Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, now that I'm no longer the age of the stars

This post will possibly make no sense to anyone who is too young to remember the 90s. I make no apology. I am not speaking to The Kids here, but to The Eldritch, who remember a time when Leonardo DiCaprio reigned supreme on the silver screen, with his iconic hair and his cheekbones and (from the perspective of a now 42-year-old mother) his scrawny body. Somebody give that poor kid something to eat and put him in high school(googles DiCaprio's age)college.

Gentle readers -- and I call you "gentle" because it's just become obvious to me how old I am, so speak kindly to me -- last night I watched Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for possibly the first time since I saw it in the theater in 1996, when I was 17. 

My birthday is in December, so in general I can calculate how old I was a given year by adding one and the appropriate tens digit. In 1996 I turned 18, which is more than Claire Danes did. Through the magic of IMDB, I've discovered that Claire Danes is about six months younger than I am, and it's just destroyed my whole paradigm. 

I never saw an episode of My So-Called Life, just as I never saw Beverly Hills 90210 or any of the other water-cooler TV shows. (Or whatever the equivalent of the water cooler is in high school, which I never attended.) But I heard about it, and I read about it, and I always wondered if I was missing out on something, if imbibing these touchstones of pop culture would give me some kind of panache, or some touch of Danes's flawless skin and acting savvy. I remember reading an interview with her, about the time that Romeo + Juliet came out, where she said that the rhythms of iambic pentameter worked themselves into her brain, so that she was saying stuff like, "Oh mother, will you pour the cereal?" at home. 

Mother. Cereal. Danes was 16 when she shot Romeo + Juliet. I now have two daughters older than 16, and one who's younger but looks older. Danes and DiCaprio passionately smooching, characters in the first flush of love? It's not sexy any more. What are they thinking, putting a 16-year-old actress in that kind of situation? 

And DiCaprio, poor emaciated waif. I wanted to pat him on his tousled head, stomp out that cigarette (not menacingly, like John Leguizamo's feline Tybalt, but in a maternal fashion), and feed him the meal that his Hollywood handlers weren't letting him have. Danes too. Honey, eat another bowl of that cereal, for Mother.

Danes and DiCaprio, interestingly enough, were the weak Shakespearean links in a production populated with heavyweights. Pete Postlethwaite as Friar Laurence, Paul Sorvino as Old Capulet, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse, and Harold Perrineau's electric Mercutio in drag -- all give human cadences to Shakespeare's poetry. (And Paul Rudd, who must have Dorian Gray's portrait aging in his attic, looks the same now as he did 25 years ago as Paris.) The youngsters do yeoman's work, but they sometimes feel as if they're uttering lines. Both are exceptional actors, and compellingly watchable, but sometimes one wanted a bit more language and a bit less L.A.

But what a production! The whole decadent, decaying world oozes with the most toxic cultural Catholicism, and it works. Latinate Capulets outfitted by Dolce and Gabbana, Irish Montagues prim in the older generation, and punk in the youth. (For more on the costuming of the film and its effect on fashion, read Romeo + Juliet's Sonnet of Style.) Pious plaster Virgins and a technicolor Sacred Heart on a Hawaiian shirt. Whoring on Friday, confession on Saturday, and a deliciously gaudy Novus Ordo on Sunday, replete with lace-albed choir boys warbling When Doves Cry. And guns, guns everywhere, emblazoned with flowers and crosses and the Sorrowful Mother gesturing at her flaming heart. The veneer of aesthetic devotion covering a beating heart of lust: lust for power, lust for revenge, lust for blood, lust for beautiful young bodies. 

This veneer is thin. As Juliet waits for Romeo, before she learns of Tybalt's death, she rhapsodizes about their coming wedding night:

Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world shall be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (III.2)

I started when I heard Danes say this. The line as I'd memorized it is, "Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die..."* There is a world of difference between longing for Romeo to grace the heavens after his own death, and offering him up living as a suttee to grace Juliet's funeral pyre. As it turns out, I'm in the wrong here (see note below). But the world of this production does reflect this essential selfishness of Juliet's. Even the two innocents, Romeo and Juliet, are simply softer, prettier, cleaner versions of their feuding forebears. This is a world without grace or forgiveness, where "civil strife makes civil hands unclean". Action replaces hope, and prudence is more honored in the breech than in the observance.

My teenagers, for the most part, thought the movie an interesting look at the antediluvian world of the 1990s, and opined that their shaggy 12yo brother could benefit from Leo's hair stylist. "Why is everything so Catholic?" one asked, surveying Juliet's bedroom shrine. "Is this a particularly Catholic play?" 

"No," I said. "And can you believe that Claire Danes is about six months younger than me?"

The girls studied Juliet's eternally youthful face. "No," they said.

*My flaking paperback Folger Library edition, from which I must have memorized the passage, bears me out, but the historical record tells a different tale. Every early version from the Second Quarto (1599) on has "and when I shall die". The First Quarto (1597) does not, but only by omission: Act 3, Scene 2 has only four lines for Juliet before the nurse enters, cutting 25 lines of the famous monologue beginning with "Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night". The Folger Shakespeare Library has facsimiles of these early versions, and their online reading text has "when I shall die". Why does my old paperback say "he"? Alas, the book has lost the cover and all the front pages, so I don't even know when it was printed, but the price on the spine is 45 cents. It's probably as old as I am, which, as we have established here, is old.

1 comment:

Julie D. said...

This makes me glad I never saw it. Try Ram Leela for a Bollywood take where there is no one too young for a wedding night and no one emaciated. Plenty of color and peacocks and enough Shakespearean lines so you know they saw the original. :-)