Movies We Like
The DVD of the 1953 Hollywood version of Julius Caesar directed by the underrated Joseph Mankiewicz (All About Eve) has been relegated to old-time Shakespeare buffs and students not wanting to sludge through actually reading the play. And yes, it looks a little stagey and feels a little dated and stiff, but it’s still a politically relevant play and has one of the most fascinating casts ever assembled for a Shakespeare adaption. Headlined by a young buck in only his fourth film, Marlon Brando absolutely dominates the veteran cast around him and proves his genius. His performance alone makes the film more than watchable, and luckily there are a few other treasures to be found in it.
The now familiar plot goes something like this... worried the head dog of Rome, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern), was getting a little too powerful, his fellow politicians decide to kill him, led by the conniving Cassius (John Gielgud). Even Caesar’s good friend Brutus (James Mason) is convinced to join in the plot for the best of the Republic. The Senators all take turns stabbing Caesar (done mostly just off screen). After his death, Mark Antony (Brando), who was not part of the cabal and admired Caesar, is allowed to give a speech at his funeral only after agreeing to not implicate anyone. Brutus must deal with the nagging guilt, his still conspiring allies, and his wife Portia (Deborah Kerr). When Antony delivers the famous “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears speech” he convinces the crowd, using pure sarcasm and coded words, who is to blame for the murder. The speech is the centerpiece of the film and then it becomes a literal war between Antony and the conspirators who are all turning on each other.
Having sent tidal waves though the acting world with his stage and screen performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brando ushered in a new kind of realistic acting style, but many of the old timers pooh-poohed him and called him “mumbles” for his slurry and, well, mumbly voice. Mankiewicz nixed casting his first choice, an experienced British classical actor (Paul Scofield), for the young superstar. This was thought of as a stunt by many - box office over art - but Brando proved them wrong, his diction was perfect and there were no mumbles. He is utterly captivating and powerful, and gives the Bard’s often difficult to understand prose a touch of modernism, while still capturing the classical rhythms that are expected. Apparently Brando’s castmate, the uber-Shakespearean Gielgud, immediately tried to talk the wonderkid into letting him direct him in Hamlet, but Brando turned him down. Brando never returned to the stage, instead he followed up the film with performances in The Wild One and On The Waterfront, cementing his screen legend status.
Also making a strong impression was James Mason with his tortured Brutus, paving the way for more roles that would call on the actor to be full of self-doubt and gloom. After being a big deal in British cinema and breaking out in the Carol Reed thriller Odd Man Out, Mason went Hollywood and the fifties quietly proved to be a fascinating decade for him. Before Julius Caesar he had already teamed with Mankiewicz on the WWII thriller Five Fingers. He then played Rommel in The Desert Rats, a drug-addicted school teacher in Nicholas Ray’s bizarro Bigger Than Life, and bad guys in two of the decades biggest hits, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and North by Northwest. But Mason's peak was as Judy Garland’s anguished alcoholic has-been-actor husband in A Star Is Born, a role that finally brought him his first Oscar nomination (and still lives on just above his role as Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita as his most important performance).
Unfortunately for the film and audiences, Shakespeare’s text did not offer Brutus and Mark Antony a powerhouse scene together worthy of the two major talents on the screen. Had Brando and Mason gotten a great squaring off moment it could have elevated the whole movie to a much higher level. Gielgud and Calhern also take full advantage of their screen time and have their showy moments. Unfortunately the two women, Kerr and Greer Garson as Calpurnia, don’t have as much to do. But then again, Julius Caesar was always considered one of Shakespeare’s “boy’s plays.”
The politics of Julius Caesar have been interpreted in many different ways and can usually be twisted to prove a contemporary point. Certainly we can look at today’s Washington and see a bunch of conniving Congressmen killing their President under the guise of saving the country, when it was actually personal power they really were after. Or less graphically, they are willing to symbolically wound or bring down a President no matter the consequences or the havoc it could wreck on the country as a whole. Mankiewicz doesn’t appear to have been going after the politics of his day, though they were fertile for skewing (McCarthyism, racial divide, The Korean War, A-bomb paranoia, WWII hero Eisenhower recently elected President). Instead he gave a us a straightforward, meat & potatoes adaptation turned into haute cuisine by the electric presence of Brando.
Julius Caesar won an Oscar for Best Black and White Art Direction-Set Direction. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brando), Best Black and White Cinematography, and Best Music-Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.