Liz Smith, 1993
ORANGE JUICE and coffee with the most prolific and dynamic young
talent from Great Britain. As I sat there across from the attractive,
open-faced Kenneth Branagh, I thought how lucky actress Emma
Thompson is. She gets to do this almost every morning.
Emma was missing from my coffee
klatch with Kenneth. But the couple was in the U.S. orchestrating
interest in their new film, an ensemble piece called "Peter's
Friends." (Some refer to this film - about a reunion of
college friends - as the British "Big Chill.")
Branagh, who directed, produced
and acted in the movie, says, "The film takes place during
New Year's Eve, so it was a lot of fun decorating with all that
Christmas stuff. Emma is in it, and the American actress Rita
Rudner - she also co-wrote the script. Rita's husband, Martin
Bergman, was actually at university with Emma. So there is a
certain authenticity about the picture, with four or five people
acting who have really known each other as long as their characters.
It's a comedy that turns on a sixpence, but it has dramatic overtones."
BRANAGH IS the young Irish actor
from Reading, England, who shot to international fame when he
dared to remake "Henry V," proving that Laurence Olivier's
movie version wasn't the only one we should treasure for history.
The last time I saw Kenneth,
he was promoting his Hitchcockian thriller, made in L.A., titled
"Dead Again." This also co-starred Emma Thompson and
did well at the box office, even if it's not as "good"
as Hollywood now demands. However, "Dead Again" is
very popular and high up on the video charts.
I asked if Hollywood had beckoned
with U.S. movies after that? "Yes, but as much as I love
it here and as much of a treat as it always is to come here,
I do live in England. I want always to come here and be thrilled
by the experience, so I don't want to get too Americanized."
KENNETH HAS been busy until recently
playing "Hamlet" onstage in London. He says, "This
is the third time I've played Hamlet, and the first time I ever
got anywhere near the role. It ran onstage for the full, original
length - 4 1/2 hours; so it was really something to play it twice
in one day as I sometimes did.
"And I've got another Shakespeare
movie coming out - `Much Ado About Nothing.' That has already
premiered in L.A. I directed it, and yes, Emma is in this one
too! This version of `Much Ado' is very sexy and bawdy - it's
one of Shakespeare's raunchiest. And we gathered a lot of wonderful
and very diverse actors - people not generally associated with
Shakespeare; Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton,
Bobby Leonard. We shot it in a villa in Tuscany, near Florence.
The villa's owner told me that Leonardo da Vinci painted the
Mona Lisa right there in one of the rooms. `Oh, well, I said
to myself, why not? One has to believe in something.'
"This play, `Much Ado,'
has never been put on film before, so there's the excitement
of that. And we didn't do it in Elizabethan dress, or Renaissance.
The clothes are somewhere between 1700 and 1900. I used many
actors from `Henry V' in it. I think it's Shakespeare's greatest
romantic comedy, the greatest one ever written in fact. We tried
to take away all the stiff, tight, flowery English kind of speaking.
It runs under two hours. Three-fourths of it is prose and and
so it has a conversational tone. There will be a lot of surprises.
It celebrates love and fun. The landscape there in Tuscany is
ravishing and it looks like a kind of fairy tale. The Goldwyn
company will release it."
I ASKED Branagh how he feels
now that his wife is on the verge of becoming, at the very least,
an Oscar nominee for the movie "Howard's End." (Thompson
recently won the New York Film Critics award for this film, as
well as gathering awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association
and the National Board of Review.)
Kenneth said, "I couldn't
be more delighted. I think my wife is a marvelous actress; one
of the few who can transmit a sense of intelligence and goodness.
When I saw her in `Howard's End,' I was bowled over. We went
home and in the night I got out of bed and went downstairs where
I wrote her a long letter telling her how great she really is.
When people tease me, saying I always use her in my movies -
we've done four, so far - I just say I am lucky to get her."
Branagh added that he had also
recently made a 20-minute movie that will play as a short subject.
"It is Chekhov's `Swan Song' and stars John Gielgud as an
old actor. I directed. If you like Shakespeare, this will be
a rare chance to see Gielgud acting a number of scenes."
I bid Branagh farewell, realizing
that the next time I see him, most likely he and Emma Thompson
will both have become household names - big stars! My bet is
she will win the Oscar. Then it will be his turn after that.
And then I can say I knew them "when."
KENNETH BRANAGH and Emma Thompson - this generation's Lord and
Lady Olivier - are planning a new theatrical version of "Macbeth,"
starring - Kenneth and Emma, of course! Britain's great gossip,
Baz Bamigboye, reports that Anthony Hopkins will direct this
project, due to hit London next year.
Both Branagh and Thompson are
riding high. He's starring as "Hamlet" for the Royal
Shakespeare Company (The advance at London's Barbican Theater
set a record - well over $1 million!) And she is considered a
shoo-in to nab an Oscar nomination for "Howards End."
(Emma is also said to give another great performance in an upcoming
film, "The Remains of the Day," co-starring Anthony
THE AMAZING Kenneth Branagh whizzed into NYC last Thursday for
a little sit-down "meet" with the great Francis Ford
Coppola. These two giants are discussing the future production
of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," which Branagh would
star in (as the doctor, Victor) and direct. Coppola would produce.
Branagh rushed back to London
to do two back-to-back performances of "Hamlet," one
of the greatest sell-outs the London theater has ever enjoyed.
When I talked with Kenneth, he played down his trans-Atlantic
energies, because he only wanted to talk about his coming movie,
"Much Ado About Nothing." This one is in rough cut,
and when Branagh showed it to his London driver, the man said
"Blimey! I loved it. I even understood everything."
Branagh says, "I'm really excited because the movie is so
beautiful, so sexy, with sexy young men and women. Anybody can
make a visceral connection to it. The plot is so silly, a lot
of people doing absolutely nothing, stirring up the kind of fuss
that only happens when we fall in love."
I've already given "Much
Ado" a rave in this column, not because I've seen it, but
because I was taken with the glow suffusing Branagh's face when
he talked about his (and Shakespeare's) brainchild.
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