A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, July 15, 2016

Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)

Julius Caesar is the starchiest of Shakespeare's major plays, the one with the least sex, which is why many of us first encounter it in a high school English class. It's a play about soldiers and politicians, professions from which women were (unless they were Queen Elizabeth) excluded in Shakespeare's time, so there are only two female roles: Brutus's wife, Portia, and Caesar's wife, Calpurnia, and both of them are almost walk-ons. (My high school drama teacher wanted to stage Julius Caesar as our class play until he realized that three times as many girls as boys wanted to try out for parts.) So the remarkable thing about MGM's all-star production is that it turned out so well: It's one of the best Hollywood productions of Shakespeare. (Calpurnia and Portia are lavishly cast with Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr, respectively, in the small roles.) That said, it's a shame that not quite enough was done to take the starch out of the play. The casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony was a start, but although it's a very good performance, it tends to throw the film out of whack. When it was released, Brando had been stereotyped as a "Method mumbler," for his celebrated performance on stage and screen as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). Could he rise to the demands of speaking Shakespearean diction? critics burbled. Of course he could, with a little bit of coaching from his distinguished co-star John Gielgud, who plays Cassius, and who was so impressed that he wanted Brando to go to London where he would direct him in Hamlet. That, of course, never took place, more's the pity. But the attention directed at Brando does tend to shift the focus away from the real central character of the play, Brutus, played with exceptional distinction by James Mason. Gielgud is also very good, although it seems to me that in the first part of the film he is a bit too stagy. Mason gives a kind of colloquial spin to his lines -- a sense that he's speaking what Brutus thinks and feels, and not reciting Shakespearean verse. Later in the film, when Brutus and Cassius go to war against Antony, Gielgud has loosened up more. Mankiewicz's adaptation of the play is solid, and he does smart things with camera placement -- putting the camera in the middle of the crowd, for example, when Brutus and Antony give their great speeches after Caesar's (Louis Calhern) assassination. But there is a kind of Hollywood Rome quality to the film -- not surprising, since it was made after the lavish MGM spectacle Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) and uses some of the same sets -- that tends toward the stodgy. That's more surprising when you realize that the producer of the film was John Houseman, who had also been a producer of Orson Welles's celebrated 1937 modern-dress Mercury Theatre production of the play, which created a sensation with its evocation of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany.