By Juliette Harrisson
A great film, book or television series which is set in or makes reference to the ancient world can be the best possible way of getting people interested in Classics. My own interest in the Roman world stems from seeing repeats of the television adaptation of I, Claudius as a teenager, and I know many others inspired to love Classics by Graves’ book or the TV series, or Gladiator, or Spartacus. While frustrating for professionals, the level of accuracy in these films, books or series is not as important as the overall quality of the production; once interested, people can go and find out the history behind the story for themselves. If, on the other hand, the production or book is not good, it won’t grab anyone’s attention and might even put some off.
This is why I want to celebrate really high quality Classics-themed productions – not for their accuracy, which is sometimes seriously lacking, but for their quality. So many things have to come together to make a really high quality production, there isn’t room to celebrate them all in one post, so for today I want to focus on one aspect that is often the most memorable of all – performance.
Great performances can make or break a film or television programme. A bad or misguided performance in a lead role can spell disaster, but a great performance can be the thing that you still remember years later. It can also fix an idea of an historical character firmly in your head, accurate or not! As such, these might sometimes be a mixed blessing for Classicists, but for viewers, these ten performances are what keep eyes unhealthily glued to the screen.
I’ve tried to produce a wide-ranging list, but inevitably, there are more men listed here than women, as there tend to be more male characters in Classical films and television series; and I’m afraid I couldn’t help but over-represent the greatest Classical TV show of them all.
10. Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953).
From barking out the words ‘Friends! Romans! Countrymen!’ in a desperate attempt to get the attention of the mob, to somehow looking vulnerable despite his impressive physique as he walks alone towards Caesar’s assassins, to his tense interactions with Octavian, Marlon Brando is the emotional core of this film, an Antony who is less the drunken womanizer and more the devoted avenger. Of course, having Shakespearian dialogue to work with is always a help, but it is also up to the actor to deliver the dialogue in a way that brings out the meaning for modern audiences, and Brando does so perfectly.
9. Michelle Forbes as Maryann Forrester in True Blood Season 2 (2009).
True Blood’s Maryann the maenad has almost nothing in common with ancient followers of Bacchus, and derives almost entirely from modern popular culture’s notion of Bacchism as a celebration of drunkenness, irresponsibility and orgiastic sex. As such, Michelle Forbes’ performance as the ultimate bad guy in Season 2 of this popular vampire soap opera is perfect. Always in control while making those around her more and more out of control, always enjoying herself while never losing sight of her ultimate goal, Maryann is a great villain. She may not be representative of a real maenad, but her version certainly makes an impression!
8. Peter Ustinov as Batiatus in Spartacus (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1960).
Batiatus is a difficult character to play, an antagonist who saves Spartacus from death in the mines, then puts him in the arena, then flees to Rome, briefly reconnecting with Crassus before finally helping to save Varinia and the baby. Ustinov plays him as weak, self-serving, uncertain and bumbling, but just strong enough to assure the audience that he will indeed help Varinia to safety at the film’s conclusion. Always watchable in any role, Ustinov’s twitchy Batiatus brightens up the screen in a film filled with noble but rather less lively characters.
7. Graham Chapman as Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979).
There are several reasons Life of Brian is Python’s best-loved film; it’s got a much stronger narrative than the others, the religious satire has widespread appeal, and it’s simply very funny. But perhaps the most important reason is that Chapman’s very human straight-man performance at the centre of the film grips us as viewers and holds the whole thing together while madness takes place around him. No one can do a face of despair quite like Graham Chapman and it’s Brian’s likeability and desperation together that makes this more than a collection of sketches.
6. Siân Phillips as Livia in I, Claudius (1976).
As Siân Phillips explains on the DVD of I, Claudius, she was initially uncertain about how to play Livia, before director Robert Wise suggested imagining the story as a Mafia drama. The rest is history. Her scheming, cold, manipulative and yet ultimately frail Livia holds together the whole of the first half of I, Claudius, and the series just isn’t the same after her eventual demise.
5. Oliver Reed as Proximo in Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000).
There are a number of impressive performances in Gladiator, including Richard Harris’ philosopher-warrior Marcus Aurelius, Joaquin Phoenix putting in a great Mad Emperor turn as Commodus and Russell Crowe centring the film as tired general Maximus. But it’s Oliver Reed’s Proximo, a character killed off at the last minute when Reed himself died during filming, that is perhaps the most impressive, going from blackly comic (‘You sold me queer giraffes!’) to cold and hard, to tragic and always harshly but wisely realistic.
4. Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene in Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977).
It’s hard to play a prostitute turning to a religious leader and finding salvation without wandering into cliché, but somehow Anne Bancroft manages it. Perhaps it’s the sadness behind her eyes both before and after her conversion, perhaps it’s the sheer intensity of her performance, but in an all-star cast of the grandest kind (including Laurence Olivier, Michael York, James Mason, Peter Ustinov and a literally unblinking central performance from Robert Powell) Bancroft’s haunted Mary stands out.
3. John Hurt as Caligula in I, Claudius (1976).
For I, Claudius, Hurt dances around in a gold bikini, fondles his character’s own great-grandmother, plans the murders of half the powerful men in Rome and swallows his own unborn child under the delusion that he’s Zeus (offscreen, thankfully) but the most memorable moment of all is the one in which he asks his uncle, apparently in all sincerity, ‘Am I mad?’ In that moment, he is both so dangerous and so heart-breakingly vulnerable, I’ve had a soft spot for the maddest of all mad emperors ever since.
2. Max Pirkis as Octavian in Rome (2005-2007).
Simon Woods does a good job as the older Octavian for most of Rome’s second season, but it was Pirkis who created the role. His Octavian is a child prodigy, but not necessarily the good kind. Pirkis conveys through looks, through his always slightly superior tone, but most of all through stony silence, that he is ten times more intelligent than anyone around him. His affection for his sister (certain non-historical liberties aside) is clear, which given his lack of affection for anyone else gives his character a much-needed extra dimension, but for the most part it’s the cold, calculating side of him that impresses, and that convinces the audience that this boy could quite literally take over the world.
1. Brian Blessed as Augustus in I, Claudius (1976).
A third entry for I, Claudius, and both the two top spaces are taken by the same character, more or less, but perhaps that’s because Augustus is such a hard character to get right (and so easy to get wrong). Blessed plays the jovial paterfamilias Augustus with glee, but it’s the moments when the coldness that makes up Pirkis’ Octavian comes through, and we see glimpses of the earlier man who murdered half the nobles of Rome including Cicero and ruthlessly conquered an Empire, that he really impresses. Blessed’s own favourite scene, perhaps unsurprisingly, involves some impressive shouting but also encompasses Augustus’ power and the anger he is capable of, as he interrogates Julia’s roomful of lovers. The reason he is No.1 on this list, however, has nothing to do with shouting. In his most impressive scene of all he is utterly silent, lying on his death bed and watching Livia, listening to her excuse herself for murdering him. Halfway through the scene, with barely any movement, he dies, and you can almost see the light leave his eyes. If you ever find yourself tempted to think that Blessed can’t do anything but shout, watch this scene to remind yourself otherwise.
And the worst… Russell Barr as Maecenas in Imperium: Augustus (2003). He is less subtle than a pantomime dame.
Dr Juliette Harrisson is an Associate Lecturer a the Open University and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Birmingham. She also blogs about Classics in popular culture.