Oscar: Best Picture–Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet_posterThe surprise Oscar-winner of 1948, Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet,” was filmed in a different style than the actor’s 1946 Oscar-nominated “Henry V.” In this adaptation, Olivier used the camera as an active participant in the narrative, and shot in black and white, based on his metaphor for the movie Hamlet is like an engraving rather than a painting.”


Olivier deleted a lot of the dialogue and some major characters.  And he included voice-over narration in the beginning, quoting Hamlet’s lines from Act I Scene IV:

So oft it chances in particular men,

That through some vicious mole of nature in them,

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,

Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,

Or by some habit grown too much; that these men –

Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,

Their virtues else – be they as pure as grace,

Shall in the general censure take corruption,

From that particular fault…

Hamlet_4_olivierOlivier then cuts from the play to the viewers, telling us: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

In Elsinore, the sentry Francisco, (John Laurie) is relieved of his watch (and questioned if he has seen anything) by another sentry, Bernardo (Esmond Knight), who, with the sentry Marcellus (Anthony Quayle), has seen the Ghost of King Hamlet.  Marcellus arrives with the skeptical Horatio (Norman Wooland), Prince Hamlet’s friend.  When they all see the Ghost, Horatio demands that the ghost speak, but the ghost vanishes.

In the castle’s Great Hall, the court celebrates the marriage of Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King Claudius (Basil Sydney). Old King Hamlet has died of accidental snakebite. His wife Gertrude, has quicly married the late King’s brother.  Hamlet (Olivier) refuses to join the celebration, despite the protests of the new King. When the court leaves, Hamlet fumes over the hasty marriage: “And yet, within a month!”

Hamlet_3_olivierHoratio and the sentries tell Hamlet of his father’s ghostly apparition, and he proceeds to investigate. Hamlet follows the ghost up onto a tower, wherein it reveals its identity as Hamlet’s father. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered, who did it, and how it was done. The murder is then re-enacted in a flashback as the ghost describes the deed–Claudius is seen pouring poison into the late King Hamlet’s ear, which killing him.

Hauntingly photographed, the Castle, with its massive and gloomy corridors, frames the human characters in a cool, detached way, and the Oscars for Art Direction and Costume Design were well deserved.

Hamlet_5_olivier_herlieDespite criticism of the 153-minute screen version, which omitted characters and whole scenes from Shakespeare’s play, “Hamlet” is still an exciting film, particularly when compared with Zeffirelli’s 1990 version, marred by the miscasting of Mel Gibson, as the melancholy Danish prince, and particularly Glenn Close, as Gertrude.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Laurence Olivier

Director: Olivier

Actor: Olivier

Supporting Actress: Jean Simmons

Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Roger K. Furse; Carmen Dillon

Costume Design (b/w): Roger K. Furse

Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): William Walton

Hamlet_1_olivierOscar Awards: 4



Art Direction-Set Decoration

Costume Design

Oscar Context

In 1948, “Hamlet” competed for the top Oscar with the ballet-drama “The Red Shoes,” which broke box-office records in the U.S.; two melodramas, Johnny Belinda” with Jane Wyman and The Snake Pit” with Olivia De Havilland, and John Huston’s brilliant crime drama, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” with an all-star cast, headed by Humphrey Bogart and John Huston’s father, Walter Huston.

The most nominated picture was “Johnny Belinda,” receiving 12 nominations, but winning only one Oscar, Best Actress for Jane Wyman as the deaf-mute girl Belinda McDonald. The major awards were spread rather evenly among the five nominees. “The Red Shoes” deservedly won the technical awards in color, a distinction that increased the number of winning films.