Saturday, February 9, 2013

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Casting Coup Month: Ben-Hur

Best Picture (WON)
Best Director - William Wyler (WON)
Best Actor - Charlton Heston (WON)
Best Supporting Actor - Hugh Griffith (WON)
Best Adapted Screenplay - Karl Tunberg
Best Film Editing - Ralph E. Winters/John D. Dunning (WON)
Best Cinematography, Color - Robert Surtees (WON)
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color - William A. Horning/Edward C. Carfagno/Hugh Hunt (WON)
Best Costume Design, Color - Elizabeth Haffenden (WON)
Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Miklos Rozsa (WON)
Best Sound - Franklin Milton (WON)
Best Effects, Special Effects - A. Arnold Gillespie/Robert MacDonald/Milo B. Lory (WON)

Ben-Hur. My oh my. It set a new standard for Hollywood Epics, breaking box office records and taking home the most Academy Awards won by any film. To this day, only two films have equaled this feat -- Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King -- yet none have surpassed it. It cemented Charlton Heston's legend and got Hugh Griffith, of all people, an Oscar. And thanks to contributing screenwriter Gore Vidal, it was able to present a "Tale of the Christ" that would appease the Bible-thumpers while winkingly suggesting some homoerotic play between the leads. That's a masterpiece, baby.

Adapted from the novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jew in Judea whose boyhood best friend Messala returns as Roman tribune. Messala wants Judah to spy on his Jewish brethren, however, and this disagreement on God and politics tears the friends apart (or is it, as Vidal suggests, that Judah is not willing to act on the lusty looks Messala gives him?). When the new Roman governor arrives, Judah's sister accidentally dislodges a loose roof tile and knocks the man down. Messala has the family imprisoned for attempted murder as an example, with Judah sentenced to the galleys. Judah survives, saves the Roman commander of the ship, and becomes a champion chariot-racer, all the while swearing vengeance against his former friend.

I was lucky enough to see this film for the first time just two weeks at the historic Cinerama Dome in beautiful (depending on the angle) Downtown Hollywood -- yes, that Hollywood! It was a remastered digital print, and it was GORGEOUS. And the performances were INCREDIBLE. I've never been on the anti-Heston bandwagon, and he's superb here as the good and noble Judah Ben-Hur. The scenes with his family just did me in, especially in Part II. Meanwhile, Hugh Griffith really does steal many scenes as Sheik Ilderim, so I understood the Oscar win -- though now it's interesting to watch an Oscar-winning performance delivered in black face. Jack Hawkins was his usual great self, with Andre Morell putting a short, early appearance that delighted me, and yeah, I'mma give it up for Finlay Currie.

But Stephen Boyd's Messala? I want to write home about that performance. It was SUBLIME, because you see how he and Judah were such great friends before, but you also understand his thinking regarding the infallibility of the Roman Empire. And if you can only really hate someone you once loved, well Boyd is giving us the proof in spades, from Part I's affectionate, almost carnal, looks to Part II's smug, punchable smirks. When I saw The Fall of the Roman Empire, I didn't know he had this in him. What happened between 1959 and 1964?

And how did it get worse?

Probably the director. William Wyler is regarded as one of the greatest directors of all time, not just offering visual feasts in many different genres, but also guiding many a Hollywood star to their finest performances. This is his reputation, I mean, and of the four films of his I have seen, I see little to disprove that notion. Ok, fine, Mrs. Miniver is a little dull, but it's got Walter Pidgeon! Besides, I will never begrudge praise for the man who gave us The Big Country, one of my all-time favorite films. If I was to make a Top 100, it would probably fall within the Top 50. And then, of course, there's Friendly Persuasion, which I actually think deserves more praise than the Palme d'Or and six Oscar nominations could manage. What I'm saying is, I ain't seen much of the guy, but I like what I see, and Ben-Hur is no exception.

No discussion of Ben-Hur is complete without mentioning the chariot race, an eye-popping spectacle in Part II that has aged not at all in its breathtaking mastery of sound and editing, of action and suspense. You see a man literally thrown from his chariot and climb back on without the horses slowing down -- and it's all real! None of that CG bullshit that would no doubt have to be utilized thanks to activist groups and unions, which, ok, thank goodness that people and animals aren't being brutalized for the sake of entertainment, but there's something to be said for the authenticity that we lost when we decided to care about others.

Was it worth giving up?

A brief hint of the sour, though: while Ben-Hur won eleven Oscars, it was nominated for twelve. The only loss was in Best Adapted Screenplay, of all things, but this may have had less to do with the script itself than with the nominee. See, Karl Tunberg is credited as the sole writer of the screenplay, btu according to the cast and crew, his draft was dreadful and tossed aside, more or less. The version we know is thanks primarily to Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry, who did a rewrite and polish job, respectively. Indeed, producer Sam Zimbalist intended to get them credit, but died before completion of the film. Tunberg took the opportunity to appeal to the WGA, and they awarded him sole credit. When the script was nominated, Wyler, Heston and Vidal made sure that everyone in both the Academy and the press knew the names that should have been on there -- so no Oscar for Karl.

It's a shame that that's his legacy -- if he had played nice, he could have sat happily alongside Vidal, Fry, Wyler and Lew Wallace in bringing to life one of the greatest stories of all time, with one of the great ensembles. And how could I resist a legend like Ben-Hur for Casting Coup Month? After all, it's a classic, and therefore bound to start an argument. Let's get to it:

Who is He: Emperor of Rome.

Originally played by:
George Relph (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The Final Test)

My Choice: Academy Award/BAFTA Award/Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Cabaret)
Joel Grey (Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Dancer in the Dark)
I just like his face for this. He's got such a great face.

Who is He: Former governor of Judea, he's on the way out when Messala arrives as the new tribune. Sextus finds the Jewish population troubling, yet also concedes that their religious beliefs are intriguing, perhaps not to be scoffed at.

Originally played by:
Andre Morell (Barry Lyndon, The Message)

My Choice:  Academy Award/SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Winter's Bone), Golden Globe/SAG Award Nominee for Best Actor [Drama] (The Sessions), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (American Gangster)
John Hawkes (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Lincoln)
A brief but memorable role, embodied by one of our great character actors. Necessary.

Who is He: Messala's fellow tribune.

Originally played by:
Terence Longdon (Carry On, Sergeant, The Sea Wolves)

My Choice:
Austin Nichols (The Day After Tomorrow, The Informers)
Perfect. Young enough to pass for a tribune (they were generally taken on in their late-20s), with a familiar face that isn't so famous that it'll distract. Capable actor.

Who is He: The new governor of Judea, overseer of the chariot race.

Originally played by:
Frank Thring (El Cid, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome)

My Choice: Hollmann Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Julie & Julia), Academy Award/BAFTA Award/Golden Globe/SAG Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Lovely Bones)
Stanley Tucci (Margin Call, The Hunger Games)
Can he preside over a popular tournament with a mortality rate? What do you think? He's Tucci, one of our great character actors, and he can bring real presence to Pilate while looking damn good in a toga.

Who is He: One of the Wise Men from that "We Three Kings" tune, he returns to Judea to seek the adult version of the baby he paid homage to all those years ago. He introduces Judah Ben-Hur to Sheik Ilderim.

Originally played by:
Finlay Currie (Quo Vadis, Solomon and Sheba)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Lawrence of Arabia), Golden Globe Winner for Best Actor - Drama (Doctor Zhivago) and Best Supporting Actor (Lawrence of Arabia)
Omar Sharif (Funny Girl, The Tamarind Seed)
A powerful presence with a voice filled with wisdom. When Omar Sharif tells you to forget about revenge and listen to the Sermon on the Mount, it just makes sense.

Who is He: A servant of the House of Hur, father of Esther. In the aftermath of the governor's injury, he is imprisoned when he tries to appeal to Messala to spare the Hurs. He is tortured and crippled before they release him.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (The Asphalt Jungle)
Sam Jaffe (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Dunwich Horror)

My Choice: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama and Musical/Comedy (Heroes, Night Shift)
Henry Winkler (Scream, The Waterboy)
I know everyone loves Winkler the way we should love American treasures, but I really do believe we sell him short on his acting ability. He could sell the loyalty and eventual anger of Simonides, and yes -- he would find a subtle way to do it. Winkler's great at underplaying things.

Who is She: Judah's sister, who always had a thing for Messala. She accidentally dislodges a loose roof tile that strikes the new governor, and is arrested for attempted assassination. Left in prison, she contracts leprosy.

Originally played by:
Cathy O'Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Miniver Story)

My Choice:
Alyson Stoner (Cheaper by the Dozen, Step Up)
Look at that face. You wouldn't want her to get leprosy. 

Who is She: Mother of Hur. Along with her daughter, she is imprisoned and left to rot, only to contract leprosy.

Originally played by: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actress (Our Town)
Martha Scott (The Ten Commandments, Airport 75)

My Choice: Academy Award Nominee for Best Actress (Little Women) and Best Supporting Actress (The Age of Innocence), BAFTA Award Nominee/Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actress (The Age of Innocence), SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (How to Make an American Quilt, Black Swan)
Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands, The Dilemma)
With that voice of hers, Ryder sells defeat. I want to get her in some rich-lady finery, too, before putting her through the gamut. It'd be a superb and surprising performance.

Who is He: Has a team of horses intended for racing. Balthasar tells him of Judah's prowess, and Ilderim gets the young guy to train and ride as his charioteer in The Circus. To sweeten the deal, he also makes an abnormally large bet with Messala.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Ben-Hur), BAFTA Award Nominee for Best British Actor (Tom Jones), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Supporting Actor (Tom Jones, The Fixer, Oliver!)
Hugh Griffith (Oliver!, The Abominable Dr. Phibes)

My Choice:
Fares Fares (Snabba cash, Zero Dark Thirty)
When I saw him in Zero Dark Thirty, I knew I had to see him in more, bigger roles. It'd probably be nice not to use black-face for this role, too. 

Who is He: Commander of a Roman naval fleet, in particular the galley-ship where Judah Ben-Hur is enslaved. Ben-Hur rescues him during a battle, and in gratitude for both this and the Jew's success in the chariot races, he adopts him as his son and heir.

Originally played by: BAFTA Award Nominee for Best British Actor (Crash of Silence, The Cruel Sea, The Prisoner, The Third Key)
Jack Hawkins (Zulu, Theatre of Blood)

My Choice: Academy Award/BAFTA Award Winner for Best Actor (Kiss of the Spider Woman), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama and Musical/Comedy (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Children of a Lesser God, Broadcast News)
William Hurt (Gorky Park, The Countess)
One thing you should learn: I am a huge William Hurt fan, and consider him to be the greatest living actor. This is a role that requires strength, nobility, defeat, sympathy, warmth,'s perfect. It's perfect for William Hurt. ALL HAIL WILLIAM HURT!

Who is She: Daughter of Simonides, she was supposed to get married before her father was imprisoned. The nuptials never happened, which is great because she and Judah Ben-Hur are in love!

Originally played by:
Haya Harareet (The Secret Partner, Journey Beneath the Desert)

My Choice:
Blake Lively (The Town, Savages)
Dye her hair brown like in Green Lantern and let her do her thing. I may be in the minority here, but I think she's a fascinating actress, and I absolutely adore her voice. It's a fight between her and Ryder in the Husk-Off. 

Who is He: A Roman tribune, best friends with Judah Ben-Hur from when they were children. When Judah refuses to spy on his fellow Jews for the Romans, Messala turns against his old friend. They become foes, with Messala ordering the imprisonment of the Hurs though he knows of their innocence. Funnily enough, Messala is a champion at the chariot races as well.

Originally played by: Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Ben-Hur)
Stephen Boyd (The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Oscar)

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Hairspray)
Zac Efron (Me and Orson Welles, the upcoming Parkland)
Efron's been fine playign nice guys, but I really like him most when he's playing someone well aware of how attractive he is, like in Hairspray, or with a carnal hunger, like in The Paperboy. This time we would put it to villainous use, though we'd still get the charm and chemistry with Judah before the split. I just like this guy.

Who is He: An honorable Jewish nobleman, head of the wealthiest family in Judea. He understands the resentment of his fellow Jews in the Roman occupation, so that even the entreaties of his best friend Messala cannot turn him against them. For this, and for protecting his sister, Judah is imprisoned and sentenced to become a galley-slave. His strength of character and overall refusal to be beaten leads him to becoming a son of Arrius and a champion chariot-racer, yet all the while his heart burns with vengeance.

Originally played by: Academy Award Winner for Best Actor (Ben-Hur), Golden Globe Nominee for Best Actor - Drama and Musical/Comedy (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, The Pigeon That Took Rome)
Charlton Heston (The Greatest Show on Earth, Planet of the Apes)

My Choice: SAG Award Nominee for Best Ensemble (Bobby)
Shia LaBeouf (I, Robot, the upcoming Nymphomaniac)
Another actor that I think gets short shrift, probably from doing "Even Stevens" and then "destroying people's childhoods" with his Indiana Jones and Transformers roles. First off, my God, if that really destroyed your childhood, just watch the goddam originals. Jesus. It's not that hard. Second off, to only cite those films would be to forget his vulnerability in Disturbia (yeah, I said it), his desperation in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, his charm in Bobby, and his combination of all three, mixed with some vengeance (sound familiar?) in the underrated Lawless. I want to see a chariot race between Louis Stevens and Troy Bolton, of course, but mostly I just want people to open their eyes to the talent that is Shia Labeouf.

Best Actor: Shia Labeouf
Best Supporting Actor: Zac Efron, Fares Fares, William Hurt, Omar Sharif, Henry Winkler
Best Supporting Actress: Blake Lively, Winona Ryder

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