NY Times 12/20/98

December 20, 1998

'Titus': Taymor's Encore (It's Not Disney)
ROME -- The location is Rome. The scene is set in ancient Rome. But the look
and feel of the site is Roman history repeated as farce.

There are no togas. Roman senators wear 30s-style white evening jackets with
white wool scarves draped across their chests. A candidate to become emperor
campaigns in a 1950s white Thunderbird convertible with loudspeakers
attached, his rival in a 1940s black Bentley mounted with silver wolf heads.

Actors and extras mill on the vast white marble piazza before the Palazzo
della Civilta del Lavoro, a solemn building of marble arches that looms over
EUR, the grandiose exhibition park Mussolini built in the 1930s to fuse Roman
Empire and Fascist might. And that was what drew the theater director Julie
Taymor to select it as a site for "Titus," her film adaptation of
Shakespeare's tragedy "Titus Andronicus."

Whatever its quality is eventually judged to be, this is no ordinary venture.
It is Ms. Taymor's first feature film, with a starry cast that includes
Anthony Hopkins in the title role, Jessica Lange and Alan Cumming, who took a
leave from his Tony-Award-winning role as the master of ceremonies in the
Broadway revival of "Cabaret" to take part in this movie project.

But it is still more: this is Ms. Taymor's first major venture since her
extraordinary success last year with Disney's "Lion King" -- a show that she
transformed with her direction, design and musical choices from a potentially
potted theatricalization of a cartoon movie into Broadway's biggest hit, with
myriad international and road show companies in the works.

In so doing, she went a long way toward legitimizing Disney as a force for
serious commercial musicals, and she became one of two women ever to win a
Tony Award for directing (Garry Hines won the same night last spring, for the
drama "The Beauty Queen of Leenane"); the award presumably sits on her
mantelpiece next to the notice for her MacArthur "genius" grant.

All of which makes for a large and fascinated mainstream audience awaiting
her next move. And there are other audiences equally curious as to what she's
up to now: admirers of her downtown and nonprofit theatrical ventures, and of
her forays into opera stage direction and design, from Stravinsky's "Oedipus
Rex" in Matsumoto, Japan to Wagner's "Flying Dutchman" in Los Angeles to
Richard Strauss's "Salome" in St. Petersburg, Russia.

So why, one might wonder, for all the star power of her cast, would she
choose to exercise her considerable leverage on an obscure and bloody
Shakespeare play with seemingly limited appeal? Is this a visionary move,
artistic willfulness or career suicide? For Ms. Taymor, it just seemed the
right next move, the project she most wanted to undertake now.

"It's a real millennium piece," she explained during a break from the
filming. She was wearing a baseball jacket inscribed with the name of one of
her early experimental plays, "Juan Darien," more recently revived at Lincoln
Center, not "The Lion King," which has made her famous. "It's ancient Rome
and contemporary Rome," she said. "I didn't want to make a period piece, the
30s or 40s, it's an essence of all of that. Everybody will know it when they
see it."

Hopkins, who plays Titus, a Roman general, strides about dressed in a black
double-breasted wool jacket, black boots and red leather cape that make him
look like a cross between Admiral Nelson and Joseph Goebbels.

In an early scene, Titus has failed to appease Saturninus, the eldest -- and
most capricious -- son of the Emperor, played by Cumming. Wearing a red frock
coat that suggests a malevolent Little Prince, he races down the capitol
steps to angrily refuse Titus's offer of his daughter Lavinia.

Hopkins appears baffled by the unreasoned burst of hostility. Ms. Lange,
however, looks devilishly pleased. She plays Tamora, Queen of the Goths,
captured by Titus and brought as a slave to Rome, where she quickly seduces
Saturninus. Dressed in a gold breastplate, shimmering gold chain-mail skirt,
with her hair slicked back in gold cornrows and her face painted in gold, Ms.
Lange slinks haughtily down the marble steps like a thoroughly bad Bond girl.

Ms. Taymor is hardly the first director to reset Shakespeare in a modern
period; English upper-class fascism, for example, was the backdrop to Ian
McKellen's stage and film versions of "Richard III." Leonardo DiCaprio and
Clare Danes starred in a 1996 film version of "Romeo and Juliet" set in
contemporary Florida. There will be an echo of both films in Titus.

As she did in her 1994 stage version of the play, Ms. Taymor eschews an exact
period and instead picks some of the most familiar symbols of violence and
brutality, mixing ancient Rome, 30s fascism and 90s urban decadence in an
effort to make "Titus Andronicus" more palatable to modern audiences,
particularly younger ones.

"There is a lot of humor, and it's very contemporary and hip," she said,
before adding, "Actually, I hate the word 'hip.' It's 'edgy.' " She went on,
"The humor in 'As You Like It' is quaint. This is right-now humor."

"Titus Andronicus" is not usually known for its comedy. One of Shakespeare's
earliest and bloodiest plays, it is a gruesome and too often numbing
succession of mutilations, floggings, decapitations and murders. Titus's
daughter Lavinia, for example, is raped, then her tongue and hands are cut
off. To avenge her disgrace, Titus kills Lavinia, then kills her rapists,
bakes their flesh in a pie and tricks their mother, Tamora, into eating it.

"Titus Andronicus" was hugely popular when Shakespeare was alive but rather
quickly fell out of favor and stayed there. It was only in the 1950s, when
Peter Brook staged it in Stratford-on-Avon with Laurence Olivier and Vivien
Leigh, that the play won a reappraisal. In the last few years "Titus
Andronicus" has once again gone through a revisionist revival, but it is
still rarely performed, perhaps because the ceaseless flow of baroque
bloodletting tends to overshadow the plot and characters.

Ms. Taymor said she welcomed the over-the-top violence as a perfect metaphor
for our age, one shaped by the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia,
religious wars in the Middle East. In the three weeks of rehearsals she held
in Rome before shooting began in early October, she repeatedly urged the
actors to find contemporary meaning in the ancient violence.

The director also said that the film would be an antidote to the make-believe
blood and guts of most modern movies. "We are so inured to violence, whether
it's 'Braveheart' or Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan,' we validate war as a
vehicle for heroism," she complained. In "Titus," she argued, there is a
reason for the violence (mostly revenge). But there is no heroism. "I don't
like violence," Ms. Taymor said. "But I love this."

This is Ms. Taymor's first full-length feature film, a daring choice for a
first-time movie director, let alone for an experimental theater director and
designer best known for her powerful visual images drawn from world folklore
and the puppetry and dance of Indonesia, India, Japan and beyond. She said
that after her first encounter with the play, in 1994, she jumped at the
invitation to make a film version of it (for Overseas Filmgroup, a
distribution company, and Clear Blue Sky Productions, the billionaire Paul
Allen's film production company.)

Directing the play as a film, she said, gave her the chance to expand the use
of visual images beyond the limitations of the stage. "I got to fully imagine
the film," Ms. Taymor explained. "I try to add depth to each scene through
the choice of location. There is a moment when Titus is begging for the life
of his son. He is at a crossroads, and so I filmed him at a crossroads."

Ms. Taymor does not take locations lightly. For scenes in a Roman
amphitheater, she insisted that the entire production travel to Pula,
Croatia, because the Roman amphitheater there is better preserved than those
in Italy or Tunisia.

Even though she is known for creating her own, highly original costumes and
set designs, Ms. Taymor recruited the Oscar-nominated production designer
Dante Ferretti, known for his work with Federico Fellini and Martin Scorsese,
among others, and the Academy Award-winning costume designer Milena Canonero
("Chariots of Fire") to help her create a singular look for the film.

She has added her own sensibility and visual touches to the
play-turned-screenplay. Much of the most gory violence, including the rape of
Lavinia, takes place off-camera. Taymor invented five dream sequences she
calls Penny Arcade Nightmares that will be interjected in the film to
recreate the violence in a heightened, surreal way. She described them as
"haikus" within the piece.

Her husband and longtime collaborator, the composer Elliot Goldenthal, who
created the music for most of her other productions, is also writing the
music for "Titus," including music for the Penny Arcade dream sequences that
the director delightedly described as having a "twisted carnivalesque feel."

So will the entire movie, it seems. "I think the play has been terribly
underrated and unappreciated," Ms. Taymor said. "I find it so beautiful and
powerful. For 200 years it was discarded as tasteless and over the top, but I
think it is exactly right for our times -- outrageous humor juxtaposed to
potent tragedy."

That, along with Taymor's reputation, brought Anthony Hopkins on board.

" 'Titus Andronicus' is so outlandish and bizarre," Hopkins explained
cheerfully. He was seated in his trailer, parked to the side of the outdoor
set, recalling how he had sworn never to do Shakespeare again after legendary
performances onstage in "Antony and Cleopatra," "King Lear" and what he
referred to with actor's superstition as "the Scottish play." He added, "But
if I was going to do Shakespeare again, I wanted to do something completely
different and outlandish. And this was it."

He grinned when asked if the character of Titus was familiar. "You mean a
combination of King Lear and Hannibal Lecter, I suppose. No, no, I've never
played anyone else like this before."

Titus is a Roman general who returns to Rome a war hero and who, to appease
the gods, ritually kills the eldest son of his conquered enemy, the Queen of
the Goths. His stubborn rejection of the Queen's pleas for mercy unleashes
cycle after cycle of revenge and counter-revenge, ending in a bloody banquet
at which almost everyone dies. Hopkins describes Titus as "rigid and
authoritarian." Ms. Taymor described him as a "Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell."

It was while filming "Instinct" with Cuba Gooding Jr. in Florida last spring
that Hopkins met with Ms. Taymor and became intrigued by her ideas for the
play. Almost dutifully, Hopkins paid homage to the production's anti-violence
message: "There is the barbarity of human nature. I am aware of it, I feel it
myself." He chuckled and quickly added, "What I respond to is her sense of
the grotesque."

And it is the Grand Guignol aspect of the play he enjoys most. "It's
grotesquely funny; there are moments of ridiculous violence when you just
laugh." He was referring, among other things, to a late scene in which Titus
prepares to serve Tamora the pie made from her sons' corpses. "The pie is
cooling behind a gingham curtain, like something out of Betty Crocker," he
said. "It's very funny."

Hopkins said he enjoyed working with Ms. Taymor and admired her theater-honed
perfectionism -- up to a point. "We had a couple of arguments -- she is
really a choreographer, they try to show you what they want. I won't do it
that way." He added gruffly: "My view is, 'Don't act it out for me, let me do
it.' I get quite tough and no longer put up with that." Then, more mildly, "I
hope I don't get too irascible."

Hopkins seemed less reverent about the play than its director. "It's easy,
very basic verse, not as complex as 'Antony and Cleopatra,' " he said. "It's
not a great tragedy. An early work in progress, probably not more than that."

Ms. Taymor, however, says the play contains "all the seeds of other great
Shakespeare characters," like Lear, Iago and Lady Macbeth. In "Titus
Andronicus," as in "Othello," there is a Moor. In "Titus Andronicus," he is
named Aaron (played by Harry J. Lennix), and he has Iago's sly villainy.

"Aaron is the only great black character in Shakespeare," Ms. Taymor said
stoutly. "He's much more interesting than Othello." Some critics describe
Aaron as a character who, like Iago, has no motive for his treachery. "You
have to make up a motivation for Iago," she said, "but Aaron is reacting to
racism. There is so much racism in the text."

She argued that Tamora's character is richer and deeper than Lady Macbeth's.
"She is sexy and funny, and we know why she is so murderous: her son was
sacrificed. It's a much better part."

Tweezing the ancient tale for contemporary sensibilities, Ms. Taymor
described Lavinia as "empowered" because, as she put it, "she goes through
this horrendous experience and learns to accept her condition." Ms. Taymor
spoke of Lavinia's "condition," a severed tongue and two severed hands, as if
it were diabetes or chronic fatigue syndrome.

In 1993, Ms. Taymor directed a movie version of her staging of the opera
"Oedipus Rex" and also directed a short film, "Fool's Fire," an adaptation of
an Edgar Allan Poe story. She said she was not prepared for the aggravation
of a feature-length production and what she lamented as "the lack of
control," over weather, Italian crews and other acts of God.

The production in Italy had its full share of setbacks and delays; in one,
the extras refused to take off their clothes for a Roman orgy scene. So Ms.
Taymor hired a separate cast of extras made up of people who perform in
pornographic films.

But the only clear sign she shows on the set of being a first-time director
is her habit at every pause of leaping up from her chair before the monitor
and racing over to the actors as if she were still in a theater.

"Film directors communicate less; they tend to be fatter from sitting at the
monitor all day," joked Cumming, 33, the Scottish actor who plays Saturninus,
Titus's enemy, as a hissing, slithering neurotic. "Theater directors are
jumping around a bit more."

It was dark and cold as Ms. Taymor leapt from her director's chair for the
ninth time to discuss with Jessica Lange how the actress should look in a
shot where she walks up marble stairs in a gold lame dress. Ms. Lange
confided that the dress was too long, and Ms. Taymor instructed a costume
assistant to cut a five-inch swath from the bottom. Hesitantly, Ms. Lange
asked the director whether her face should betray any grieving. Ms. Taymor
considered the question, her head bowed in concentration. "No," she replied
slowly. "I think you should give it that Supreme Goddess thing."

Ms. Lange said she had had trepidations about doing the play. "I had always
shied away from Shakespeare," she said. "It's a cultural thing. I just think
English actors have an access to the language American actors don't have."
The chance to work with Anthony Hopkins and Julie Taymor ("I saw 'The Lion
King,' " Ms. Lange explained. "Who hasn't?") overcame her self-doubts. And as
it turned out, trouble on the set came not from Shakespeare's verse but from
the heavy gold costumes Tamora wears.

"They're the worst costumes I've ever worn in my life," she said with a
rueful laugh in her trailer as she tore off what remained of the heavy gold
lame gown. She had even harsher words for the gold breastplate. "I look
Wagnerian in it. It's the least flattering thing I've ever put on my body."

Ms. Lange, whose last film role was that of an unattractive and insanely
doting mother in the 1998 thriller "Hush," said she was pleased to be "given
a chance" to play a powerful, glamorous role "that's not a typical mother in
a domestic drama." She added with a smile, "Well, actually, it is kind of a
mother in a domestic drama."