Tabloid-TV anchors announce a bloody feud between two of Verona Beach's most notorious clans--thug royalty, whose young princes have the family name tattooed on their skulls. The streets of this resort town sizzle with ethnic enmity, with nose thumbing on a nuclear scale, with the attitude clash of drag queens and skinheads. When the hormonal humidity is this high, only fools fall in love. So the daughter of one clan has eyes only for the son of her dad's hated rival. She searches for him in her dreams, by her swimming pool, beneath her balcony. "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" she asks.
Oh, it's Shakespeare. Well, there goes the youth market, out like the life in Claire Danes' and Leonardo DiCaprio's bodies at the end of the turbo-glam teen weepie, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
But soft, what light through mogul's closed mind breaks? It is the glimmer of belief that there might be an audience for movies based on the plays of William Shakespeare. Since 1993, when Kenneth Branagh's rompish Much Ado About Nothing earned $23 million at the domestic box office on an $8 million budget, studios have begun to belly up to the Bard. "Much Ado showed Hollywood how successful and enjoyable a Shakespeare movie could be," says Lindsay Law, president of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Hollywood has flirted with the poet since its infancy; this week the American Film Institute is showing the 1912 The Life and Death of King Richard III, the oldest surviving U.S. feature film. For MGM in 1936, Leslie Howard (then 43) and Norma Shearer (36) played Romeo and Juliet. The movies have put Shakespeare in gangland (Joe Macbeth) and outer space (Forbidden Planet, from The Tempest).
But now we're getting a plethora of iambic pentameter. Last Christmas saw a stolid Othello (with Branagh and Laurence Fishburne) and the brutal, enthralling Richard III (Ian McKellen). This week three Shakespeare films will be on view: Romeo and Juliet, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard and the British Twelfth Night, or What You Will, directed by Trevor Nunn, the former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director who has been named boss of the Royal National Theatre. Branagh has his four-hour Hamlet ready for Christmas. Filmmakers are trying every tactic--cultural intimidation, lavish spectacle, frenzied camerabatics and the casting of young stars--to put the masses in the seats.