March 15, 2023

Shakespearean Serendipity On the Ides of March

By Stuart Mitchner

Brutus is Shakespeare’s first intellectual, and the enigmas of his nature are multiform.

—Harold Bloom

Since Bill Nighy’s Oscar-nominated performance in Living is fresh in my mind, I’m beginning with him instead of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated on this day, the Ides of March, 44 BC. Nighy’s one of those actors who is always worth watching and listening to, like James Mason, whose only Best Actor nomination was for his role in A Star Is Born (1955), two years after he played Brutus in MGM’s Julius Caesar. Close your eyes and listen and these are two of the rare actors in film you can hear, so distinctive are their voices and ways of speaking. And in Living, Nighy sings! The film would be worth seeing if only for the moment the terminally ill character he plays comes to life singing the Scottish folk song, “The Rowan Tree.”

“Some Sweet Kid”

With the Oscars in my rear-view mirror, I’m thinking of Louis Calhern (1895-1956), who played the title role in Julius Caesar the same year he won a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (1953).

Given the enduring popularity of the Marx Brothers, longtime moviegoers may remember Calhern (if at all) as ambassador Trentino of Sylvania trading slaps and insults with Groucho Marx’s Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup (1933). Although he gives one of his most nuanced performances as Alonzo Emmerich, the double-crossing lawyer in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Calhern is probably best remembered for the reflected glory of a few brief scenes with a then relatively unknown Marilyn Monroe. “Some sweet kid,” he says to himself about his mistress, thoughtfully savoring each word. The last time he says it is after she fails to give him the alibi he needed. As he walks off with the cops, she looks up, asking “Uncle Lon” if they can still have their trip to Florida. Patting her shoulder, he says, “Don’t worry, baby. You’ll have plenty of trips.” In that moment he’s like a deeply corrupt, world-weary sage of cinema sending a star to her fate.

James Mason’s Brutus

Looking ahead to next week’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley book sale, I’m thinking of the scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that comes near the end of Act IV, after the deed has been done, it’s night, and Brutus is in his tent reading a book while trying to find his place: “let me see, is not the leaf turn’d down where I left reading? Here it is, I think.”

In the 1953 film Brutus is played by James Mason, who seems abstracted in this scene, human, vulnerable, like any reader who may have lost his place. During the assassination he’s actually backing away from the violence, appalled by the murderous reality of the plan he cast his lot with, and only when Caesar staggers toward him as if to fall at his feet for mercy does Brutus deliver the coup de grace, shoving a knife deep into the man rumored to be his natural father. In Adrian Goldsworthy’s biography, Caesar’s dying words are “You too, my child,” rather than “Et tu, Brute.”

Mason Reads Caesar

Thinking back on the fabulously complex Hollywood story in which James Mason the actor plays his part, I’m reminded of the scene a decade later when as Humbert Humbert he’s reading Poe aloud to Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant film. (In the best of all possible awards ceremonies, Mason would have won the 1962 Best Actor and Lolita Best Picture over Gregory Peck and To Kill a Mockingbird). Now here he is, book in hand, about to be visited by the Ghost of Caesar. What would he want to be reading at such a moment?

Let’s imagine “the noblest Roman of them all” is penitently studying Caesar’s commentary, The Gallic Wars. After all, this is an actor who studied classics at Cambridge; even if he’s not reading in Caesar’s actual book at that moment, he could have spent some time with it ahead of the scene, on the set, or back at the hotel, priming himself for the shock of the “monstrous  apparition” sending him to his fate on the plains of Philippi. And surely the passage most likely to engage him would be the one about the Druids, who believe “that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another” and “that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valor, the fear of death being disregarded,” that they “likewise discuss and impart to the youth many things respecting the stars and their motion, respecting the extent of the world and of our earth, respecting the nature of things, respecting the power and the majesty of the immortal gods.”

And since I’m already reading so much into Mason’s Brutus, it’s more than likely that a man of his intelligence would notice parallels between Caesar’s Druids and Shakespeare’s Romans, not least in Caesar’s final speech, about being “constant as the northern star” in a sky “painted with innumerable sparks” that are “all fire and every one doth shine” and that “there’s but one in all doth hold his place,” that “only one” is “unassailable, holds on his rank / Unshaked of motion: and that I am he.”

Book Sale Serendipity

The last time my column coincided with the Ides of March was in a preview of the 2017 BM-W book sale, the 2023 version of which begins next Wednesday, March 22. Although I don’t yet know anything about items of special interest at the upcoming sale, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare will be there in force, along with the usual solid stock of books on cinema and the theater. Music is also always a strong subject area, so there may even be something on Lester Young, the poet of the tenor sax who died on the Ides of March 1959. And speaking of poets, you know William Butler Yeats will be there. I still have his Collected Poems, bought years ago at the sale structured around the late Peter Oppenheimer’s magnificent donation, with a printed inscription in Peter’s hand, from Yeats: “Why should we honour those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.”

Book Sales as big as Bryn Mawr-Wellesley’s — not to mention the Friends of the Library’s — are hotbeds of serendipity. With so many possibilities to choose from, people find favorite books they didn’t even know they wanted. It’s thanks to Caesar that I found “Long-Legged Fly,” a late poem by Yeats that begins, “That civilization may not sink, / Its great battle lost,” and takes on Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Michelangelo in three 10-line stanzas. The first stanza ends, “Our master Caesar is in the tent / Where the maps are spread, / His eyes fixed upon nothing, / A hand under his head.” In the second stanza, on Helen, “She thinks, part woman, three parts child, / That nobody looks; her feet / Practice a tinker shuffle / Picked up on the street.” The third stanza: “Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel, / Keep those children out, / There on that scaffolding reclines / Michael Angelo, / With no more sound than the mice make / His hand moves to and fro.”  Each stanza closes with this couplet: “Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His [her] mind moves upon the silence.”

Awards and Lists

With YouTube at hand, I took a quick, pained peek at the roundly panned 1970 Julius Caesar with John Gielgud in the title role (he was Cassius in the 1953 version) and Jason Robards as a hungover-looking Brutus. Robards took a beating from reviewers only a year after his charming, one-for-the-books performance as Cheyenne in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which received not a single Oscar nomination. Leone, a great director whose reputation was blindsided by the mindless typecasting of him as a maker of “spaghetti westerns,” brings to mind the New York Times’ recent intensive analysis of Sight and Sound’s Top 100 movie lists of 2012 and 2022. Leone’s masterpiece, ranked at 78 on the 2012 list, barely made the top 100 in 2022, which rates Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) as, in effect, “the greatest film of all time.” All you can do is tell yourself “okay, this is a life lesson, nothing lasts forever, all things must pass, and anyway, nobody’s perfect,” as Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot. Awards, honors, and 100 Best lists were made to be challenged, adored and despised — and of course to make money.

In Synch with the Academy

One time I was in synch with the Academy was on March 25, 1954, at the 26th Oscar ceremonies, when Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and Actress, and Cinematographer went to From Here to Eternity, the only film except for A Hard Day’s Night that I sat through twice the first time I saw it (such casual violations of the law were possible in those pre-cineplex days). I felt personally invested in the film because James Jones’s novel was the first great “serious” reading experience of my life. Nor did I hold it against the Academy that Montgomery Clift lost Best Actor to William Holden in Stalag 17, a film I also admired. Two of the greatest casting moves the studios ever made were Clift as Prewitt and Frank Sinatra as Maggio. If Sinatra had been denied an Oscar, I’d have savaged the Academy in my high school newspaper, where I had a column called Stu’s Views On Entertainment.