King Lear (1988)

PG | 91 mins | Experimental | 22 January 1988

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HISTORY

The following title cards appear throughout the film (several of them are repeated): “A Picture Shot in the Back”; “King Lear: Fear and Loathing”; “King Lear: A Study”; “An Approach”; “King Lear: A Clearing”; “No Thing”; “King Lear: An Approach”; “Virtue versus Power”; “Power and Virtue”; “3 Journeys in to King Lear”; “The End”; “king LEAR: a cLEARing.”
       A film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Orson Welles attached to direct and star, was announced in the 8 Feb 1985 DV. The picture was to be shot in France and coproduced by the TF-1 French television network. However, a 13 May 1985 HR item announced a King Lear adaptation that French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was planning to direct for Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s Cannon Films. Shortly after, a 25 May 1985 Screen International brief reported that Orson Welles’s project was canceled. Welles was later linked to Godard’s project in a 22 Apr 1987 HR brief, which named him as Godard’s first choice to play “King Lear.”
       Godard’s deal with Cannon was notoriously drafted on a cocktail napkin at the Majestic Hotel bar during the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. At the time, Cannon, which was known for B-list films, was trying to expand its roster to include more prestigious directors, like Godard, Robert Altman and Franco Zeffirelli. King Lear’s budget was listed as $1-$1.4 million in various sources, including the 20 May 1987 Var and 4 Sep 1988 Washington Post. In lieu of a salary, Godard reportedly agreed to work for a cut of gross receipts in ... More Less

The following title cards appear throughout the film (several of them are repeated): “A Picture Shot in the Back”; “King Lear: Fear and Loathing”; “King Lear: A Study”; “An Approach”; “King Lear: A Clearing”; “No Thing”; “King Lear: An Approach”; “Virtue versus Power”; “Power and Virtue”; “3 Journeys in to King Lear”; “The End”; “king LEAR: a cLEARing.”
       A film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, with Orson Welles attached to direct and star, was announced in the 8 Feb 1985 DV. The picture was to be shot in France and coproduced by the TF-1 French television network. However, a 13 May 1985 HR item announced a King Lear adaptation that French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was planning to direct for Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s Cannon Films. Shortly after, a 25 May 1985 Screen International brief reported that Orson Welles’s project was canceled. Welles was later linked to Godard’s project in a 22 Apr 1987 HR brief, which named him as Godard’s first choice to play “King Lear.”
       Godard’s deal with Cannon was notoriously drafted on a cocktail napkin at the Majestic Hotel bar during the 1985 Cannes Film Festival. At the time, Cannon, which was known for B-list films, was trying to expand its roster to include more prestigious directors, like Godard, Robert Altman and Franco Zeffirelli. King Lear’s budget was listed as $1-$1.4 million in various sources, including the 20 May 1987 Var and 4 Sep 1988 Washington Post. In lieu of a salary, Godard reportedly agreed to work for a cut of gross receipts in his native country of Switzerland.
       Initial plans entailed a spring 1986 shoot in the Virgin Islands, with an A-list American cast, and a debut at the 1986 Venice Film Festival. Norman Mailer was hired to adapt the screenplay and star as “King Lear,” with his daughter, Kate Mailer, playing “Cordelia,” and filmmaker Woody Allen reportedly cast as “The Fool.” A 16 Jun 1986 New York item noted that Godard attempted to cast President Richard M. Nixon as himself, for a fifteen-minute scene in which Nixon and Mailer would discuss “power and what it feels like to lose power.” When Nixon declined, Godard considered using Nixon’s former aide, John Ehrlichman, politician Geraldine Ferraro, and former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in his place. The casting of Burgess Meredith as “Don Learo” and Molly Ringwald as Cordelia was announced in the 22 Apr 1987 HR, which noted early candidates for Don Learo included Rod Steiger, Lee Marvin, and Richard Nixon. In a 4 Sep 1988 Washington Post item, Godard stated that Woody Allen and Molly Ringwald’s contracts stipulated their names could not be used on the film or in any publicity materials. By agreeing to those terms, Godard argued that producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were not “savvy” dealmakers.
       According to a 12 Jan 1987 New York article, Norman Mailer was reluctant to work with Godard, and agreed only on the condition that Cannon finance his film, Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1987, see entry). Godard allegedly flew to New York City for multiple script meetings with Mailer, which he then cancelled if he was not “in the mood to work.” Mailer was unsure whether or not Godard actually read his finished script, which was based in the world of the mafia. By the time filming began, Mailer was unsurprised that Godard had thrown his script out, as noted in a 20 Jan 1988 LAHExam item. However, he was unprepared for Godard’s request that he play himself alongside his real-life daughter. Rumors circulated that Mailer’s primary concern was that Godard would depict his relationship with Kate as incestuous. As portrayed in the film, Mailer and his daughter quit the production after one day of filming. In turn, Godard decided to shoot the bulk of the film in ten days on his own property in Nyon, Switzerland, in Mar 1987, according to the 14 Apr 1987 HR.
       In Roger Ebert’s interview with Woody Allen in the 29 Nov 1987 Chicago Sun-Times, Allen stated that his scenes were filmed at the Brill Building in New York City. According to an article in the 4 Sep 1988 Washington Post, Godard also paid $60,000 to shoot at the Actors Studio in New York City, but the studio cancelled the deal and, according to Godard, kept the money.
       Woody Allen claimed he was never given a script, and described his one-day shoot as “one of the most foolish experiences” of his life. In the interview with Roger Ebert, he stated the following: “[Godard] was very elusive about the subject of the film. First he said it was going to be about a Lear jet that crashes on an island. Then he said he wanted to interview everyone who had done King Lear from Kurosawa to the Royal Shakespeare. Then he said I could say whatever I wanted to say.”
       A 20 May 1987 Var brief stated that a work-in-progress, with ninety percent of the visuals complete but lacking a proper sound mix, was screened on 17 May 1987 at the Cannes Film Festival. After seeing the rough cut, Cannon threatened to sue Godard for straying so far from Shakespeare’s play, which Godard claimed he never read, in a statement that may or may not have been a joke. As noted in the 23 Jan 2004 DV, the lawsuit was avoided when Cannon shut down, a month later, due to financial troubles. In the 4 Sep 1988 Washington Post, Godard called Golan and Globus “bankers who believe they are true film producers,” and accused them of wasting money by paying Mailer $350,000, despite his abandonment of the project. To finish the film, Godard was reportedly forced to sell his “10 percent share on King Lear and his rights to France.”
       A letter from Cannon Films to AMPAS, dated 30 Nov 1988, requested that the Academy disregard its entry form for King Lear, filed on 28 Jul 1988, and to withdraw the film from any further Academy Award consideration.
       King Lear opened 22 Jan 1988 in New York City. Cannon planned to see how it performed before expanding the release, according to a 20 Jan 1988 LAHExam brief. One month later, the film opened in Los Angeles, CA.
       Critical reception was divided. The 3 Sep 1987 DV review from the Montreal Film Festival, where King Lear was screened on 30 Aug 1987, described it as “lyrical” and credited Godard with restoring meaning “to the bankrupt term ‘art film.’” The 10 Mar 1988 HR review called the film pretentious and “too inept to be even amusing,” and the 22 Jan 1988 NYT deemed it “a late Godardian practical joke,” ultimately “as sad and embarrassing as the spectacle of a great, dignified man wearing a fishbowl over his head to get a laugh.” In a 2012 Sight & Sound poll, film critic Richard Brody named King Lear the greatest film of all time. Brody wrote an article titled “Godard’s King Lear at Twenty-Five” in the 17 Dec 2012 New Yorker, in which he labeled the picture a ”film maudit,” a French term for “an accomplished work of art that met with critical incomprehension and rejection at the time of its release.”
       In 2002, Bodega Films bought French distribution rights from Hollywood Classics in the U.K., and released the film for the first time in France on a “handful” of screens. An estimated ten prints went into circulation, according to the 25 Jan 2002 HR. Bodega was later named in a copyright infringement suit, which accused Bodega and Godard of using an excerpt from Viviane Forrester’s La violence du calme (Paris, 1980) without permission. A 23 Jan 2004 DV brief stated that Godard and Bodega were ordered to pay Forrester and the book’s publisher $6,350 each in damages and interest. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Chicago Sun-Times
29 Nov 1987.
---
Daily Variety
8 Feb 1985
p. 10.
Daily Variety
3 Sep 1987
p. 2, 8.
Daily Variety
23 Jan 2004.
---
Hollywood Reporter
13 May 1985
p. 1, 9.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Apr 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
22 Apr 1987.
---
Hollywood Reporter
10 Mar 1988
p. 23.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jan 2002.
---
LAHExam
20 Jan 1988.
---
Los Angeles Times
19 Feb 1988
p. 10.
New York
16 Jun 1986.
---
New York
12 Jan 1987
p. 34.
New York Times
22 Jan 1988
p. 6.
New Yorker
17 Dec 2012.
---
Screen International
25 May 1985.
---
Variety
20 May 1987
p. 4, 40.
Variety
2 Sep 1987
p. 14.
Washington Post
4 Sep 1988.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
The Cannon Group Bahamas Presents
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTOR
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
FILM EDITOR
SOUND
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the play King Lear by William Shakespeare (New York, 14 Jan 1754).
DETAILS
Release Date:
22 January 1988
Premiere Information:
Cannes Film Festival screening: 17 May 1987
New York opening: 22 January 1988
Los Angeles opening: 19 February 1988
Production Date:
March 1987
Copyright Claimant:
Cannon Films, Inc., & Cannon International, B.V.
Copyright Date:
28 October 1988
Copyright Number:
PA388684
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Duration(in mins):
91
MPAA Rating:
PG
Countries:
Switzerland, United States
Language:
English
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

A voice-over from director Jean-Luc Godard, and a recorded telephone conversation between Godard and producer Menahem Golan, suggest the production of King Lear was halted when Norman Mailer quit after one day of filming. Mailer had written the screenplay, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear set in the world of the mafia. He was also supposed to act in the film, with his daughter, Kate. The only footage Godard shot with Mailer and Kate shows them at the Beau Rivage Hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva in Nyon, Switzerland. A new approach to the King Lear adaptation ensues. Following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth is enlisted to recreate works of art that have been lost, beginning with his famous ancestor’s plays. He works at the Beau Rivage Hotel, where he encounters Cordelia and her father, Don Learo, a gangster and manufacturer of executive jets. Learo and Cordelia’s conversations in the hotel restaurant provide William with some of the language he needs to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. With the help of a young man named Edgar, William seeks out the scholarly “Professor Pluggy,” who hasn’t left his house for twenty years. With his head covered in patch cords, Pluggy speaks to William in a garbled manner about life and images. William asks if the professor has something to accompany his writing, but Pluggy answers that there is only life and how ... +


A voice-over from director Jean-Luc Godard, and a recorded telephone conversation between Godard and producer Menahem Golan, suggest the production of King Lear was halted when Norman Mailer quit after one day of filming. Mailer had written the screenplay, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear set in the world of the mafia. He was also supposed to act in the film, with his daughter, Kate. The only footage Godard shot with Mailer and Kate shows them at the Beau Rivage Hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva in Nyon, Switzerland. A new approach to the King Lear adaptation ensues. Following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, William Shakespeare Jr. the Fifth is enlisted to recreate works of art that have been lost, beginning with his famous ancestor’s plays. He works at the Beau Rivage Hotel, where he encounters Cordelia and her father, Don Learo, a gangster and manufacturer of executive jets. Learo and Cordelia’s conversations in the hotel restaurant provide William with some of the language he needs to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. With the help of a young man named Edgar, William seeks out the scholarly “Professor Pluggy,” who hasn’t left his house for twenty years. With his head covered in patch cords, Pluggy speaks to William in a garbled manner about life and images. William asks if the professor has something to accompany his writing, but Pluggy answers that there is only life and how it works. He says an image is the pure creation of the soul, and a reconciliation of two realities. At the Beau Rivage, Cordelia takes her father’s dictation for a book about the history of Las Vegas, Nevada. Don Learo tells her about the Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel and his lawyer, Meyer Lansky. When he receives two telex messages from his married daughters, Regina and Gloria, Learo is pleased by their declarations of love. Meanwhile, Cordelia has sworn she will never marry because of her allegiance to her father, but she refuses to make a verbal declaration of her devotion when he asks for it. Instead, when prompted by her father, she says, “Nothing.” At a screening room, Edgar’s female companion, Virginia, sells cigarettes. Professor Pluggy is interviewed by a reporter from the New York Times. He discusses the design of a movie theater, in which audience members face the screen from the same angle, as opposed to the circular way people gather to listen to storytellers. Professor Kozintsev from Leningrad, Russia, arrives, and Pluggy introduces him to the reporter. William is in the audience when a Russian version of King Lear is screened. Later, Don Learo follows Cordelia into the woods. Cordelia leads a white horse to the water, and Learo laments that Cordelia is gone forever. He sees Edgar, William, and Virginia, who is reading a copy of the Virginia Woolf novel, The Waves, an excerpt of which can be heard. William later joins “Mr. Alien,” an editor, in his work room, where Godard’s raw footage is spliced together by thread and needle. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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