In the annals of provocative movie taglines, “Was Shakespeare a Fraud?” ranks right up there with “Meet the Marquis de Sade. The Pleasure Is All His.” Each of these works of marketing haiku was devised to entice and intrigue moviegoers into seeing films about literary transgressors (either on the page or in the sack) — seemingly heady subject matter that might at first glance look more like homework than titillating hot-button entertainment.
Nothing could be further from the case. The latter graced posters for “Quills,” the high-brow biopic, released in 2000, about the notorious eighteenth-century French author whose debauched and depraved writings landed him in an insane asylum. And you may have noticed the former ad copy printed in bold type across posters for “Anonymous,” director Roland Emmerich’s new piece of cinematic controversy kindling based on suspicions that William Shakespeare may not have authored the body of work attributed to his name.
“Anonymous,” which is opening in theaters nationwide, casts the Bard of Avon (Rafe Spall) as a callow and craven opportunist who gladly accepts credit for a library of plays and sonnets ghostwritten by the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), a high-class gent who doesn’t want to compromise his social standing by outing himself as an ink-stained wretch.
Though this film seems to be a radical departure from Emmerich’s previous special effects extravaganzas — “Independence Day,” “The Day After Tomorrow” — “Anonymous” contains no shortage of combustible material; only in this case, the explosions have been designed to detonate off camera, in fiery debates among academics, the media, and moviegoers. Already, literary heavyweights like Simon Schama and a raft of Stratfordian Shakespeare Scholars have railed against the film’s claim that the Bard was a fraud. While a group of academics known as the Oxfordians have long held that Shakespeare was an uneducated rube who lacked the sophistication to produce the masterworks attributed to him.
Though “Anonymous” may only deepen the divide between the two camps, the film has already succeeded in commandeering the cultural conversation by turning the volume up on a centuries-old literary conspiracy theory. It’s a testament to the power of the pen that literary scandal has become increasingly fertile ground for filmmakers. But don’t just take our word for it. Check out the following highlight reel from Hollywood’s longstanding fascination with disgraced literary stars and scandalous word-slingers.
“Citizen Kane”: Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece about the rise and fall of a newspaper magnate was loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, who built an empire peddling sensationalist yellow journalism before expanding into a slew of legit publications. Hearst, like his onscreen alter ego, Charles Foster Kane, became the master of his own demise, falling prey to a weakness for political power and Hollywood starlets, ultimately tarnishing his own legacy.
“Quills”: Geoffrey Rush scored an Oscar nomination for his tour de force performance as the titular French sexual revolutionary Marquis de Sade, who spent thirty-two years of his life in prison and insane asylums due to his penchant for combining sex and violence and then writing about it.
“Shattered Glass”: Based on one of the most sensational literary scandals to hit the magazine publishing world in the latter half of the twentieth century, this 2003 film stars Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, a celebrated young journalist who was revealed to have fabricated much of his reporting during his brief three-year stint at The New Republic.
“The Hoax”: Richard Gere stars as Clifford Irving, a struggling writer unable to get a book contract until he falsely claims that Howard Hughes has handpicked him to write his autobiography. After gambling that the lawsuit-wary Hughes wouldn’t press charges, Irving somehow becomes a pawn in Hughes’ relationship with Richard Nixon and publishes the book before being convicted and jailed for libel.
“Nothing but the Truth”: In an interview on the DVD of this 2008 drama, writer-director Rod Lurie confirmed that this story of an ambitious reporter (Kate Beckinsale) who writes a story exposing a covert CIA agent (Vera Farmiga) was based on New York Times correspondent Judith Miller’s legal ordeal following her story revealing Valerie Plame’s real identity. Like Miller, Beckinsale’s journalist is jailed when she refuses to cooperate with the federal prosecutor who has convened a grand jury investigating the leak.
“The Last Station”: This 2009 adaptation of the eponymous biographical novel chronicles the final months of Leo Tolstoy’s life, during which his wife and his disciple battled over the legacy and copyright of his works. James McAvoy plays Tolstoy’s young secretary, who is charged with negotiating between Sophia Tolstoy (Helen Mirren) and his literary acolyte (Paul Giamatti), who wishes to see Tolstoy’s oeuvre placed in the public domain.
“Howl”: James Franco stars as poet Alan Ginsberg in this 2010 experimental film that explores the life and work of the Beat Generation icon, whose boundary-pushing titular poem ultimately caused his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to be tried for obscenity in San Francisco in 1957.