Up until last night, I was under the impression that James Mason never gave a single bad performance over the course of his long career. Oh sure, I knew that Mason had probably appeared in his share of bad films. But I figured he was one of those actors who was always better than his material. Just watch Lolita, The Verdict, Julius Caesar, Odd Man Out, Bigger Than Life, or Murder By Decree and you’ll see that James Mason was a great actor.
But then, last night, I finally got around to watching the 1975 film, Mandingo.
I’ve actually owned Mandingo on DVD for a few years. I bought it on a whim, the result of having seen it listed as one of the worst films of all time in several different reference guides. But I have to admit that I did not have any great desire to actually sit through the film. Instead, it was one of those films that you buy just so your very ownership of it can be a conversation piece.
(“Oh my God, Lisa, what’s this?” “Oh, that little old thing? That’s my copy of Mandingo…”)
However, when I decided to do Embracing the Melodrama, Part II, I realized that this would be the perfect time to actually watch and review Mandingo.
Mandingo deals with life on a sordid plantation in pre-Civil War Alabama. Warren Maxwell (James Mason) owns the plantation and he spends most of his time sweating and complaining about his rheumatism. When a Satanic slave trader named Brownlee (Paul Benedict) suggests that Warren can cure his rheumatism by always resting his feet on the backs of two little slave children, Warren proceeds to do just that. Seriously, this is a 127 minute film and, nearly every time that Mason appears on screen, he’s got his feet propped up on the children.
Warren’s got a son named Hammond (Perry King). Hammond walks with a limp, the result of a childhood pony accident. Warren expects Hammond to sire an heir to Maxwell family legacy but Hammond is only comfortable having sex with slaves. Finally, during a business trip with his decadent friend Charles (Ben Masters), Hammond meets and marries Blanche (Susan George). Blanche assures Hammond that she’s a virgin and, on their wedding night, she asks Hammond how to have sex. “We take off our clothes…” Hammond begins.
However, the morning after, Hammond is convinced that Blanche lied about being virgin because she enjoyed having sex. Once they return to the plantation, Hammond refuses to touch Blanche and instead ends up falling in love with a slave named Ellen (Brenda Sykes). When Ellen gets pregnant, Blanche beats her until she miscarries.
And meanwhile, James Mason keeps popping up with two little kids resting underneath his feet…
But that’s not all! Hammond has purchased a slave named Mede (Ken Norton). Mede is a boxer and wins Hammond a lot of money. In order to “toughen up” his skin, Mede is also forced to bathe in a cauldron of very hot water. “Shuck down those pants!” Hammond shouts before Mede gets in the cauldron.
Blanche, who is now an alcoholic, gets her revenge on Hammond by having sex with the the legendarily endowed Mede. Soon, Blanche is pregnant and Hammond and Warren are both excited. Then the baby is born and all Hell breaks loose.
And, meanwhile, James Mason rests his feet on the back of two little kids…
Mandingo is one of those films that you watch in wide-eyed amazement, shocked that not only was this movie made but it was also apparently made by a major film studio and directed by a professional director. (Before he directed Mandingo, Richard Fleischer directed everything from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to Doctor Dolittle to Soylent Green.) I know that some would argue that Mandingo used the conventions of exploitation cinema to expose the sickening inhumanity of American slavery but let’s be honest here. Mandingo is not Django Unchained. Instead, it’s a slow-moving soap opera that is occasionally redeemed by some over-the-top dialogue and histrionic performances.
And it’s also proof that James Mason was capable of giving a bad performance. According to the imdb, James Mason described Mandingo as a film that he did solely for the paycheck. From his terrible Southern accent to the way that he always seems to be trying to hide his face from the camera, Mason gives perhaps one of the worst performances ever given by a legitimately great actor.
But really, can you blame him?