and ten weeks of post-production. Our film is as long as two films [just under three hours], and it forces you to cut to the chase."

The movie was very well received at the Seattle Film Festival, winning a fine review from Variety: "In one of the most accessible versions of Hamlet yet committed to film, Campbell Scott's self-helmed Great Dane is more than ever a man for our time." The New York Press added that the film "...enhances your understanding of the text and any previous renditions you've seen...the playful, contemplative tone of this new Hamlet seduces you into re-experiencing the play not as a spectacle or even as performed drama, but as a literary feat."

Both Scott and Simonson have moved on to their next projects: Scott's first solo directing gig (he co-directed Big Night with Stanley Tucci) is the digitally shot psychological thriller Final, starring Denis Leary and Hope Davis, to be released in December. And Simonson will be back at Steppenwolf directing Lois Smith on stage as Mother Courage as well as putting the finishing touches on his latest film, Topa Topa Bluffs, a black comedy featuring Mickey Rooney.

It would seem that these two gentlemen, at least, have finally put the Dane to rest. Wonder who'll be next up at bat for Elsinore?

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