This fall has included the 60th anniversary of the 1961 West Side Story movie and yesterday’s 25th anniversary of Baz Luhrmann’s movie Romeo + Juliet; it will also include the premiere in December of a film adaptation of West Side Story by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg. In this blog post, Carla Della Gatta writes about Luhrmann’s movie Romeo + Juliet—and how, partly in homage to West Side Story, it Latin-ized the Capulets and their followers, including Tybalt, played by John Leguizamo.
Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, premiered on November 1, 1996, opening No. 1 at the box office in the United States. Twenty-five years later, its indelible mark as the Romeo and Juliet of Gen X, Gen Y, and even Gen Z has not been diminished, despite the wealth of Shakespeare films released since then.
The 1990s were the era of the Shakespeare film: Kenneth Branagh bookended the decade with five Shakespeare movies between 1989 and 2000, both opening up and solidifying a broad audience. But Luhrmann exploded the sensibility of filmic Shakespeare for the time: his film was neither Shakespeare in an antiquated setting nor a modern-day riff in contemporary English, like films such as Disney’s The Lion King (1994), Shakespeare in Love (1998), and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Instead, he proved you don’t need to change the language to make Shakespeare accessible. What might be common in today’s concept productions and films was a big risk at the time: Luhrmann retained the language but modernized the setting and visual style.
The lovers share their first kiss in the privacy of an elevator, not in the pseudo-public space of the Capulet party dance floor; the balcony scene occurs mostly in a pool, allowing Romeo and Juliet to be on an equal physical plane in close enough proximity to kiss throughout; and the audience is aware that we are watching a spectacle, with Luhrmann’s famous “Red Curtain,” an animation of a giant stage curtain, at the outset to remind audiences that this is in fact theater. Most Shakespearean filmmakers gloss over anachronism between theme and form, but Luhrmann relishes it.
I first saw the movie in the spring of 1997 when it premiered in Madrid. It was my study abroad year in college, and a girlfriend wrote in one of her letters that I should see the movie when it reached me in Europe. I had been away for so long, and I was desperate for American movies and anything in English. I went to my favorite movie house, the beautiful Art Deco cinema Cine Capitol, on Madrid’s main strip, the Gran Vía. The opening credits and fast cars in the first scene were dizzying and electrifying. When John Leguizamo appeared during the gas station stand-off and swung his flamenco-style arms with precise footwork, the audience screamed in delight. We heard Spanish in a film with two young American actors, a rarity at the time. I later learned that the movie was filmed in Mexico City, with many of the choreographers, production team members, and extras who were locals speaking Spanish on set.
Although the setting is clearly modern, or perhaps better described as post-modern, Verona Beach is not quite Miami, Los Angeles, or Mexico City. The racial division includes Black actors in key roles: Harold Perrineau’s sequined Mercutio, a boys choir singing the music of Prince, and the figures of authority—both the news reporter and Captain Prince—who stand in contrast to the Capulets and Montagues. The ethnic division in Luhrmann’s film was reminiscent of West Side Story, which premiered onstage in 1957 and as a film in 1961, which I wrote about in an earlier post on its anniversary. Luhrmann paid homage to West Side Story and Latin-ized the Capulets through the characterization of the Nurse and the casting of the Capulet men. The Capulets included Italian-American actor Paul Sorvino as Fulgencio Capulet and Puerto Rican actor John Leguizamo as Tybalt. Panamanian-Italian actor Vincent Laresca played Abra Capulet, and Mexican actor Carlos Martín Manzo Otálora played Petruchio Capulet. British-Australian actress Miriam Margolyes played the Latina Nurse, who is an echo of Luhrmann’s prior film, Strictly Ballroom (1992), which included the figure of a Spanish grandmother.
It was a Latin/Latinx/Latin American cast in a Shakespeare film—a welcome and surprising inclusion as Shakespeare didn’t write any Latinx characters and his work predates the conception of the ethnic category known today as Latinx. West Side Story prioritized and individualized the Montagues (the Jets), but Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet returned us to a focus on the Capulets, ethnicizing them with casting and beyond: the Catholic imagery in Juliet’s home altar and at the Capulet tomb, Shakespeare’s dialogue translated into Latin for the chants during the opening prologue and in the party scene (performed by Sorvino, who is also an opera singer), and the use of Spanish by the Nurse. Claire Danes did not portray Juliet as Latina, but everyone and everything around her did, a fantastical integration of visual language that filled in the spaces left by Luhrmann’s severe cuts to Shakespeare’s script.
Shakespearean filmmakers often focus on the story, but Luhrmann was focused on storytelling, just like Shakespeare. Both storytellers grabbed the best pieces from their source materials and influences and made the story their own. If West Side Story had a specificity of location (New York’s Upper West Side), Romeo + Juliet had a specificity of theatrical tradition—that of collage, the visceral, and a mixture of styles, from high drama, bawdy comedy, and violence to popular music—to create an Elizabethan-style interpretation of Shakespeare by mixing these forms.
Luhrmann took the variability and dynamics of the language and instead applied them to high-style storytelling through costumes, close-ups in the camerawork, accelerating and slowing the pace, and curating a jukebox soundtrack that was just as much of a draw as the rest of the movie. Romeo + Juliet is Luhrmann’s cover version of Shakespeare’s play + its precursors in cinema history, adapted for the audience of the time. Juliet’s soliloquy as she waits for Romeo becomes the cinematic voice-over, and Romeo’s romantic choice to die “with a kiss” turns instead into a moment of regret as Juliet awakens and he realizes his mistake. It is easy to see how Luhrmann is indebted to Shakespeare by how much he departs from him.
Much of what happens in Shakespeare happens through the dialogue; the audience is told there is a window and must imagine a window. Shakespeare’s theater did not have the type of stage sets we are accustomed to today to visually communicate this information. Luhrmann too demands participation from his audiences in a different form: the audience must use all of their senses and become curious about the bright colors and movement of the fish, hear the first notes of the love ballad, get lost in the depth of the aquarium only to realize it is also a window to love, communicate silently through facial expressions with the person on the other side, and get interrupted, all before we can speak. Romeo + Juliet got us to fall in love, not just with the romance in the story, but with all the languages of storytelling.
Carla Della Gatta was also interviewed on the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode How We Hear Shakespeare’s Plays, with Carla Della Gatta.
To learn more about Shakespeare’s use of street violence in Romeo and Juliet, check out our Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episode, Elizabethan Street Fighting.
Explore some of our other Shakespeare Unlimited podcast episodes about Romeo and Juliet, from a famous actress known for playing Romeo to how the play has been molded in different ways during different eras.