Monday, November 23, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Julius Caesar"

At the risk of sounding foolish, I have never really cared for William Shakespeare.

When I say that, I'm talking about actual performances of his plays, as opposed to reading them. The Bard's work is really best experienced textually, where you can look at the words, repeat them to yourself, study them and -- as is often necessary -- research them to figure out just what the heck ol' Will was saying.

It's not just the half a millennium that has passed between us, with a changing set of historical reference points and the understandable migration of the English language over that time.

Shakespeare was writing for an extremely literate audience -- one that lived in a city large enough to support a playhouse, and populated by people rich enough to afford to go. So he wrote long, beautiful prose that no living person, now or then, could possibly conjure to their lips on the spur of the moment.

I guess that's the thing I've never been able to get past with Shakespeare: It just doesn't sound anything like real people talking. Even the very best orators are not off-the-cuff eloquent and cohesive in their speech -- just listen to the difference when President Obama doesn't have a teleprompter in front of him.

Or, to get the fully glory of "ums," "y'knows" and the general disorderliness of regular people talking, just tune in to any of the podcasts we do over at The Film Yap.

All this is a rather long wind-up to saying that although I appreciated the wonderful acting performances and production values of Joseph L. Mankiewicz' 1953 production of "Julius Caesar," I simply had too hard a time piercing the dense fog of beautiful but confounding dialogue to really appreciate the film.

The cast is magnificent. John Gielgud plays Cassius, the main instigator of the uprising against Julius Caesar, who had defeated all his enemies and been declared Rome's dictator for life. James Mason is Brutus, Caesar's good friend and "the noblest man of Rome," who leads the assassins because he feels Caesar has usurped too much power.

Caesar -- a relatively minor character in the play and film that bears his name -- is played by Louis Calhern. And Marlon Brando is Mark Antony, his best friend and right-hand man. Edmund O'Brien is Casca, Greer Garson is Caesar's wife Calpurnia, and Deborah Kerr is Brutus' wife Portia.

The story is well known, so I won't belabor describing the plot. The film's high point is Marc Antony's address to the Roman throng on the stairs of the Senate shortly after Caesar's murder, where he slyly indicts Brutus and his co-conspirators without ever coming right out and saying it.

But really, the most compelling figure of the film is Brutus, who is played by Mason as a man of pure heart struggling with inner conflict. Even Mark Antony honors Brutus, even as he maneuvers to oust him and capture power for himself.

The depiction of Caesar's murder is particularly bloody for a 1953 film, but since the play had scenes with his murderers dipping their hands in his blood and so forth, it would be hard to film a family-friendly version.

The costumes, sets and other production values are top-notch -- this film won the Academy Award for art direction.

Although I must say those Caesar haircuts are distracting -- you know the ones, where the hair is parted a the crown of the head and combed forward. No matter how handsome the actor, he always looks like he's wearing linguine with that style.

I also couldn't help but notice that both Mason and Gielgud wear Roman-style sandals, but with a high heel that adds a few inches to their height. Both actors were tallish, just under 6 feet, so the effect is to make them loom over most of the rest of the cast. I didn't notice any other actors wearing lift shoes, and if you glance at their feet when they're visible in a few scenes, it's rather comical.

I hope you won't think ill of me that I just can't get into Shakespeare -- at least rote recitations of his plays. I think the best way to experience his timeless works is with movies that recast his language and setting in modern idioms, like Baz Luhrmann's 1996 "Romeo + Juliet" or the 1995 version of "Richard III" starring Ian McKellan.

Or just under a good lamp, with reading glasses, if necessary.

2.5 stars

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