BOOTLEG FILES 456: “King Lear” (1987 film directed by Jean-Luc Godard, featuring Norman Mailer, Molly Ringwald, Burgess Meredith and Woody Allen).
LAST SEEN: The film is on YouTube and Veoh.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS release in 1992.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive title from an iconic filmmaker.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is available in Europe, so an American release is possible.
Back in 1985, Israeli-born B-movie producer Menahem Golan surprised the Cannes Film Festival with his announcement that he signed Jean-Luc Godard to direct a new production of “King Lear.” The colorful partnership signing ceremony took place at a café table, with the French filmmaker affirming his participation in an agreement written out on a napkin.
Godard and Golan decided to hire Norman Mailer to write the screenplay. Mailer presented a vision of a dying Mafia chieftain named Don Learo, but the controversial novelist complicated matters by insisting that he play the role. Mailer’s daughter, actress Kate Mailer, was cast as Learo’s daughter Cordelia.
What happened next depends on which source you rely on. The Mailers and Godard began work on “King Lear” at a resort in Nyon, Switzerland, but production halted after one day and the Mailers abruptly returned to America. Godard would blame the departure on obnoxious “star behavior” by Mailer, while the writer would insist that he objected to Godard’s notion that his character be identified as “Norman Mailer” rather than “Don Learo.”
All that remained of the Mailers’ on-screen contribution was a single scene of the pair discussing the screenplay in a hotel suite. Godard kept the footage and used it twice in his finished film. Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald (at her teen queen peak) were brought in as the replacement Learo and Cordelia.
However, anyone looking for Shakespeare in Godard’s “King Lear” will be disappointed. Oh, there is a Shakespeare: William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth, played by theater director Peter Sellars. This Shakespeare is a somber, spiky-haired chap who lives in a period right after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, where the world was contaminated in a manner that somehow resulted in the loss of all works of culture. Never mind that people remained healthy or that food and water remained safe – incredibly, the works of Shakespeare’s famous ancestor mysteriously vanished from all of the world’s bookcases thanks to the Ukrainian nuclear mishap.
Thus, Shakespeare follows Learo and his daughter around a posh resort, eavesdropping as they converse in bits and pieces from what might be the dialogue of “King Lear.” Shakespeare also makes the acquaintance of Professor Pluggy, a cigar-smoking eccentric wearing a wild wig consisting of electric cords and colored wires. Pluggy, who is played by Godard, is also obsessed with making photocopies of his hand.
Throughout the film, obscure intertitles flash across the screen. “A Picture Shot in the Back,” “Fear and Loathing,” “No Thing,” “An Approach” and ”A Clearing” (which is also presented as “A cLEARing”) are repeated, while absurd sound effects including screeching seagulls and honking horns fill the soundtrack.
Although some Shakespearean dialogue is used (mostly in theatrical recitations by Meredith), there are also chunks of the Mailer screenplay, which makes campy references to old-time gangsters. At one point, the action moves outside with scenes of Ringwald showering her attention on a white horse. French actress Julie Delpy and director Leos Carax also turn up in cameos, for no obvious reason except that they might have been visiting Godard’s set.
Somehow or other, Shakespeare winds up in a film editing studio run by Mr. Alien, played by (of all people) Woody Allen. The bespectacled actor/director looks glum as he edits film using safety pins and a needle and thread. Shakespeare falls into a large pile of unspooled film while Mr. Alien (clearly reading from a cue card) offers a couple of lines from Shakespeare. And then, “King Lear” stops without actually ending.
If anyone other than Godard created “King Lear,” the film would never have found its way into a movie projector. But the fact that Godard is responsible does not bring any value to the production. While it would be foolish to expect a completely faithful Shakespeare adaptation from Godard, there is no pleasure in being fooled into thinking that this vague, obscure, annoying, cacophonous wreck of a film is anything but a joke being played by a self-indulgent filmmaker.
Even Woody Allen realized the film was a disaster during the shooting of his brief scene. “It was one of the most foolish experiences I’ve ever had,” he recalled in an interview. “I’d be amazed if I was anything but consummately insipid.”
Allen never saw the finished film, but he was hardly alone – Menahem Golan, who was never shy about releasing crummy films through his Cannon Films distribution company, realized that he had a flop with “King Lear.” After a disastrous premiere during the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, Golan gave “King Lear” a brief platform release at selected U.S. art house venues. A few critics, most notably Kevin Thomas and Jonathan Rosenbaum, rushed to the film’s defense, but the majority of reviewers panned the production and audiences stayed away. Indeed, the film’s lack of resonance was so strong that a young Quentin Tarantino attempted to inflate his early career credentials by falsely claiming he had a role in the production – in Tarantino’s mind, so few people saw the film that no one would challenge his claim of being a cast member.
Outside of a 1992 VHS video release on the Xenon label and occasional screenings in Godard retrospectives, “King Lear” has mostly been unavailable in the U.S. The film has been released on DVD in Europe, so it is not inconceivable that a U.S. label (most likely Criterion Collection) would pick it up. In the meantime, the film can easily be located on the YouTube and Veoh websites.
However, unless you are truly a Godard addict, “King Lear” offers nothing except confusion and stupidity. The Washington Post’s Desson Howe probably said it best: “William Shakespeare would need a sense of humor to view Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘King Lear’ without getting steamed up in his bodkins.”
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