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Annual New Yorker Fest had a Shakespearean twist

By Jocelyn Noveck
AP National Writer / October 4, 2011

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NEW YORK—To gab, perchance to argue. Ay, there's the way to make New Yorker magazine fans happy.

And so it was a delicious moment at the annual New Yorker Festival this past weekend when Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro mused to his co-panelist, Hollywood director Roland Emmerich: "I've long been interested in why smart people say dumb things."

Shapiro may have been musing, but Emmerich was steaming. He was, after all, the target of the remarks, because of his new film contending Shakespeare did not, in fact, write the plays we attribute to him. "This is cheap," he protested. "Please. Don't say this."

What could be better than a testy debate over Shakespearean authorship to get the weekend juices flowing? Each fall, New Yorker readers compete for tickets to hear their favorite authors, actors, directors, artists, and occasionally politicians -- House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi this year, for example -- muse, pontificate, and yes, argue.

But there was a little something extra this time around for Shakespeare enthusiasts. Actor Ralph Fiennes flew in Sunday from London, where he's playing Prospero in "The Tempest," to screen his upcoming film version of "Coriolanus," which he directed and in which he stars.

"It's nice to see you with a nose," quipped his interviewer, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane -- a reference, of course, to Fiennes' noseless run as Voldemort in the Harry Potter films.

Fiennes explained how he'd been "obsessed" with "Coriolanus," which he gives a bloody and visceral rendering in his film, for a long time. And he noted that, unlike the Potter films, "Coriolanus" was not an easy sell. "People weren't jumping up and down to finance this," he said drily.

But first, on Friday, there was the advance screening of Emmerich's "Anonymous" -- coincidentally also featuring Vanessa Redgrave -- which posits that it was actually the Earl of Oxford who wrote those great plays.

After the screening, Shapiro, who has written a book countering such claims, took pains to say how much he liked Emmerich's other films -- "Independence Day," for example. And then he drew his rapier: "Anonymous," he said, was "factually incorrect in almost every respect."

It took a fan to break the tension. "I'm just glad there's a movie out there that deals with these issues," the fan told the panel.

As usual, most of the festival tickets -- 78 percent of them -- were sold out in the first half day they went on sale. Ticket buyers came from 47 states and 19 other countries or territories. One event -- a reunion of cast and creators of the old Fox show "Arrested Development" -- was sold out in three seconds, the magazine said.

That event actually made news, with the announcement of plans for a new show spinning off "Arrested Development," which was canceled in 2006 after just three seasons.

And a different panel of prominent actors discussed how cable television is the most exciting place to work these days.

"Cable today is what independent film was in the '70s," said Laura Dern, who stars in the upcoming "Enlightened" on HBO.

Then things got touchy-feely. Edie Falco, of Showtime's "Nurse Jackie," mentioned how therapy was what helped her get in contact with her feelings, helping her as an actress. But Jeremy Irons (Showtime's "The Borgias"), didn't like the notion that you needed therapy -- or to be a woman -- to find those emotions. "Hey, I'm English, and I've found mine!" he quipped to laughter.

Also there was William H. Macy, who plays an alcoholic on Showtime's "Shameless." He tried to explain how his standards have changed over time for the roles he plays.

"In the beginning, I used to think, 'What does this do for the human condition?'" he said. "Then, it was: 'How much do I get paid?' And now, it's: 'Do I have to get wet?'"

Owen Wilson reflected on his own acting career at a late-night discussion with his longtime collaborator, director Wes Anderson. He recounted the experience of working with Woody Allen on "Midnight in Paris," in which the actor plays an American writer who manages to travel back in time to the Paris of the 1920s.

Allen, Wilson said, strongly rejected the idea that Wilson was playing "the Woody Allen role" in the film, always pointing out the vast differences between the two. But when it was time to figure out his attire for the film, says Wilson, the director kept rejecting the clothes proposed by the costume designer, saying they didn't look quite right.

"By the time he said yes, I was dressed exactly like Woody," Wilson recalled.