Don’t tell Chuck (again)

(Or, Creative Differences Two)

Having enjoyed LUST FOR LIFE no end, I popped THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY on, because that’s the other film based on one of Irving Stone’s popular art biographies. MGM had optioned LFL and sat on it for ten years, concluding “There’s no story there.” Then Minnelli came along and disagreed, and we got the film. TAATE definitely has a clearer kind of story, it’s based around a single goal (the Cistine Chapel ceiling) and it has a central conflict (Michelangelo vs. Pope Julius II). But it differs from most mainstream movies in that the conflict results in creation, not destruction.

This movie has not much of a reputation. Carol Reed was considered past his best in 1965, and so was the historical epic. It’s a white elephant picture par excellence. But I rather liked it. Shot by Leon M. Shamroy, designed by John DeCuir, two men with spectacular lists of credits, it’s a visual feast, and mostly the splendor avoids vulgarity.

Oh, except when Michelangelo gets his inspiration from a matte painting, that’s awful.

Chuck Heston in his memoir talks about the difficulty of playing Michelangelo is that the man didn’t seem to be interested in anything but his work. Really, Chuck? Diane Cilento has been pasted into this picture as a beard to heterosexualise the hero. Since Heston is always stiff in the wrong way around women, not much passion is suggested, but Chuckles is devoid of any trace of ambiguity so the effort could probably have been spared. Still, screenwriter Philip Dunne has included an archly amusing scene where the Pope has soldiers hunting for his painter, who’s gone on the lam. They;re seen searching a brothel, where a half-naked woman in bed is in hysterics: “You’re looking for Michelangelo in THIS HOUSE?”

So we have the amusing situation of Heston playing, for the second time (after BEN-HUR) a character whose sexuality he’s not allowed to know about. He isn’t terrible in the part — it’s not like his demented Moses — but had Rex Harrison a nimbler, more vulnerable and expressive co-star, it could have been pretty great. The agony doesn’t really come across. Michelangelo gets sick, but I missed much sense of backbreaking toil, and of course we never see anything really get painted, just the odd stroke.

The Reed film this most resembles is probably TRAPEZE, if you think about it.

But — Reed found to his surprise that the Vatican was willing to let them film in the real Cistine. But he turned them down. And he was right. DeCuir’s team built an identical replica at Cinecitta, ceilinged it with photographs of the real thing, with the colours brightened to make it look like new. And when Pope Julius leads his reluctant artist into the chapel for the first time, Reed can tilt up to reveal — a BLANK Cistine Chapel ceiling. Having a duplicate to shoot in obviously also freed the filmmakers from all kinds of restraints. But that’s an expensive solution!

Like everyone else who crossed Sey Rexy’s path, Heston found him tricky, though he has the appealing habit of trying to like everyone. He notes that Harrison objected strongly to carrying a papal pointer in a scene which was supposed to end with him breaking the pointer over Michelangelo’s back, an incident which really happened, was the climax of the scene, and was even referred to in dialogue later.

The script is by Philip Dunne, writer of Fox movies for thirty-plus years, some of which (THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) are great. This one’s literate, and doesn’t suffer too much from Epic Dialogue Syndrome.

Rex Harrison’s memoir is hilarious on this one. Harrison’s huge ego demands that he be the star in a film about Michelangelo even though he’s not Michelangelo. “I don’t think Carol was himself. I think Charlton Heston was absolutely himself, and by the end I didn’t know who I was. Pope I knew I was, though the real star was Michelangelo, and Heston very politely and very nicely made me feel that it was extremely kind of me to be supporting him. Carol did little to disabuse him of this notion, so I did everything I could to make myself believe that the picture was about Pope Julius rather than about Michelangelo. In this I was not too successful.”

They wanted Olivier, Rexy.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY stars Moses; Professor Henry Higgins; Molly Seagrim; 13th Earl of Gurney; Prof. Alberto Levin; Prof. Henry Wassermann; Largo; Pat Garrett; Julia Martineau; Manuel ‘Cuchillo’ Sanchez; and Chief Inspector Tim Oxford.

16 Responses to “Don’t tell Chuck (again)”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Agony Without Ecstasy” would be a better title for this “Prestige” fiasco. The real Michelangelo looked a lot close to Robert Newton than Chuck — and like Francis Bacon he was into Rough Trade. Rex was just off one of this greatest performances in Mankiewicz’s autumnal masterpiece “The Honey Pot” Carol Reed was adjacent o “Oliver” his Oscar “Gold Watch” After this there would be “Flap” a little scene comedy about Native Americans adapted from Clair Huffaker’s novel “Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian” — a much better title Next to no one saw tt which is a sham as it’s not bad and its cast includes the unspeakably lovely Tony Bill.

    As for Chuck, Maybe this Kander and Ebb show stopper could be written for him.

  2. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Andrei Konchalovsky recently put out an arthouse take on Michelangelo, a Russian-Italian production called “Il Peccato”. Haven’t seen it yet. My favorite version of Michelangelo, so far, is the one in Renato Castellari’s Life of Leonardo da Vinci where he appears as an asshole upstart raging at Leonardo as an old man out of his time.

    I recently saw Carol Reed’s “A Kid with Two Farthings” on Criterion Streaming, and that’s a lovely movie about a Jewish community in Postwar London which is also a kind of Proto-Altman tapestry (or closer to home, a homage to Hamer’s ‘It Always Rains on Sunday’). I think that’s his last great film. It’s funny how when Lean went epic, he made great films like Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan’s Daughter but Reed floundered by comparison with the expansion in scale.

    It’s kind of weird that producers thought that Lust for Life didn’t have dramatic material (given that it’s VVG who has one of the most dramatic lives of any artist in any medium) whereas Michelangelo certainly didn’t have any dramatic material since he basically worked hard all his life, was great at everything he did and found fame and fortune. I mean there’s nothing in that story in terms of drama (in the case of Leonardo his endless procrastination at least gives a hint of mystery to provide an intervention). Just like there’s no drama in the making of Citizen Kane (hence the failure of multiple attempts to make a movie about the production of that film).

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Love is the Devil” (also with Tilda) is fabulous too. James Bond makes for a perfect George.

    Back in the early0’s when I was working as a guard at the Met, I got to know Bacon a tad

    He was a Terrible Sweetie.

  4. As a portrait of an artist, The Horse’s Mouth is awfully good, though the filmmakers had the advantage of an invented artist in that one.

    I love Savage Messiah. Sculpture is more cinematic than painting because the camera can explore a sculpture in three dimensions, but sculpting is less cinematic than painting because you can’t see it happen in real time. Though Heston can bang away with a chisel more convincingly than he can daub with a brush.

    I was impressed by Caravaggio (which I saw with Jarman and Swinton in person). Very good low-budget solutions to seemingly insuperable problems, like not being able to afford reproductions of the paintings. “We went for a decent imitation of Renaissance under-painting.”

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “Savage Messiah” (for which Derek did the production design) is quite wonderful — especially for Mirren doing “Nude Descending a Staircase” Whatever happened to Scott Anthony?

  6. When Ken came to Edinburgh for a screening put on by my friend Niall Fulton, he asked the same question. Only later did it emerge that SA had been working quietly in community arts all this time.

  7. Jeff Gee Says:

    I did a week in Facebook jail for attempting to post the Savage Messiah staircase scene. Totally worth it. An HONOR, in fact.

  8. Truly, a scene with what Billy Wilder termed “flesh impact.”

  9. bensondonald Says:

    Trivium: When MAD magazine parodied TAATE, they reset the plot in modern times. Heston was an interior decorator, Harrison was a rich prizefighter who wanted him to do the ceiling of his restaurant.

  10. Harrison’s ego basically destroyed any future he could have had as a character actor. He turned down the Olivier part in Nicholas and Alexandra, as !I don’t do cameos”, but by the end of the decade, he seemed to settle with being a special guest star, with anyone brave/rich enough to work with him. Hence big budgetEuropudding junk like Crossed Swords, Ashanti and 5th Musketeer and less prestigious, Matt Cimber’s Mario Puzo’s A Time to Die.

  11. I recall him claiming he made few films because “The parts I’ve been offered are so pornographic, I mean UTTERLY pornographic…”

  12. Movies about painters bank on nobody in the audience having the capacity (or inclination) to read a book– or see the goddamn paintings.

  13. Stan Brackhage proved how little painting and cinema have to do with each other, sitting in a cafe with a Joan Mitchell book open as he wiggled and wiped his brush on celluloid — the schmuck!

  14. I always misspell his name. Because. Fuck him.

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