Renaissance Man: Kenneth Branagh
Brentwood Magazine, Spring 1998
by Greg Srisavasdi
This 37-year-old actor/director/producer/writer
has been christened the next Orson Welles or the next Laurence
Olivier since his late twenties, the time he brought his vibrant
version of Henry V to the screen. It's a familiar comparison
Kenneth Branagh hears, even to this day. He was 29 then, a man
versed in Shakespeare and passionate enough to direct and play
the lead in the film. Fame, as well as critical acclaim, came
to Mr. Branagh at such an early age.
The succeeding years placed Branagh
at the top of his game, yet with every blessing, there have been
setbacks. His biggest successes in the past 10 years have been
the film noir thriller Dead Again (1991), the Big Chill-esque
whimsy of Peter's Friends (1992), and another brilliant Shakespearean
adaptation, 1993's Much Ado About Nothing.
Die hard Branagh fans will argue
that almost everything he touches turns into creative gold, and
such an opinion is well validated. But Hollywood has its voice
as well - the critical and commercial reception of Mary Shelley's
Frankenstein (1995) was lukewarm, and hardly anyone saw his hilarious
comedic work, A Midwinter's Tale (1996), which featured an amusing
performance by the grand dame herself, Joan Collins.
Yet the hardest hit that Branagh
has taken over the years, in media terms, is the tabloid scrutiny
of his public life. The press hounds attached themselves to him
after he and Emma Thompson announced their plan to divorce in
October 1995. Subsequently, his romance with Helena Bonham Carter
(his co-star in Frankenstein) has also been tabloid fodder.
Such nuisances beg the question,
how does fame affect one's personal time? "Initially, you
go through a period where it's hard to conceive that people would
be so interested in your private life," muses Branagh during
a recent interview at the elegant Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
"During that crossover period,
it's very easy to get paranoid. You're not used to it. So sometimes
it curtails things, and you find you get bothered in places you
wouldn't expect too. A little normalcy is shaved off your life.
And then, as heat fades, that attention fades, and it all kind
of levels out."
Another seeming disappointment
is the public reaction to his finest achievement to date - Hamlet.
A stunning four-hour epic filled with wonderful performances
(especially a stunning Kate Winslet as "Ophelia"),
the film was virtually ignored by the public, yet it fortunately
received wonderful reviews from critics.
Branagh, like all great artists,
is constantly working. After Hamlet, he spent his days bouncing
from one project to the next, this time only as an actor. After
his unexpected, refreshing turn as a Southern lawyer in the gritty
Robert Altman film, The Gingerbread Man, he'll star in three
other films this year: The Proposition, a dark sexual drama co-starring
Madeline Stowe, the black comedy The Theory of Flight with Helena
Bonham Carter, and Woody Allen's next picture, Celebrity, co-starring
Leonardo Dicaprio and Kim Basinger. He was also recently cast
in Wild, Wild West opposite Will Smith.
"I rather enjoy the idea
of surprising people with different roles in different kinds
of movies and maybe do some things that are away from the regular
association," Branagh says, when asked why he's such a workaholic.
"I feel a certain kind of freedom that way." The former
boy wonder is now an adult who, in less than 10 years, has spearheaded
the cinematic revival of Shakespeare, while also carving himself
a niche as a very competent and dedicated actor.
Branagh's next dream is to film
a musical version of Shakespeare's Love Labour's Lost. Isn't
the musical dead? Such questions are useless to Branagh; he follows
his passions no matter what the consequence. Welles and Olivier
must be smiling somewhere, high up in Hollywood heaven.
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