Imitation is Flattering to the Greats

St. Petersburg Times, August 23, 1991
by Stephen Wigler

Kenneth Branagh, the man who would be king, knows that the best way to become king is to kill one.

That is exactly what the young British actor-director has been doing. Two years ago the then-28-year-old's first movie, Shakespeare's Henry V, went head to head with the great Laurence Olivier's 1944 classic, scoring in the opinion of many critics a clear victory.

Now Branagh has set out after both Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock in his second movie, Dead Again, which opens today. This film is a brilliant homage to Citizen Kane that alludes to many of that movie's most famous scenes only to re-do them in witty and brilliant fashion. And Branagh also takes on the Hitchcock of Dial M for Murder, Vertigo and Rebecca.

Is there no limit to the ambition of Branagh, who at 30 is less than 10 years out of drama school?

"I'm happy to think that I'm in the traditions they (Olivier, Welles and Hitchock) represent and like to think that we all steal and borrow from those we admire," he says.

"I love them and I'm a traditionalist. I felt I was missing something I love in the movies I see nowadays. That's why I made Dead Again."

Dead Again is a dazzling thriller about reincarnation and sexual transformation that is set partly in the late 1940s and partly in present-day Los Angeles.

"It's a whodunit and a whydunit," says Branagh, who plays tworoles: a private detective named Mike Church (in the color film that takes place in the present) and a brilliant German-refugee conductor-composer named Roman Strauss (in the black-and-white 1940s segment).

The classy cast includes Branagh's wife, Emma Thompson (who also plays two roles), Andy Garcia and Robin Williams, Hanna Schygulla and Derek Jacobi.

It is a roller coaster of a movie that keeps the viewer guessing and never lets up until a logically inevitable in retrospect finale.

Whether or not the movie is a financial success, it likely will be the most talked-about and debated film since Thelma and Louise and it should make Branagh's stock high since his nomination for several Academy Awards for Henry V higher than ever.

The Irish-born Branagh has been on a collision course with destiny since he was the star student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in the late '70s and early '80s.

After graduation he became, at 23, the youngest person ever selected by the Royal Shakespeare Company to star in Henry V and he went on to star in a highly acclaimed Hamlet.

But Branagh was not satisfied with merely being a star in the English-speaking world's most important repertory company. The next year he founded the Renaissance Theater Company into which he shanghaied friends such as Jacobi, Paul Scofield and Dame Judi Dench.

Branagh had so much chutzpah that he asked Prince Charles whom he had interviewed earlier while researching the role of Henry V to become the patron of the company. Charles, one of Branagh's biggest fans, accepted.

Branagh soon became so successful that he was asked at the age of 27 to write his autobiography.

The book became a best seller in Britain and has sold well in the United States. He has used all of the profits to benefit the theater troupe.

The critical reaction to Branagh's aggressive courtship of success in his native country has been swift and terrible.

One prominent critic described his film version of Henry V as "megalomania on a grand scale"; another called Branagh "the most overrated, over-celebrated English actor to reach leading-man status in over two decades."

"Kenneth is very hot especially in your country," says Thompson. "But where we're from, making it (to the top) so quickly and so apparently flashily is not quite cricket. They say that Kenneth is full of hubris, that he's a self-promoter and that he can't act.

"The last part of that certainly isn't true, but Kenneth while perhaps not as much as he once was is certainly driven."

If there is any actor Branagh resembles in person and certainly in the Dead Again character Mike Church it is not the princely, British Olivier but the square-jawed, two-fisted, American James Cagney.

One would never guess from Branagh's portrayal that he was English.

He says that he began to create Mike Church's Irish-American accent by listening to tapes.

"But that was just the beginning," he says. "Fortunately, I had a lot of time in L.A. because I was in there performing King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Any time I noticed two guys on the street who reminded me of what Mike Church might be like, I'd walk behind them for blocks, eavesdropping and watching their gestures.

"But Mike Church is such an amiable guy that I also borrowed believe it or not from Woody Allen, whom I think is one of the most likable characters in movies. If you watch Woody Allen movies, you will notice that when he walks with a woman, he uses large gestures in his conversational style. I tried to make the gestures slightly less large and less New York-Jewish, but I couldn't have created Mike Church without them."

When Branagh was growing up did he ever think he would someday be playing a the part of an Irish-American detective with overtones of a Jewish-American stand-up comic?

"It would have made perfect sense to me," he says.

"Mine was a childhood spent in the movies. I worshiped Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz before I even knew who Laurence Oliver was. Before I started Dead Again, I screened Dial M for Murder, Spellbound, Vertigo, Citizen Kane all the movies I had adored when I was a kid.

"I wanted the qualities those movies have operatic qualities of simultaneously involving and detaching the viewer, of excitement and emotion and I was amazed at how much I remembered, at how much those movies are part of what I am.

"Dead Again is about reincarnation, but it's also about the reincarnation of the movies I love," Branagh says with a smile. "I'd like to think that somewhere out there Olivier, Welles and Hitchcock are glad."

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