Wanna Be . . . or Wanna Not Be?

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Hamlet Directed by Franco Zeffirelli

Screenplay by Christopher De Vore and Franco Zeffirelli

A Hollywood story conference. Suit gets up and says, "I've got a great idea for a Mel Gibson movie. He's this prince among men, strong and sensitive, whose father dies suspiciously, like in Star Wars. Next thing, the woman he loves is cozying up to a guy Mel thinks is the murderer, like in Ghost. Plus he and his girlfriend argue all the time, like in Pretty Woman. It's driving him crazy! Then the girl drowns and he gets blamed for it, like in, I dunno, A Place in the Sun. So the girl's brother picks a fight with Mel, like in the Rocky movies. They have this big duel; his mom takes poison by mistake; family feud ends in tragedy. It's like Godfather III, only better: everybody dies. So you got a typical Mel Gibson hero. Rants a lot, roughs up his co-stars, kills people. We even have one of those 'make my day' lines for Mel. He gets hold of his rival and mutters, 'O.K., tough guy, ya wanna be . . . or ya wanna not be?' It's a sure $100 million domestic. Whaddaya say?"

Funny thing is, Hamlet almost is perfect for Gibson, with his neurotic physicality and urgent baritone. From John Barrymore to Laurence Olivier to Daniel Day-Lewis, actors have emphasized Hamlet's convulsive derring-do; Gibson is only the latest, and not the least, to play the role rough. This interpretation also dovetails with the strategies of a multimedia popularizer like Franco Zeffirelli. When putting opera onstage or Shakespeare in the movies (The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet), Zeffirelli goes for the grand. His aim here — nicely realized in a sumptuous production — is to make Hamlet so vigorous that the kids will forget it's poetry.

Sometimes the movie forgets that it's Hamlet. Alan Bates, a persuasive Claudius, is robbed of his confessional scene in the chapel, which cuts the punch line to Hamlet's vacillation about murdering the King. The parts of Gertrude (Glenn Close), Polonius (Ian Holm), Ophelia (Helena Bonham-Carter) and the Ghost (Paul Scofield) are all subjected to a crash diet. But such ; quibbling is for pedants. Any Hollywood executive would happily jettison much more for a chance to hire Gibson. "It's like Hamlet," the mogul would say, "but without the chat."