In his acclaimed autobiography, A Damned Serious Business (1991), the suave British actor Rex Harrison confesses that he accepted the role of Julius Caesar in the Hollywood epic film Cleopatra (1963) only to support his vineyards and villa San Genesio in his beloved Portofino. He claims that no one, including the film’s director and chief screenwriter, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, helped him very much in the challenge of playing Caesar. He complained of the verbose script, garish costumes, funny wigs, and make-up to erase all the lines from his face. Even though Mankiewicz explained that much of the original material came directly from Plutarch, Suetonius and Appian, Harrison turned to the recent biography by Carlo Maria Franzero, The Life and Times of Cleopatra (1957), which was credited in the film, and the epistolary novel by Thornton Wilder, The Ides of March (1948). The more Harrison studied Caesar the more fascinated he became. He had mixed feelings about the film’s outcome, but he believed that Caesar was “a good part”, and he enjoyed it “because he was a fine man and it was worth doing, and there were other compensations” [i.e. working with Elizabeth Taylor]. He would later receive an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of Julius Caesar, the only acting nomination in a film that claimed a total of nine, including Best Picture, and later won four Oscars. The New York Times hugely influential but at times mean-spirited movie critic, Bosley Crowther, singled out Harrison’s performance as the best in the film and characterized his Caesar as a “fascinating study in political ambiguities” and “a statesman of manifest wisdom, shrewdness and magnanimity” (June 13, 1963).
As the fiftieth anniversary of the celebrated film approaches and the publication of Stacy Shiff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography secures a contract for a new Cleopatra of the 21st-century, rumored to be played by Angelina Jolie, it is fitting to re-evaluate its cinematic ambitions and achievements. This paper seeks to analyze Harrison’s nuanced portrayal of Julius Caesar and to assess his personal choices for understanding the part and the director’s contributions into shaping a contemporary figure of Caesar. Franzero’s biography was in a long tradition of popular, intimate lives of the Egyptian queen but it is hardly read today. Instead, Wilder’s creative novel, also mostly ignored, is an original and engaging portrayal of Caesar. Intricately designed in four uneven parts of the last year of his life, the story is told by a series of curiously invented documents in the form of letters, official papers and diaries, all transposed in a vivid present tense. Caesar emerges as a serious thinker on matters of politics, religion, love and fate. He is also profoundly in doubt and disappointed by those closest to him. Catullus, Brutus, and of course Cleopatra figure prominently in the work. But Thornton’s Caesar, influenced by the existential philosophy of Sartre and Kierkegaard, owes its origins to George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra (1898) and his conception of a ‘Superman’ borrowed from Nietzsche. This paper will also explore how Shaw’s character shaped the words and deeds of Caesar in Mankiewicz’ film as a moral, just, and remarkably dispassionate political leader. The cinematic Caesar instructs the much younger Cleopatra (the age difference is a comic matter) in the art of statecraft and equips her to rule, even though Taylor’s character belongs to the 1960s and bears no resemblance to Shaw’s childish queen. The historical Caesar is a more enigmatic and complex figure, and if Suetonius can be believed, unrestrained and certainly impassioned.
Harrison followed up his role as Caesar with the Oscar-winning performance in My Fair Lady the next year. His Professor Henry Higgins teaches Cockney Eliza Dolittle to be a duchess and in the process falls in love. The resemblance between the two male characters is perhaps not coincidental. The popular Broadway show and film is based on another Shaw play, Pygmalion (1912).