Whether you are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist, or like me, a Scientific Pantheist with pagan leanings (look it up), this week promises one thing other than bunnies and painted eggs...that's right...movies about Jesus! I've been watching some doozies on the Christian station here in LA, channel 40. They've inspired me to assemble a movie guide for those of you who ask, what version of the Passion will WE show the kids this year?
A bit of business: I'm off to the desert in the morning, Vegas via Palm Springs, so if you sent me an e-mail, it might not get answered until next week. Thanks!
And so, without further ado, your guide to JESUS CHRIST on celluloid!
The best Passion film that I've ever seen is "The Miracle Maker" (2000). This is the one you want to show your kids...it's a non-threatening Russian/English co-production, done with a combo of animation and the best Claymation I've ever seen. I'm not kidding, I've seen Jesus done to death (natch) but I was entranced by this version. The best thing about this film is that it concentrates on Jesus' parables, teachings, and on the Resurrection, instead of dwelling on the Crucifixion that every other Passion film does. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" (2004). The English cast of voices is great, including Ralph Fiennes, Julie Christie (double natch), Richard E. Grant, Ian Holm, Miranda Richardson and David Thewlis. I used to like "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973) best, but this is much more educational, and again, the Claymation is superb.
Best musical Passion film:
A tie between "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Life of Brian" (1979). The best thing about hippies is that they could produce these two inspiring Passions. I used to know Pontius Pilate's speech in "Jesus Christ Superstar" by heart, and the same goes for "Always Look on the Bright Side" in "Life of Brian", which I can still whistle pretty well.
Most expensive Passion films without a real point:
A three-way tie for last between "The Robe" (1953), "The Big Fisherman" (1959), and "Barabba" (1961). Hollywood knew how to blow money in those days.
Best background music in a Biblical Epic:
Thanks to Peter Gabriel, "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988). No string orchestras in this one; it's all sexy goatskin drums.
Most violent crucifixion:
That's easy: "The Passion of the Christ". If you're Latino, or just like your meat rare, this is the Passion for you.
Most pathetic Jesus:
More often than not, Jesus comes off like such a wuss you'd like to see the Romans beat the shit out of him and then nail him up. This is a kind of Hollywood self-loathing that makes me wonder if all those conspiracy theories about Jews in the Industry aren't true. Anyway, the ones that stick out in my mind are Claude Heater, who plays a sissy Jesus in "Ben-Hur" (1959), Victor Garber, a happy singing hippie begging to get crucified in "Godspell" (1973), and fitting with its violence, the whiny, ever-suffering James Caviezel in "The Passion of the Christ", standing in for the even whinier Mel Gibson. If Mel had taken the beating himself, this movie would have been far more amusing.
Most ripped Jesus:
Of course, some Passions have such a tight Jesus you wonder how the Romans held him down. You expect these bodybuilding Christs to pull the nails out of their wrists and break that cross in two. The toughest Jesus I ever heard was Cameron Mitchell's voiceover in "The Robe", and swarthy Franco Nero's Spaghetti Western Jesus Christ in the weird film "The Visitor" (1979).
Full disclosure: My middle name comes from Jeffrey Hunter, who played Christopher Pike in the original "Star Trek", but who also played what I consider the cutest Jesus ever in "King of Kings" (1961). Too bad that cuteness didn't rub off on me. Robert Powell also played a very cute Jesus in Franco Zeffirelli's TV miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth" (1977).
In contrast, two of the creepiest Jesuses:
One surely must be John Hurt, who does a very resigned Jesus in Mel Brook's "History of the World: Part I" (1981), but I give some serious creeped-out points to Christian Bale, who did a wiggy saviour in "Mary, Mother of Jesus" (1999).
Most educational Jesus:
By his very nature, Jesus is supposed to be a teacher, a rabbi, right? He usually gets portrayed like a patsy. Max von Sydow did a scolding, supercilious Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), but I prefer the helpful schoolteacher-type Jesus that Ralph Fiennes voiced in "The Miracle Maker". Only those of you who watch a lot of religious television will remember Nelson Leigh, who did a dull, annoying Jesus Christ in "The Living Bible" (1952).
Most flipped-out Jesus:
Also by nature, some Passions tend to portray Jesus as a nut-job, a street person ready to pluck his own eyes out. Jodorowsky's "The Holy Mountain" (1973) is already one of the strangest movies ever made, and so provides a good scenario for a semi-nude, wandering Jesus. I was also blown away by Robert Downey's "Greaser's Palace" (1972), a goofy Western satire where Jesus is portrayed by character actor Allan Arbus in a zoot suit. The conventional flipped-out Jesus, however, is exemplified by Willem Dafoe in "The Last Temptation of Christ".
By the way, although it will offend my Spanish friends (and during Holy Week no less!) my favorite scene in "The Holy Mountain" is a reenactment of the Mexican Conquest, with the Aztecs played by lizards and the Spaniards by toads:
The goofiest Jesus:
It's gotta be Jonathan Green, who plays a naive Second Coming in "Ultrachrist! " (2003).
Then there's this Jesus:
Most realistic Jesus:
That's easy. It's the voice of Matt Stone in "South Park".
Best Judas Iscariot:
There are some pretty wicked Judases out there. I, however, ascribe to the sensible opinion that Judas was as instrumental to the reputation of Jesus as JC himself. This unfortunate but empowered Judas is best exemplified by the pushy, pissed-off Harvey Keitel in "The Last Temptation of Christ" and the fantastically wound-up Carl Anderson in "Jesus Christ Superstar". The opening of the latter film, when Anderson is crouched on the spire of rock pinnacle, is one of the great moments in cinema.
The least likely Judas, incidentally, has to be blond, blue-eyed Scot David McCallum, one of the Men from UNCLE, in "The Greatest Story Ever Told".
Hottest Mary Magdalene:
The repentant hooker who first sees the resurrected Jesus has always been an attractive character...I mean, what guy hasn't thought about "saving" a whore? It was a tough choice, but two red-hot Marys come to mind: Barbara Hershey, the tattooed sexpot in "The Last Temptation of Christ", and Miranda Richardson in "The Miracle Maker", which is slightly perverse considering the latter is a Claymation Mary Magdalene!
The weirdest Mary Magdalene has to be June Carter Cash, in the weird "Gospel Road" (1973) financed by her old man, Johnny Cash.
Hottest Virgin Mary:
I may finally have exceeded the bounds of good taste, but I was shocked at how sexed-up Jenny Gago was in "The Cross" (2001).
Best John the Baptist:
No tie here; no one will ever top the insanity of Charlton Heston in "The Greatest Story Ever Told".
Best Pontius Pilate
A tie between Barry Dennen in "Jesus Christ Superstar" and David Bowie in "The Last Temptation of Christ". Poor Barry, he also played the nosy neighbor Mendel in "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971), and his career just went downhill from there. Bowie, well, we all know what happened to him.
A tie between José Ferrer in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and Josh "Walk Across My Swimming Pool" Mostel in "Jesus Christ Superstar". I don't know what happened to Josh, but he is FABULOUS. And Ferrer even manages to top the fey Turkish officer he did a few years earlier in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962).
And finally, last but certainly not least, the best Jesus freak:
It's almost worth finding the smarmy "Penn & Teller Get Killed" (1989) just to see the playwright Christopher Durang play a wicked Jesus freak. Then of course, the entire casts of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Godspell" are a bunch of freaks.
05 April 2007