Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

Cleaning Out The DVR, Again #8: Anne of the Thousand Days (dir by Charles Jarrott)


Anne

After I finished writing my review of Rolling Thunder, I continued the process of cleaning out my DVR by watching the 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days.  How does a film like Anne of the Thousand Days compare to a film like Rolling Thunder?

They might as well have been conceived, written, directed, and released on different planets.

I recorded Anne of The Thousand Days off of TCM on March 26th.  The main reason that I set the DVR to record it was because Anne was a best picture nominee.  It may seem strange to think that this rather conventional film was nominated the same year as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Z, and Midnight Cowboy.  It gets even stranger when you consider what wasn’t nominated that year: Medium Cool, If…, Last Summer, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Alice’s Restaurant, The Wild Bunch, Once Upon A Time In The West, and a long list of other films.  In fact, if I wanted to, I could probably spend this entire review listing all of the 1969 films that feel like a more appropriate best picture nominee than Anne of the Thousand Days.

And yet, Anne was nominated for best picture.  In fact, it received a total of 10 Oscar nominations, the most of any film that year.  Tellingly most of the nominations were in the technical categories and the only Oscar that it won was for its costumes.  Genevieve Bujold received a nomination for playing the title character and Richard Burton became the third actor to receive a nomination for playing King Henry VIII.

As for the film, Anne of the Thousand Days tells the oft-told story of King Henry VIII and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  Told in flashback as both Henry and Anne wait for her to be executed on charges of adultery, the film shows us how middle-aged Henry VIII first met and fell in love with 18 year-old Anne Boleyn.  Standing in the way of Henry’s pursuit of Anne was the fact that 1) Anne intensely disliked him, 2) Anne was already engaged, 3) Anne’s sister was already Henry’s mistress, and 4) Henry was already married to Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas).

Fortunately, Henry happens to be king and being king comes with its perks.

For instance, as king, he can order Anne and her fiancée to break up.  As king, he can casually dismiss his former mistress.  And, as king, Henry has the power that Anne finds to be the ultimate aphrodisiac.  At first, Anne merely loves the fact that Henry is obsessed with her.  But slowly, she comes to love Henry as a man as well…

The only problem is that Henry is still married and Catherine is still popular with the people.  Even after Henry divorces her and marries Anne, the common people refuse to accept Anne as their queen.  When Sir Thomas More (William Squire) refuses to recognize Anne as queen, Anne demands that More be executed.  When Henry initially shows reluctance, Anne announces that she will not sleep with him until More is dead.

Needless to say, Thomas More is quickly executed.

However, Henry’s attention has already moved on to Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson) and, desperate to get Anne out of his life, he arranges for Cardinal Cromwell (John Colicos) to frame Anne on charges of adultery and incest.  With Anne facing a humiliating trial and the possibility of execution, Henry makes her an offer.  If she agrees to an annulment, he’ll free her.  However, their daughter — Elizabeth — will lose her claim to the throne…

It’s telling that Charles Jarrott did not receive an Oscar nomination for his work as Anne of the Thousand Day‘s director.  There are a lot of technically good things about Anne of the Thousand Days but, despite all of the melodrama and sex and historical detail to be found in Anne, it never comes to life as a movie.  The costumes are to die for, the sets are impressive, and the cast is full of talented British character actors but the whole movie just feels oddly flat.  Try as it may, it can never convince us that either Henry VIII or Anne Boleyn is worth all the trouble.

Anne of the Thousand Days was obviously a big production, which probably explains all the Oscar nominations.  But otherwise, it’s one of the more forgettable best picture nominees.