With a combined 31 Oscar nominations among them, including 10 wins, writer/director Joel Coen and actors Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are among the most celebrated of Oscar mainstays.
This year, the awards season favorites are once again in the Oscar hunt, this time for this collaboration on Coen’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s timeless Macbeth, The Tragedy of Macbeth. The filmmaker and his stars have scored raves for the picture, which appears destined for a mighty awards season run.
Of course, The Tragedy of Macbeth will not mark the first Shakespeare adaptation to garner Oscar love. Since 1935’s adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which earned nominations in Best Picture and the now-defunct Best Assistant Director category, with wins in Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing, a plethora of Shakespeare works have emerged awards season players.
This included recognition the following year, with George Cukor’s 1936 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which earned bids in Best Picture, Best Actress (Norma Shearer), Best Supporting Actor (Basil Rathbone) and Best Art Direction.
At the start of the new decade, The Boys from Syracuse, adapted from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, scored nominations in Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects.
Beginning with 1944’s Henry V, Sir Laurence Olivier would direct and headline a series of lauded Shakespeare adaptations that won over Oscar voters. His Henry V earned nominations in Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Art Direction and Best Score.
It was Olivier’s Hamlet in 1948, however, that really left the Oscars head over heels, with wins in Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design, plus nominations in Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Jean Simmons) and Best Score.
The 1950s saw Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of Julius Caesar earn a healthy batch of nominations, including bids in Best Picture, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Cinematography, Best Score and a win in Best Art Direction.
This decade also saw the return of Olivier, this time back with Richard III, albeit only scoring a nomination for himself in Best Actor. A bit more successful would be his 1965 adaptation of Othello, which earned a quartet of acting nominations in Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Frank Finlay) and Best Supporting Actress (Joyce Redman and Maggie Smith).
Steamrolling the Oscars in 1961 was West Side Story, adapted from the Broadway musical, which in turn was inspired by Romeo and Juliet. It took home a total of 10 prizes on the big night – Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris), Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Score and Best Sound. Its lone loss arrived in Best Adapted Screenplay, a prize that went to Judgement at Nuremberg.
West Side Story could resurface this awards season as Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated adaptation finally hits the big screen.
Toward the end of the 1960s, two Franco Zeffirelli-directed adaptations made Oscar showings. First, there was the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton-headlined The Taming of the Shrew, which earned Oscar nominations in Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design. More of a player was his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, a winner in Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design, with additional nominations in Best Picture and Best Director.
Remarkably, the 1970s did not see a single Shakespeare film grace the Oscars. It wasn’t until Zeffirelli’s Otello in 1986 that an adaptation again surfaced with recognition – and in this case it was in a single category, Best Costume Design.
The turn of the decade saw Kenneth Branagh’s take on Henry V earn the Best Costume Design Oscar, with nominations for Branagh in both Best Director and Best Actor. Zeffirelli’s Hamlet was also a contender, with nominations in Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
In 1995, the Ian McKellen-headlined Richard III surfaced with a Best Art Direction Oscar nomination. The following year, Branagh’s Hamlet scored a batch of nominations in Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score, while Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet earned a bid in Best Art Direction as well.
Most recently, Julie Taymor’s The Tempest earned an Oscar nomination in Best Costume Design.
There are also the Oscar contenders that revolved around Shakespeare plays, including George Cukor’s A Double Life, focused on an actor who cannot disconnect himself from the role he is playing – Othello. That film earned Ronald Colman the Best Actor Oscar, with another win arriving in Best Score and additional nominations in Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.
And we certainly cannot overlook Shakespeare in Love, which focuses on Shakespeare himself as he is penning Romeo and Juliet. The John Madden film was a force to be reckoned with at the 1998 Oscars, with wins arriving in Best Picture, Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Score, plus nominations in Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Best Sound.
What all that said, how much of an awards season player will The Tragedy of Macbeth ultimately prove?
Considering its rave reviews and both the pedigree and prominence of its filmmaker and stars – Coen, Washington and McDormand have all scored at least three Oscar nominations a piece over the past decade – it is exceedingly probable this Macbeth will, at the very least, surface in multiple categories. On the flip side, the film is likely too dark and stark to bulldoze its way through Oscar night like rousing crowd-pleasers West Side Story and Shakespeare in Love.
At this early stage in the awards season, its two stars must be considered top tier contenders in Best Actor and Best Actress, with bids looking strong in Best Cinematography and Best Production Design too. It has the potential, however, to go even further – nominations cannot be counted out in Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound and yes, Best Picture.
When it comes to the Oscars, underestimate a Coen-Washington-McDormand collaboration at your own peril.
The Tragedy of Macbeth is an A24/Apple Original Films release and will be only in theaters on December 25.