Column snippets

Liz Smith, 1993

ORANGE JUICE and coffee with the most prolific and dynamic young talent from Great Britain. As I sat there across from the attractive, open-faced Kenneth Branagh, I thought how lucky actress Emma Thompson is. She gets to do this almost every morning.

Emma was missing from my coffee klatch with Kenneth. But the couple was in the U.S. orchestrating interest in their new film, an ensemble piece called "Peter's Friends." (Some refer to this film - about a reunion of college friends - as the British "Big Chill.")

Branagh, who directed, produced and acted in the movie, says, "The film takes place during New Year's Eve, so it was a lot of fun decorating with all that Christmas stuff. Emma is in it, and the American actress Rita Rudner - she also co-wrote the script. Rita's husband, Martin Bergman, was actually at university with Emma. So there is a certain authenticity about the picture, with four or five people acting who have really known each other as long as their characters. It's a comedy that turns on a sixpence, but it has dramatic overtones."

BRANAGH IS the young Irish actor from Reading, England, who shot to international fame when he dared to remake "Henry V," proving that Laurence Olivier's movie version wasn't the only one we should treasure for history.

The last time I saw Kenneth, he was promoting his Hitchcockian thriller, made in L.A., titled "Dead Again." This also co-starred Emma Thompson and did well at the box office, even if it's not as "good" as Hollywood now demands. However, "Dead Again" is very popular and high up on the video charts.

I asked if Hollywood had beckoned with U.S. movies after that? "Yes, but as much as I love it here and as much of a treat as it always is to come here, I do live in England. I want always to come here and be thrilled by the experience, so I don't want to get too Americanized."

KENNETH HAS been busy until recently playing "Hamlet" onstage in London. He says, "This is the third time I've played Hamlet, and the first time I ever got anywhere near the role. It ran onstage for the full, original length - 4 1/2 hours; so it was really something to play it twice in one day as I sometimes did.

"And I've got another Shakespeare movie coming out - `Much Ado About Nothing.' That has already premiered in L.A. I directed it, and yes, Emma is in this one too! This version of `Much Ado' is very sexy and bawdy - it's one of Shakespeare's raunchiest. And we gathered a lot of wonderful and very diverse actors - people not generally associated with Shakespeare; Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, Bobby Leonard. We shot it in a villa in Tuscany, near Florence. The villa's owner told me that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa right there in one of the rooms. `Oh, well, I said to myself, why not? One has to believe in something.'

"This play, `Much Ado,' has never been put on film before, so there's the excitement of that. And we didn't do it in Elizabethan dress, or Renaissance. The clothes are somewhere between 1700 and 1900. I used many actors from `Henry V' in it. I think it's Shakespeare's greatest romantic comedy, the greatest one ever written in fact. We tried to take away all the stiff, tight, flowery English kind of speaking. It runs under two hours. Three-fourths of it is prose and and so it has a conversational tone. There will be a lot of surprises. It celebrates love and fun. The landscape there in Tuscany is ravishing and it looks like a kind of fairy tale. The Goldwyn company will release it."

I ASKED Branagh how he feels now that his wife is on the verge of becoming, at the very least, an Oscar nominee for the movie "Howard's End." (Thompson recently won the New York Film Critics award for this film, as well as gathering awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Board of Review.)

Kenneth said, "I couldn't be more delighted. I think my wife is a marvelous actress; one of the few who can transmit a sense of intelligence and goodness. When I saw her in `Howard's End,' I was bowled over. We went home and in the night I got out of bed and went downstairs where I wrote her a long letter telling her how great she really is. When people tease me, saying I always use her in my movies - we've done four, so far - I just say I am lucky to get her."

Branagh added that he had also recently made a 20-minute movie that will play as a short subject. "It is Chekhov's `Swan Song' and stars John Gielgud as an old actor. I directed. If you like Shakespeare, this will be a rare chance to see Gielgud acting a number of scenes."

I bid Branagh farewell, realizing that the next time I see him, most likely he and Emma Thompson will both have become household names - big stars! My bet is she will win the Oscar. Then it will be his turn after that. And then I can say I knew them "when."
KENNETH BRANAGH and Emma Thompson - this generation's Lord and Lady Olivier - are planning a new theatrical version of "Macbeth," starring - Kenneth and Emma, of course! Britain's great gossip, Baz Bamigboye, reports that Anthony Hopkins will direct this project, due to hit London next year.

Both Branagh and Thompson are riding high. He's starring as "Hamlet" for the Royal Shakespeare Company (The advance at London's Barbican Theater set a record - well over $1 million!) And she is considered a shoo-in to nab an Oscar nomination for "Howards End." (Emma is also said to give another great performance in an upcoming film, "The Remains of the Day," co-starring Anthony Hopkins.)
THE AMAZING Kenneth Branagh whizzed into NYC last Thursday for a little sit-down "meet" with the great Francis Ford Coppola. These two giants are discussing the future production of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," which Branagh would star in (as the doctor, Victor) and direct. Coppola would produce.

Branagh rushed back to London to do two back-to-back performances of "Hamlet," one of the greatest sell-outs the London theater has ever enjoyed. When I talked with Kenneth, he played down his trans-Atlantic energies, because he only wanted to talk about his coming movie, "Much Ado About Nothing." This one is in rough cut, and when Branagh showed it to his London driver, the man said "Blimey! I loved it. I even understood everything." Branagh says, "I'm really excited because the movie is so beautiful, so sexy, with sexy young men and women. Anybody can make a visceral connection to it. The plot is so silly, a lot of people doing absolutely nothing, stirring up the kind of fuss that only happens when we fall in love."

I've already given "Much Ado" a rave in this column, not because I've seen it, but because I was taken with the glow suffusing Branagh's face when he talked about his (and Shakespeare's) brainchild.

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