This big adaptation of Irving Stone’s big bestseller about Michelangelo, Pope Julius II and that big Sistine Chapel was a big fiasco for all concerned. But in spite of its miserable rep, it’s actually quite the big, fat entertainment. Charlton Heston’s acting range is all clenched teeth & dirty fingernails as Michelangelo, but he’s also a ringer for Mickey’s marble Moses (as De Mille noted when casting THE TEN COMMANDMENTS/’56) and that makes up for a lot. Rex Harrison’s got the bearing & voice for a Pope, plus he’s lit like a Titian portrait (courtesy of lenser Leon Shamroy) and given a characterization that looks back to his King of Siam (courtesy of scripter Philip Dunne). (Pope Julius & Michelangelo banter on about finishing the ceiling like Anna & the King arguing over her private house.) As director Carol Reed must have been aware, the film is not without its giggle-worthy moments, windy philosophical asides and that dreamy visualization of the Sistine Chapel in the clouds, but he does get over a sense of how precarious life in Rome had become. (Anyway, Reed had recently ‘walked’ on another mega-disaster, Brando’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY/’62, and had to see this thru.) They even do an intelligent job finessing Michelangelo’s ambiguous sexuality. No small thing in ‘65* And, in the superb 2004 restoration, you get to see another idea of what the frescos looked like when they were new. Tonally quite different than the real thing back in ‘65 or how they currently look after the recent major cleaning. (BTW, the film is just a little over two hours since the opening reel & a half are taken up by a potted tour of Michelangelo’s career as sculptor, closely modeled on the Oscar winning documentary, THE TITAN/’50.)
READ ALL ABOUT IT: Robert Hughes’ new historical tour of ROME, a great (if rather depressing) read, covers this period nicely.
DOUBLE-BILL: The best art direction for any film set during the Italian Renaissance goes north to a recreated Florence where the Gish sisters, along with Ronald Colman & William Powell made ROMOLA/’24 for Henry King. The available DVDs were all mastered from 16mm ‘dupe’ prints that barely reveal the astonishing urban sets and needle-sharp photography which include some divine color tinting effects. (That’s literally Divine, as in the Hand of God.) Since excellent materials exist for a proper restoration, perhaps the Gish estate will award its annual prize to itself and give this film the full restoration/musical score treatment it deserves/needs. It’s one of those films that dies a slow death on screen unless it’s shown at its full length (120 min) and with the best possible visual image.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Heston used to get all huffy when the subject of Michelangelo’s sexual orientation came up in interviews. But then, he also refused to see the gay sub-text Gore Vidal had slipped into the relationship between his Ben-Hur & Stephen Boyd’s Messala.