Another fine messiah


How do you cast Jesus? It seems a difficult thing to do. Paul Schrader pointed out that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST attempted something quite rare — most Christfilms tend to take a view which is actually, according to church doctrine, somewhat blasphemous — they portray Jesus as a wholly divine figure, walking about in human drag. This is apparently far more acceptable to the faithful than going the other way and showing him as entirely human. Schrader’s script favours a reading of Jesus as a man in some way directly connected to the divine consciousness, and the subsequent movie attracted quite a lot of criticism.

Traditional movie messiahs, from H.B. Warner to Max Von Sydow, haven’t really been very human at all (though only Jim Caviezel’s has reduced him to a literal slaughtered lamb, a dumb animal) — devoid of humour, flaws or convincing uncertainty, they seem to be already in possession of the full script. They embody the problem of the Movie Messiah: we all know the story.

Nick Ray, when casting I WAS A TEENAGE JESUS KING OF KINGS, actually considered Max Von Sydow for the part — but he probably wouldn’t have had the clout to pursue such an audacious call, as George Stevens did. This does suggest that for any generation, the number of options is surprisingly limited — unless you’re Pier Paolo Pasolini and you’re looking outside of Central Casting altogether.

The following are just some random thoughts on actors who might have brought something more interesting to the role.

John Garfield. Firstly, I’m sick of fair-haired Christs. Can’t we have an authentically Jewish King of the Jews for once? Moviemakers seem under the spell of an unspoken assumption that since Jesus was the son of God, a cuckoo laid in the nest of a Jewish handyman, he himself was gentile. (Shades of the WWI draft board chairman who remarked “Jesus Christ was British to the core!”) It’s a sinister, unquestioned and fascinating prejudice that creeps into nearly all mainstream depictions of the Lamb of God.

Garfield would not only have given us a Jewish Jesus, but a really angry one. Which might help Mel Gibson get over his spluttering outrage — I think he’d be down with the idea of a kick-ass Christ. (Suggested caption for the last shot of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST: “He’s back. And he’s mad.”) True passion is something Jeffrey Hunter and Max Von Sideboard seemed unable to really handle or suggest in the role, so Garfield’s trademark intense outrage would be welcome.

A Jewish Jesus might seem outrageous to some, but I don’t think it’s going far enough. Jesus was born in the Middle East, of Middle-Eastern parents (I’m not sure how God affects the genetic mix, but find the Hollywood assumption that he’d pass on light hair and blue eyes rather offensive). I can’t think of any true Israeli movie stars offhand, but if you wanted somebody more ethnically correct than Jeffrey of Louisiana or Max of Lund, you should probably think Omar Sharif. Who would bring a sunny (as opposed to Sunni), sexy and laid-back charm to the part. You can’t say that wouldn’t be at least interesting

I don’t see why you couldn’t be Muslim and play Jesus, just as I don’t see why you have to be Christian to do it — acting is an exercise of the imagination, and the only limit is within the actor’s mind. For that reason I’d also like to see basketball star turned actor Kareem-Abdul Jabbar play the part, just so he can be the only Jesus who, when suspended from the cross, still has his feet on the ground.

The other guys who seem like good casting, in a Mel Gibson kind of way, are John Barrymore and Marlon Brando, because they both loved to suffer. Gibson’s godawful film did seek to correct one major flaw in most New Testament adaptations, which is that Christ never seems to be in any real pain. He just looks a bit sad, as if God was sparing him the physical agony of being nailed up, speared etc. This would seem to defeat the whole point of the sacrifice (whatever the point is — it never made sense to me). Gibson’s problem, arguably, is that he got a bit carried away with this idea. His Jesus does nothing BUT suffer.

Incidentally, you know the controversy around The History Channel’s The Bible, where the make-up applied to Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, playing the Devil, makes him look a bit like Barack Obama? The makeup artist and producers insist this was not their intent, which suggests a somewhat asleep-on-duty approach — aren’t you supposed to notice when your character design turns into a political cartoon? But can I point out that even if the presidential resemblance was unintentional, the fact that they’ve taken a pale-skinned Arab actor and blacked him up to play Satan is, in itself, HIGHLY DUBIOUS.

More Easter musings from 2009.

Now, who would YOU like to see playing God’s favourite revenant?

20 Responses to “Another fine messiah”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Holman Hunt’s incredibly pretty, doe-eyed, diminutive Jesus (“The Light of the World”) has travelled to the National Gallery here in Washington DC for its big Pre-Raph blockbuster. This depiction seems to have strongly influenced Central Casting in the 20th century. Holman Hunt’s Christ is almost as lovely to gaze upon as Jeffrey Hunter.

    Related: TV chat show hell the other night on CNN as Roma Downey insisted, to Piers Morgan, that her beloved project THE BIBLE had no intention of “Obama-izing” Satan. _Nobody_, she quivered with suppressed rage, had the slightest idea, not one of the hundreds of people involved, made any visual connection in their minds, until nasty, godless haters of her beloved project pointed it out. Piers, of course, made no effort to challenge her.

    In any case, as you are one of the few to point out, why is Satan enacted by anybody, much less anyone from the Islamic world? Happily, no rioting on the streets has ensued . . .

  2. Jerry Stiller would make a good Jesus

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Ben Stiller as (a short) Jesus; Jerry Stiller as His Father, God. Anne Meara as the revered old Virgin Mary (this role needs to be played by a woman of Irish origin or descent).

  4. “Martin Scorsese IS Jesus Christ, in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ.” If not Jewish he’s at least Mediterranean; he used to sport a beard; and he would have made a thoroughly human, near-sighted Jesus, as befits the theme of his movie. But not even Martin Scorsese could envision a Jesus who looked like Martin Scorsese.

    The kind of Jesus that looks like a model and is encased in a divine nimbus upon his very first entrance always begs the question: why does this obvious God incarnate have only twelve disciples?

  5. Only twelve, what a piker. Charlie Manson had more.

  6. There does seem to be a grand tradition of Irish Blessed Virgin Mary. And the Irish love their BVM so I guess you’d have no shortage of takers. Sinead O’Connor was a hit in the part.

    Jerry Springer: The Opera, like Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, produced a fat Jesus (GV: “Jesus waddled up, as broad as he was tall.”), which seems to upset people on principle, even though it’s not technically blasphemous unless you regard being fat as a sin. And since it could just be His glands, how can we blame Him?

    A portly saviour does seem to rob the crucifixion of dignity, but then it’s the brutal execution of an innocent man, why should it be dignified?

    Charles Laughton would have been an AMAZING Jesus.

  7. Charles Laughton, yes!

    Jesus himself was kind of a Jewish mother. “Don’t mind me, I’m just dying for YOUR sins.” So passive-aggressive on the part of God.

  8. I just must not be watching the right Biblical films. No blonde versions of Jesus jump to mind, though, as it was my first version, and so star studded and lushly shot, I’ve always had a fondness for Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth mini-series, and he is blue eyed. And recently, I’ve enjoyed Henry Ian Cusick’s portrayal in The Gospel of John, even if it is more aimed at a docudrama feel with its Christopher Plummer narration throughout. Not Jewish, but the idea of a Scottish/Irish/Peruvian saviour sort of appeals to me.

  9. Wondered what would happen to HIC after Lost!

    As we have seen this Easter on Shadowplay, you always want a Scot around for your New Testament retelling. Nick Ray didn’t and look what happened to him.

  10. Christopher Says:

    Zeffirelli’s-Jesus of Nazareth amazes me the more times I see it..pity it wasn’t a big screen project ..Well I still think Klaus kinski would have made a good jesus…in small doses tho..not a leading part..

  11. Still haven’t seen it, though everybody seemed to be following it when I was a kid. Shot by David Watkin, so I imagine I’d find it visually enjoyable at least.

    Bruce Robinson nearly played the lead in that one, but he apparently had so much trouble fending off Zeff during Romeo & Juliet that he preferred to retire from acting and put all his anxiety into the screenplay for Withnail & I.

    Obviously, as HB Warner knew, dressing as Jesus confers a certain sexiness.

  12. Suddenly I have this image of Zefferelli starring in a remake of L’Histoire d’Adele H,

  13. Of course one could always “go amotherway” and have Jack Black as Jesus

  14. judydean Says:

    My most memorable Jesus was the Irish actor, Colin Blakely in Dennis Potter’s ‘Son of Man’ shown on BBC TV in 1969. He had neither blonde hair nor blue eyes nor a slim waist.

    That was in the magic time when the BBC commissioned work from our greatest writers and The Wednesday Play was discussed in offices and bus queues throughout the land.

  15. With the NHS undergoing stealthy dismantling, the BBC, already prostituted beyond recognition, is surely next. This kind of work induces a pang of nostalgia that isn’t sentimental: it’s the yearning for a lost loved one.

  16. Jenny Eardley Says:

    The Irish love their BVM, but their MBV is much more deserving.

    Faced with the task you’ve set I realise I don’t know what personality Jesus had. I’m not checking the bible, no way; I’m guessing he’d have to be a bit of a boss and organiser of men, with a rebellious streak. There’s no rule that he has to be a pretty boy, so I say Akim Tamiroff. Armenia is at least near the Middle East.

  17. Armenia? Alan Arkin! That’s a Jesus I could get behind.

    Jesus with a big cigar and a toupee a la Touch of Evil might take a bit of processing, but I think Tamiroff would make it work. He could play anything as long as it was foreign.

  18. Oooh, Alan Arkin…he did play a saviour, and a Jew, not JC, of course, in Escape from Sobibor, starring opposite Rutger Hauer. Very good film. Won a Golden Globe and a WGA award in 1988, nominated for five Emmys, one for Arkin as best actor. It’s on Youtube in full.

    As to Henry Ian Cusick…the Jesus gig was before, LOST, not after it, though I’m sure it sold more DVD copies after LOST aired. HIC has been for the past year and a half deluging the US primetime airways with various villains and interesting character pieces, and getting a terrific fanbase along the way. Though the lovely accent is usually absent, which I quite miss. He’s got a great ear for accents, though.

  19. Depressing that nobody’s come up with an offer to tempt him back to Scotland. Most Scottish producers are probably unaware of his existence.

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