In OUR Own Image and Likeness
The topic of religion has been on my mind as of late. Specifically the Christian religion. More specifically, the cinematic interpretations of the heroes of the Bible. In the Fifties and Sixties, religious "biographies" abounded in cinema. SAMSON and DELILAH, SODOM and GOMORRAH, and my favorite, The TEN COMMANDMENTS, to name a few, gave the audiences of that era the Bible in all its Technicolor glory. As opposed to the "sand and sandal" epics of the same time, Bible stories painted romantic pictures of these people, stiffly regurgitating passage after passage of the Bible, as if King James himself had gone and taught ancient Jerusalem to speak in his distinctive style of oration.
What I'd like to examine today is the evolution of Jesus in cinema. Now before we get out the burning stakes and filing the excommunication papers, I'll be examining how Jesus the movie character has been portrayed through the decades, and how Society has always "created" their own deities to fit the times. This is not an examination of the beliefs or philosophies of any religion. It's just a cinematic look at a character. I'd like to look at three head-to-head comparisons: The 60's Max Von Sydow" vs. Jeffrey Hunter, the 70's Ted Neeley vs. Victor Garber, and the modern Willem Dafoe vs. James Caviezel. Here we go:
Jeffrey Hunter, in KING of KINGS (1961), played a very straightforward Jesus, quoting, verbatim, the New Testament in his best Shakespearean, King James baritone (or his version of baritone). Sixties' Society wanted no deviation from the "Script"-ures, so, if you read the Book, you had a good idea what to expect. Same applies to Max von Sydow in The GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965). One main difference I found is that because KINGS was done earlier in the Sixties, the tone on the movie was heavier, the dialogue more stilted, and the music much,
much more majestic, mirroring the Biblical epics of the Fifties and Sixties.
By the Book
Conversely, the dialogue in Sydow's version is lighter, more relaxed, as if the actors were actually speaking to each other, rather than spouting rote Bible passages. The music was sadder, relying heavily on violins to underscore the Story. If I were to pick a preference, though, I would go with Jeffrey Hunter, not only because I prefer my traditional Bible stories to be musically leaden and the dialogue Biblically stilted, but he later played the original Christopher Pike in the pilot episode of STAR TREK. Max von Sydow made his fortune after STORY playing every movie villain he could find.
Advantage - Jeffrey Hunter in KING of KINGS.
In the Seventies, Jesus became a rock star. The two representative movies, Jesus CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (1973) and GODSPELL (1973), the telling of the last week of Jesus' life could not have been more different. Ted Neeley, as a brooding, moody Jesus, saw himself in a situation with which he not only had no control, but didn't want the job. The movie focused on the anguish of having the Savior of All Mankind responsibility dropped on him like a Looney Tunes anvil.
In that very same year, a polar opposite telling, or rather singing of the same week was celebrated as Victor Garber, a happy, hippy Jesus joyously sang his way to his inevitable doom with a cast of clowns and performance artists in the movie adaptation of the Off-Broadway Production GODSPELL. There were some nay-sayers grumbling that Our Lord and Savior should not be portrayed in such a disrespectful manner, but that movement never took root. Garber went on to play Daddy Warbucks in the ABC TV movie version of ANNIE, and, oh yeah, he was also in some little-known small-screen action drama opposite Jennifer Garner. Neeley is still out there, playing Jesus live on stage in road productions of SUPERSTAR. In this smackdown, however, Garber gets the nod, albeit a personal prejudicial ruling, simply because that show got me through some bad
times in my life.
And Now For Something Complety Different...
Advantage - Victor Garber in GODSPELL.
Even though these next movies were almost two decades apart, they both reflect a modern take on a familiar story. The LAST TEMPTATION of CHRIST (1988) showed Willem Dafoe as a complicated Jesus, much, much more human, much more emotional than his predecessors. It showed a Mary Magdalene plying her trade and Jesus (gasp!) having sex! The Catholic Church was outraged and condemned this movie, while horrified, indignant Catholics protested at any theater where it was being shown. I have personal experience in that aspect, as I passed one of my best friends in a picket line to see the movie. Unfortunately, the negative publicity around the movie backfired; TEMPTATION grossed more per money per screen that one of the highest-grossing movies that year, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). As the saying goes, whether it's good publicity or bad publicity, just spell my name right. Ironically enough, another controversial movie made a few years earlier, HAIL MARY (1985), the modern re-telling of the Nativity, was also condemned by the Church, but since it wasn't vilified by the public, and not a very good movie to begin with, it just faded away. Advantage - Willem Dafoe in LAST TEMPTATION of CHRIST
Moving on, the new millennium heralded, in my opinion, the most controversial portrayal of the last week of Jesus' life put to film, and that was The PASSION of the CHRIST,(2004). In this portrayal, James Caviezel's Jesus is portrayed not only as a reluctant Jesus, but openly condemns his Father's mission for him by helping the Romans and building crosses for their executions. The level of graphic violence for any other movie would have not only been condemned by the Church, it would have gotten any other movie an NC-17 rating, in my opinion. Yet, because it was Our Lord and Savior - hey - we need more whipping! This smackdown has a clear winner for me, and that would be Dafoe's portrayal. It was more watchable, and it was in English.
There are around thirty versions of the last week of Jesus' life - going all the way back from the
beginnings of Hollywood to today, some obscure, others (intentionally) funny. Each director, each writer tried to find that niche that will make their telling of the story unique from the others. These six examples show that the same story can be interpreted in six completely different ways: from the by-the-Book films of the Sixties, to the rebellious, anti-establishment songfests of the Seventies, to the gritty, hard-edged Jesus of the last twenty years. Some other ironies here: Norman Jewison, director of SUPERSTAR is himself Jewish, who just the year before had directed the big-screen version of FIDDLER on the ROOF (1971), which was proclaimed as a masterpiece and a reverent portrayal of Jewish life in Tsarist Russia, was severely criticized for SUPERSTAR's portrayal of the Jews. Martin Scorsese, a devout Catholic, was heavily criticized by the Church for LAST TEMPTATION. Each was trying to make an affirmation of their faith in their own way, and both got slammed.
Savior of the Universe - What a Bummer
My personal favorite? If you haven't figured that out, it would be GODSPELL, no competition, though the stage version was more personal. No other telling of the Life and Death of Jesus was I able to drink "wine" with the cast, and watch my girlfriend chase Peter down the street to get an autograph.
As mentioned previously, this has not been a critique or an evaluation of the philosophy of the Story. It is merely an observation of the different styles of telling it, and how creative a writer/director must be when they not only has a "script" they can't change, they've got the Entire Religious Universe breathing down their neck to make sure they "get it right."
Of course, I could be wrong!
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Every other Wednesday
Until I find my footing, I'd like to vent on the state of today's movies. I will occasionally praise a movie that piques my fancy. But it's a whole lot more fun railing against a person's work who makes more money on a single project than I would make if I lived 500 years. Oh, I will usually make observations on movies rather than films. The difference? Films are critically acclaimed, while movies are just darned good fun.
Born in the Fifties with an extreme phobia for movies in general, I became obsessed with movies when I broke that phobia with the first movie I actually enjoyed, “The Ten Commandments.” I particularly like the kind of movie where you can put your brain on hold. I get enough reality and drama in my everyday life; I refuse to pay someone to subject me to the same. |
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