“A goodly prize”: Award-winning Shakespeare movies

Since we’ve just completed the annual Hollywood marathon called “Awards Season” — several self-congratulatory months filled with the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, various guild awards from around the world, the British Film & Television Academy Awards (the Baftas), and capped off by the Academy Awards (the Oscars) — it might be interesting to see how well William Shakespeare has succeeded in collecting “gallant prize[s].”

Despite having written only 38 plays, William Shakespeare has racked up almost 1,500 writing credits in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), making him the most-filmed author in the history of the movies. These date back to the very first appearance of a Shakespeare play on film, a short silent excerpt, from 1899, of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s production of King John, to the recent 2018 TV production of King Lear starring Anthony Hopkins.

The first filmed Shakespeare play to receive any “honorable spoil[s]” was Max Reinhardt’s 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on his epic live extravaganza staged at the Hollywood Bowl. Starring James Cagney as Bottom, Mickey Rooney as Puck, and Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, the film received a nomination for Best Picture and two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Editing. 1936’s Romeo and Juliet received acting nominations for Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone but took home no prizes, and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V in 1946, despite four Oscar nominations (including Best Picture and Best Actor), only won an Honorary Award for Olivier’s “Outstanding Achievement” in his triple capacity of actor, director, and producer in bringing Shakespeare’s play to the screen.

Nominated for four Academy Awards. Photograph from Laurence Olivier's movie of Henry V: Olivier as Henry V. United Artists Corp. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Photograph from Laurence Olivier’s movie of Henry V: Olivier as Henry V. United Artists Corp. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Despite a handful of other acting nominations throughout the years — most notably Marlon Brando and John Gielgud for 1953’s Julius Caesar; Maggie Smith and Frank Finlay for 1965’s Othello; Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew in 1968; Alan Bates in Zeffirelli’s 1990 Hamlet; and Ian McKellen in Richard III in 1995 — only Laurence Olivier has won Best Actor awards for playing Shakespeare roles: both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for 1948’s Hamlet and a Bafta for his Richard III in 1956.

Most of the award love has been in the design categories: Olivier’s 1949 Hamlet, Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet, and Branagh’s 1989 Henry V all won for Best Costumes; while Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ star-studded 1953 production of Julius Caesar won Best Art Direction and Set Direction.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his recognition as arguably the greatest writer who ever lived, there have been very few awards for writing given to Shakespeare movies. The first nomination didn’t even come until 1996, when the Baftas nominated star Ian McKellen and director Richard Loncraine for adapting Richard III and setting it in an alternative World War II-era fascist England. To date, only director Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce have won an award for writing: They took home the Best Adapted Screenplay Bafta for Romeo + Juliet (1996), which relocated Shakespeare’s classic tragedy to the contemporary multicultural world of Verona Beach. In between these two, in 1997, Kenneth Branagh’s script for Hamlet was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, which is hysterical because he famously filmed the entire play and barely cut it or adapted it at all.

Those three film adaptations retained Shakespeare’s language. The two most decorated Shakespearean films, however, took inspiration from his plays to become something highly original and new. The 1961 film adaptation of the Broadway musical West Side Story (famously based on Romeo and Juliet) took home ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (shared jointly with Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actress and Actor (Rita Moreno and George Chakiris), and Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costumes, Editing, and Sound.

⇒ Related: What makes Shakespeare musicals American?

And Shakespeare In Love (1998), Marc Norman’s and Tom Stoppard’s valentine to Shakespeare specifically and theater generally, won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), and — most importantly and correctly — Best Original Screenplay, despite incorporating elements of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and what little is known of Shakespeare’s biography.

But what of Shakespeare himself, in his own time? If such prizes had been given 400 years ago, one can imagine Shakespeare and his company doing quite well, receiving such awards as:

* Best Actor: Richard Burbage, Hamlet

* Best Actress: Samuel Gilburne as Juliet, Romeo and Juliet

* Best Costumes: (tie) Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra (for the fashion-forward togas with doublets and pockets)

* Best Lighting (special award): Blackfriars Theater

* Best Special Effects: The Tempest

* Best Stage Direction: “Exit, pursued by Bear.” The Winter’s Tale

* Best Product Placement: “There is a Tide® in the affairs of men.” Julius Caesar

* Best Original Play: William Shakespeare, Love’s Labor’s Lost and The Tempest

* Best Play Adapted From Existing Sources: All the others

They’d be called, of course, the Olden Globe Awards.


  • Ronald Colman won the 1948 Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in “A Double Life” in which he plays an actor playing Othello. Large parts of Act V are shown complete throughout the movie.

  • I Like Branagh’s “HENRY V” & “HAMLET” More. I Keep Sir Larry O’s Shakespeare Films In The Always Interesting Viewing Catagory. **** Sean X.

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