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Shakespeare & Beyond

Proving a villain: Problematic Shakespearean mentors

Tom Hanks looking mean and holding a cigar
Tom Hanks looking mean and holding a cigar

“There are some who’d make me out to be the villain of this here story.” Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis

“What’s he, then, that says I play the villain?” Iago, Othello

“I will get you.” Lydia Tár, Tár

“I am determinèd to prove a villain.” Richard, Richard III

Elvis and Tár — two films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture —feature problematic protagonists who control their respective narratives. They evoke inevitable thoughts of Shakespeare’s Richard III (and several self-serving others), and also play with a Shakespearean level of performance where, in addition to taking place in musical worlds, characters put on costumes, airs, and postures to signify who they are.

Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s famously controlling manager, is our guide in Baz Luhrmann’s extravagant biopic Elvis, and he’s played by famously affable Tom Hanks under a lot of padding and prosthetics. Hanks said he was attracted to the role because he’d recently played the similarly padded Sir John Falstaff in both parts of Henry IV, and saw in Falstaff and Hal a relationship analogous to Parker and Presley, that of an untrustworthy father-figure mentoring a future king (of England and rock and roll). In Shakespeare’s case, however, we don’t see Hal’s journey from Falstaff’s point of view, whereas Parker narrates Elvis’s story and definitely leaves some things out. We only really see Elvis through the Colonel’s eyes.

Luhrmann, of course, is no stranger to Shakespeare, having directed and written the screenplay for Romeo + Juliet, adapting Shakespeare’s tragedy with Craig Pearce, one of his Elvis co-writers. Pearce’s Shakespearean bonafides are solid as well: He created the miniseries Will, which dramatized with a contemporary energy young Shakespeare’s arrival in London and the beginnings of his career as a poet and playwright. So we can assume they knew what they were doing by giving Richard III’s narrator power to Colonel Parker.

But Richard, for all his evil deeds, woos the audience with a diabolical charm Colonel Parker can’t come close to, despite being played by the beloved Hanks. Despite Parker’s narration, the biopic is ultimately not about Elvis’s manager, so we have no emotional investment in him the way we do with Richard. The focus on Hanks’ character frustrates our desire to see more of Austin Butler’s justifiably lauded (and Oscar-nominated) performance in the title role.

As with Shakespeare’s use of characters soliloquizing directly to the audience in order to make us participants in the action, Elvis’s screenplay uses Parker to try to make viewers complicit in Presley’s downfall. In his final line in the movie, Colonel Parker blames us for Presley’s early death at 42. “I didn’t kill [Elvis],” Parker tells us. “It was love. His love for you…and yours for him.” It’s a self-serving and unpersuasive note on which to end: Whereas Richard III’s onstage death at the Battle of Bosworth Field is cathartic and classically tragic, Presley’s death — dramaturgically speaking — is just sad, and Parker’s ultimate fate and punishment is only revealed as text in the closing credits. Once again, we’re told, not shown.

Shakespearean themes of identity and aspiration are central in both films. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, assumes the mantle of King Richard III; “Colonel Tom Parker” was a persona invented by a man born in Holland under a different name; and “Lydia Tár” is an identity created by a woman from Staten Island. Todd Field’s Tár begins with a recitation of Lydia’s biography while we watch her putting her character on, donning the armor of her wardrobe. (In fact, the movie both begins and ends with people in costumes.) And when Lydia first speaks, she holds forth with an almost comically pompous affect that looks as if the remarkable Cate Blanchett, the actress playing her, is doing a terrible job. It’s only later, when we learn about Lydia’s origins, that we discover that it’s the character who’s an unconvincing phony.

While Tár purports to be an examination of power and its abuse, its story is so closely aligned with Lydia’s perspective it can’t help but take her side. While Shakespeare shows us Richard’s victims, Field stacks the deck in favor of his protagonist in Tár. Lydia may be a brilliant musician and intellectually accomplished conductor of some of the world’s greatest orchestras, but she abuses her position of power by hiring and mentoring young women and then, it’s heavily implied, rejecting or refusing to advance them for highly personal, probably romantic, reasons. Field leaves many of the specifics unexplained: In the words of The New Yorker’s Richard Brody (a critic with whom I rarely agree), Tár “sustains Lydia’s perspective…while carefully cultivating ambiguity regarding what Lydia is charged with.” By not showing all sides, Field is taking the abuser’s side, painting the perpetrator as victim. I want to believe Lydia Tár is haunted by her behavior, but she might be less conscience-stricken and more just afraid of getting caught.

I confess: I abhor the stereotype of “the complicated artist whose genius excuses rotten behavior.” I don’t like seeing it in fiction or in my artistic life, so I was always going to be resistant to the story Field is telling. In addition to being sexually exploitative, Tár rips into a weakly constructed straw-dog character who identifies as “a BIPOC transgender person,” in order to belittle the idea that the world of classical music — like the world of Shakespeare — should open up to new voices and new interpreters. This might endear her to some people but not me.

I’ve seen speculation that “Lydia Tár” is not simply the new identity of Linda Tarr from Staten Island, but a fictional creation living a life that exists only in Tarr’s imagination. Or that, when Lydia trips and smashes her face on the pavement two-thirds of the way through the movie, the final third is a delirious fever dream. Or that the entire film is actually a gothic horror story. The image of Lydia’s suicidal victim does appear onscreen — like Banquo’s ghost and Richard III’s victims — but so subtly I completely missed it until I googled the movie afterwards and discovered these screen grabs. Any fantastical reading that leans into a Shakespearean realm of magic and the supernatural is more persuasive to me than the idea that Tár is a serious and insightful drama about “cancel culture.

Or maybe my patience for stories about manipulative villains has reached its limit. The unsatisfying (for me) endings of both Tár and Elvis remind me of Othello, where, for my money, Shakespeare doesn’t punish Iago enough. In this regard, the 2021 Court Theatre production of Othello, which trimmed Shakespeare’s text, diminished Iago’s point of view, and emphasized the perspective of the title character, was quite refreshing. We’re still forced to sympathize with a murderer, but in this interpretation, the Moor had the decency to take his own life after he realized what he’d done.

Are Tár and Elvis “good”? Will either of them win the Oscar for Best Picture? Your guess is as good as mine (but my vote would go to Everything Everywhere All At Once). Like even some of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, they’ve sparked conversations, memes, and articles like this one, and that may be award enough.