Can I really compare the coming to grips with age story of a late-night talk show host with one of Shakespeare’s great plays? I can and I will. The serendipity in this Golden Age of content makes such a comparison possible. On a flight from Austin, TX to Seattle , WA recently I watched two of Amazon’s productions: Anthony Hopkins’ King Lear, and Emma Thompson’s Late Night.
Thompson also played a key role in King Lear, as Goneril, one of Lear’s over-fanning daughters plotting her way to the top.
In Late Night, Thompson plays Katherine Newbury, she is already at the top here. Newbury represents the talk show host grown too comfortable with success, heading quickly toward cancelation by purposefully reinforcing her tired formula overtly erudite guests that don’t translate to the brash fluidity of social media.
Newberry is not in a position to break up her kingdom and cast it among her daughters, but she is capable of harsh cruelty to those closest to her. She rants and raves against the dying of the light, slamming everyone and everything except her self and her intransigence.
A key to the comparison is Mindy Kaling’s Molly Patel, which combines the roles of the fool and Cordelia, a woman who speaks truth to power and whose love finds itself reciprocated by abuse. I wonder if Kaling sought out these parallel’s or if my familiarity with Shakespeare, the rapid succession of viewing and my bias toward pattern recognition pushed me toward an unintended alignment.
To that point, much of Late Night revolves around the inequity women face in the workplace, even in workplaces run by women. And Lear also speaks to the failure to recognize the power of women in a man’s world.
If you watch Hopkins and Thompson portrayals back-to-back the bluster in the face of age and loss runs parallel. Lear is much more unbridled, but one can imagine Thompson in scenes that don’t appear on screen howling or growling. She is backed into a corner and must fight.
Unlike Lear, who fights his way toward lucidity too late to save the death sentences he confers upon his daughters, Newbury fights her inner demons to evolve, to find the present with no loss of life. She does nearly sacrifice those who love her most through infidelity, antagonization and the severing of contracts. Patel, the former chemical factory worker turned comedy writer, gets set adrift in a pool of late-night writers, perhaps too conveniently finding a job in her first interview–but the entirety of Newbury’s staff, like the court of King Lear, finds itself in a world of undermined assumptions and uncertain futures.
Late Night is dark comedy not tragedy. The isolation and deaths are metaphorical, and everyone seems to benefit from the shared catharsis.
But for this time when celebrity equates to royalty so much so that the royals who still matter do so more as celebrities rather than rulers, people who broker social influence more than political authority—Late Night creates an apt parallel to the curse of age.
But much has changed in 400 years. Newberry’s kingdom in one sense rules over a larger audience than any medieval king, in a power structure that asserts ideas rather than taxes. But any structure held In place by personality runs the risk of that personality losing its connection to purpose, missing the point of its existence, seeking false admiration over sincere love. In that way, Newberry and Lear find themselves in very similar situations that force those of a certain age to perhaps find time for introspection and evolution of their own. This potential for personal release alone makes both films worthy viewing—and I would argue, as a combinatorial binge on a gray afternoon when the sun is low and you are willing to remember that good media forces us to ask deep questions and confront our own demons.
Amazon’s King Lear Trailer
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