As some of you may know, I’ve spent the past two years on a mission. It is my goal to eventually see and review every single film that has ever been nominated for best picture. After taking a few months off, I am now ready to continue that quest. For that reason, I recently sat down and watched the 1953 best picture nominee Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic play about political intrigue, assassination, and demagoguery in ancient Rome. (Technically, what follows is full of spoilers but come on, people — it’s Shakespeare!) The citizens of Rome love their leader, Julius Caesar (played here by a very imperial Louis Calhern) but a group of senators led by Cassius (John Gielgud) fears that Caesar’s popularity will lead to the collapse of the Roman Republic. Cassius recruits Caesar’s close friend Brutus (James Mason) into a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March. However, once the deed has been done and Brutus has explained the motives behind the assassination to the Roman public, the previously underestimated Mark Antony (Marlon Brando) delivers his famous “Lend me your ears!” speech and soon, the people of Rome turn against the conspirators. In the end, the conspiracy’s efforts to save the Roman Republic instead leads to the birth of the Roman Empire.
Speaking as someone who loves both Shakespeare and history, it was an interesting experience to watch this particular version of Julius Caesar. As directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who later revisited the material in the infamous 1963 Best Picture nominee Cleopatra), Julius Caesar present a very traditional (and occasionally stagey) interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. However, by this point, we’ve become so used to Shakespeare being presented with a gimmick (like modern-day costumes, for instance) that the traditional approach almost feels like something new and unexpected. That said, Julius Caesar is definitely not the Shakespearean film to show to your friends who stubbornly insist that Shakespeare is boring or impossible to follow. Julius Caesar was obviously made by people who appreciate Shakespeare and that remains the film’s best audience.
When Julius Caesar was first released in 1953, it received a lot of attention because of the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony. An outspoken method actor who had been nicknamed “the mumbler” precisely because of his own internalized style of acting, Brando was considered to be too contemporary of an actor to be an effective Shakespearean. Once the film was released, critics agreed that Brando had proven that, even while mumbling, he made for an electrifying Mark Antony and that, despite only having a few scenes, his charismatic presence dominated the entire film. Out of an impressive cast, Brando received the film’s only nomination for acting.
It is true that, even when seen today, Brando does dominate the entire film. He delivery of Mark Antony’s famous oration over Caesar’s bloody corpse remains one of the best Shakespearean performances to have ever been preserved on film. It’s odd to watch this young, sexy, and energetic Brando and compare him to the legendary eccentric that we all usually think of whenever we hear the man’s name.
That said, Brando’s performance would not be half as effective if it wasn’t surrounded by the more traditional (but no less compelling) performances of James Mason and John Gielgud. Mason brings a brooding intensity to the role of Brutus and Gielgud is the Cassius by which all future Cassiuses must be judged. Their performances might not be as flamboyant as Brando’s but they’re no less important. Ultimately, the clash between the acting style of Brando and the styles of Gielgud and Mason nicely parallel the conflict over the future of the Roman Republic.
Julius Caesar won the Oscar for best art design and was nominated for picture, actor, cinematography, and original score. Brando lost the award for best actor to Stalag 17’s William Holdenwhile the Oscar for best picture of 1953 went to a far more contemporary film, From Here To Eternity. Brando, however, would win best actor the next year for his performance in On The Waterfront.