Magnificent Obsessions

Magnificent Obsessions

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Oct 26th 2018

Seventy-one years ago this fall, Charlton Heston (1923-2008), not yet a formidable player of huge historical and literary figures on the stage and screen, was a hungry young actor fresh out of World War II service and a stint in a resident regional theatre company now in rehearsals for his first Broadway appearance. The production was William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, led by theatrical luminary Katharine Cornell (who also produced) and the noted actor Godfrey Tearle in the title roles. Playing the small role of Proculeius, a lieutenant to Octavius Caesar, he was in the good company of fellow players Kent Smith, Lenore Ulric, Alan Shayne, Maureen Stapleton, Douglass Watson, Eli Wallach and Joseph Wiseman, under the direction of another theater legend, the great Guthrie McClintic. It would be a heady experience – as well as a steady paycheck – for a four-month New York run, to be extended by a multi-city tour that followed. And it planted a seed in Heston that stuck with him throughout his meteoric moviemaking career that would commence just two short years later. 

Heston’s film adaptation of Antony and Cleopatra (1972), hard-fought and “kicking and screaming to the screen” he would pen in his 1995 autobiography In the Arena, would be a labor of love and strong-willed determination, and as potentially ruinous as the obsession that bound the two historical icons it portrays. Even with an Oscar®-winning international star of box-office clout and prestige playing Shakespeare’s tragic warrior hero, the obstacles proved enormous in regards to funding (finally secured via Britain’s Rank Organization and Spain’s Izaro Films), casting (Cleopatra candidates ranged from the renowned Anne Bancroft and Irene Papas to the lesser-known but stage-proficient British actresses Barbara Jefford and the final choice Hildegard Neil) and production logistics requiring that the grandeur of ancient Rome and Egypt would have to be suggested by locations in Almeria and Madrid as well as Hollywood soundstages, with up-front rehearsals of the English principals in London, on a slim budget of under $2 million. On top of all that, he’d sought others to direct (Touch of Evil colleague Orson Welles and Khartoum co-star Laurence Olivier) but when they refused, he decided with imperial Roman determination – and with the seasoning of accumulated experience of the tricks and techniques of great directors he himself had worked with across the past 20 years – to pragmatically address this as a problem to be solved – and decided to do so himself. He would martial the best talents his resources would allow, recruiting two veterans of an earlier 1970 production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (in which he played Marc Antony), editor Eric Boyd-Perkins and art director Maurice Pelling (here advanced to production designer), to maximize the pace and design of the lengthy film, and engaging esteemed Spanish cinematographer Rafael Pacheco, a past master of framing action and vital in the effort to create the scale required by the sea and surface battle sequences that the original playwright didn’t have to depict in a theater or have the services of Joe Canutt, the equally inventive and drilled scion of Hollywood stunt action royalty Yakima Canutt (Ben-Hur), to execute as a second-unit director. 

To speak the Bard’s lustrous language, Heston scored even higher, casting Eric Porter (The Forsyte Saga [1967], The Day of the Jackal) as Antony’s adviser Enobarbus, John Castle (The Lion in Winter) as a calculating Octavius, Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man, Firefox) as a boisterous Pompey, future Piaf Tony® winner Jane Lapotaire as the wily queen’s handmaiden Charmian, and Fernando Rey (fresh off The French Connection) as fellow Roman Triumvirate patrician Lepidus. For another critical role, Heston exerted extra care: “In a sense, though, the most crucial casting of all these parts was Proculeius. I’d played it with Miss Cornell in 1947, another of those tantalizingly short parts in Shakespeare that can easily be melded with a couple of others and made into something very good. I’d done that in my screenplay with some care, feeling somehow responsible to Proculeius. To play him, I cast a fine young English actor, Julian Glover [who played Hindley Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (1970), a Twilight Time title, and would go on to play memorable villains in The Empire Strikes Back and For Your Eyes Only], the first time I heard him read. I knew he’d give me a good Proculeius, but he could clearly do more than that. Both Orson and Olivier had said essentially the same thing: ‘If you’re directing this and also playing Antony, you have to find a very good actor to play the part while you’re setting up the shots and directing the other actors in the scenes you’re in.’ Julian did this superbly, not merely reading the lines in rehearsal, but acting every scene. What’s more, he took care to watch my performance very carefully, before I stepped behind the camera. Then, through the technical rehearsals, Julian meticulously gave me back my interpretation of Antony rather than his own (which he later offered on the London stage with Vanessa Redgrave). It was an awesomely selfless feat, for which I can’t praise him enough.” 

Alas, praise for, distribution of, and audiences attending the film were scant, and following a gala London premiere and a limited run in Spain, Antony and Cleopatra would remain largely unseen for decades. Heston wrote: “The sum of it was that the film I cared more about than any I’ve ever made was a failure. I believe that’s about all I have to say about that.” TT’s hi-def Blu-ray premiere of Antony and Cleopatra, with John Scott’s majestic score on an Isolated Music Track and a 30-minute 2009 Documentary wherein assistant director Fraser C. Heston, a collaborator with his dad on several movie and TV projects in the ’80s and ’90s, looked back on the challenges and charms of this tough endeavor, has a lot to say – and for the curious to explore. It arrives November 20. Preorders open November 7.