Hollywood Romans #6 Mark Antony AHM #19
Mark Antony – The Third Wheel
“Antony’s rise owed little to conspicuous talent and far more to good connections, luck and the ardent desire for power, position and wealth. He showed some skill as a politician and administrator, but had only limited ability as a soldier. Cleopatra was more intelligent, and certainly better educated than Antony. Neither Antony nor Cleopatra lived a quiet life. They will continue to fascinate, their story being retold and reinvented by each new generation. Nothing any historian could say will ever stop this process, nor should it.” -- Adrian Goldsworthy, Antony And Cleopatra, ©2010
Having looked at Hollywood’s treatment of Julius Caesar and of Cleopatra, it is only fitting that we now consider the third wheel of this legendary triumvirate, Mark Antony. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to make a film about one that does not involve the other two, even if only as an off stage presence, so closely bound are these three.
As with Caesar and Cleopatra, the part of Antony has been played by an array of notable actors, with performances ranging from the merely adequate to the truly amazing. That none of these performances has truly captured the historic Antony is not surprising. Even though oceans of ink have been spent writing about this period in History the gaps in our knowledge remain substantial. While frustrating to historians and scholars, playwrights and filmmakers welcome this opportunity to ‘fill in the gaps’ with their imagination. Sometimes the fiction is well founded, but even when it is not, that fiction shapes the popular image we have of the people and events depicted.
So it is then that Mark Antony would likely not recognize his Hollywood Roman persona, however, like Cleopatra, Antony would probably still be pleased with at least some of the portrayals.
Of the many on screen portrayals of Mark Antony, there are three worth seeking out:
Marlon Brando in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1953)
Richard Burton in Cleopatra (1963)
James Purefoy in HBO’s Rome (2011)
A Streetcar Named Antony
Of the three performances in question, Brando has the least amount of screen time. His Antony does appear in several scenes, but is seldom the center of attention, almost a minor character. That is with one exception, and what an exception it is.
The key to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the triumvirate of Brutus-Cassius-Antony. The balance among these three characters is both critical and delicate – the play rises or falls on this, and the acting triumvirate at the center of the 1953 film, Mason-Gielguid-Brando is perfect. In this regard director Joseph Mankiewicz and producer John Houseman have cast well.
As Brutus, James Mason displays the brooding intelligence of a man clearly swimming in political waters far deeper than he is qualified for, either by training or temperament. Likewise Gielgud, as Cassius, is appropriately manipulative. Cassius has his own agenda and is happy to use Brutus to reach that end.
All of this is to the good and serves the production well, but it is in the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony that Mankiewicz and Houseman show true genius. Originally the director had sought Paul Schofield (A Man For All Seasons, Quiz Show) for the role of Antony, but changed his mind when Brando’s screen test came in better than expected. Brando was an actor of immense talent and is not only comfortable with the language but more than holds his own with the classically trained actors in the cast who have far more experience with the Bard. Brando’s timing and dramatic sense are impeccable. What’s more, Brando infuses Antony with a pugnacious air that seems completely appropriate to Antony both dramatically and historically, or at least, as we have come to understand the historical Antony.
Now History tells us that Antony delivered a speech which turned the crowd in the Forum from celebrating the just end of a tyrant to mourning the untimely death of a father, yet it is unlikely that Antony’s speech was as well written as Shakespeare’s nor, perhaps as well delivered as Brando’s.
Much has been written about Brando as the premier American Actor of his generation, but most viewers, who are familiar only with his later films, may wonder what all the hoopla is about. Watching his performance as Antony leaves no doubt as to his talent. It is a performance for the ages.
Slouching Towards Alexandria
To call the 1963 Cleopatra a ‘troubled production’ would be an understatement worthy of Hollywood. Indeed, it is a miracle that any film at all emerged from this maelstrom of production chaos caused, in no small part by the titanic personalities.
Originally intended as a modestly budgeted remake of the 1917 Theda Bara hit, it was anything but modest and extravagant hardly describes the excesses both on and off the set. After an aborted first attempt (which resulted in $7 million spent for 10 minutes of unusable footage) 20th Century Fox began again, moving production from London to Rome under a new director approved by Elizabeth Taylor. So it was that Joseph L Mankiewicz found himself once again in Ancient Rome with familiar characters.
Unlike his previous encounter with Caesar and Antony, Mankiewicz was now working from his own screenplay with the intention of telling the story of Cleopatra in two 3-hour films: Caesar And Cleopatra followed by Antony And Cleopatra. This time Antony would have plenty of on screen time for in-depth character development.
Elizabeth Taylor stayed on as Cleopatra, but Mankiewicz recast most of the other parts. For the role of Mark Antony, Mankiewicz wanted Marlon Brando, but he was unavailable so Mankiewicz set his sights on Richard Burton. The Studio objected, claiming Burton was an outstanding stage actor but not a bankable film star. Mankiewicz insisted and Fox finally relented, paying $50,000 to buyout Burton’s Broadway contract where he was performing in Camelot.
Once Taylor and Burton were on set together, it quickly became impossible to tell if their performance was acting of the first order or simply life imitating art. It may have been both, but in the end life overcame art. As Mankiewicz told producer Walter Wagner, “I have been sitting on a volcano all alone for too long... Liz and Burton are not just playing Antony and Cleopatra.”
In yet another case of ‘life imitating art’ the critic Barry Norman observed, “…Burton’s acting prowess was stunted by his relationship with the Hollywood darling through no fault of her own.”
At one point, as the production sank deeper into chaos and debt, Fox considered cutting their loses by ending the film with Caesar’s assassination. This would, of course, essentially eliminate Antony from the story, relegating him once again to the position of a minor character. When Studio executives approached Burton with their plan, he replied with succinct menace: “I’ll sue you until you’re puce.”
Fox did not end the story early and Burton did not sue, however Fox chairman Zanuck insisted on the release of a single film, and so the cutting began, deep and severe.
According to scholar Jon Solomon the more historically accurate Antony was left on the cutting room floor. As Mankiewicz noted, “The person who suffered most in the cutting of the film was Dick Burton.” What remained was no longer the hero who suffers a tragic fall, but rather as Solomon observed, “This cinematic Antony starts at the bottom and falls sideways.” And yet…
Keeping in mind the Antony illuminated by Goldsworthy’s 2010 biography,
Burton’s heavily edited performance may in fact be closer to the history than it has heretofore been given credit. Occasionally, the Hollywood Romans get it right, even when they seem to be working hard not to.
The Ram Has Touched The Wall
James Purefoy, who played Antony in the HBO/BBC series Rome, had one major advantage over Brando and Burton – time. Because Rome was an episodic series focused on the events leading to the end of the Republic and the rise of the Principate, the writers had the time for character development that a feature film, even an epic one, often lacks. This is a boon for both writers and actors alike as they work to bring their characters fully to life. Even though both Cleopatra and Rome essentially cover the same time period, we see much more of Antony in the latter, interacting with a wider variety of characters and situations beyond those involving Caesar or Cleopatra.
Additionally, even in this age of giant HD monitors in every home, television cannot rely on visual spectacle to carry the day in the same way a feature film can and often does. No matter how big their budget, Rome could never stage scenes like Cleopatra’s entry into Rome, or the naval battle at Actium. Television’s stock in trade is character driven stories propelled by intimate, dialog heavy, scenes. In this Rome excels.
That is not to say there is no spectacle in Rome -- there is, but of a more intimate sort.
In her insightful article, Spectacle of Sex: Bodies on Display in Rome, Stacie Raucci notes that we never see Antony in actual battle (he does lead a cavalry charge at the battle of Philippi but all the action takes place off camera) however we do see a lot of Antony’s body in shots that, “establish him as the primary sex symbol of the series. Even when fully clothed, his body more than those of all the other elite male characters is clearly signaled as a spectacle.”
Purefoy himself saw Antony as a tragic character. As he told journalist Hannah Pool, "He's flawed but he's human. I think the audience can tell that there's hot blood running through those veins. The more I read about [Mark Antony], the more I looked into him in history, he's just unbelievably tragic. Those scenes, especially him and Cleopatra at the end, there's clearly something very tragic about it.”
Indeed, in Purefoy’s Antony we see the pugnaciousness (Brando) and the hubris (Burton) as well as the sexuality. In this latter aspect, time is, once again, on Purefoy’s side as his Antony is given ample opportunities to display his sexual prowess. When asked about the scenes involving not only sex, but also full frontal male nudity (a rarity even on cable TV) Purefoy averred that ‘there is no point playing someone like Antony and doing it half-heartedly.’
Interestingly, Rome avoids competing with Shakespeare by not having Antony deliver his funeral oration on screen. We hear about it, after the fact, from other characters. What we are given instead is a wonderful scene of Antony, at the home of Servillia, confronting and out maneuvering the assassins. This is Antony at his best – coldly ruthless but with his signature charm that disarms and paralyzes his opponents even as they realize they are being politically eviscerated. This is one of Antony’s best scenes in the entire series.
Et tu Hollywood…
The Hollywood Romans are not finished with Antony. So enduring are Caesar, Cleopatra and Antony that, as Goldsworthy noted, each generation will retell their stories anew, reinventing them to suit the dramatic needs of the time. Now some will demur, lamenting the loss of the historical Antony, but in fact that Antony was lost the moment Octavian declared victory at Actium. The reimagining of Antony, and of Cleopatra, to suite the needs of the “new” present began then, and has never stopped. They quickly slid from history into legend; eventually becoming the pop culture icons we know them as today.
Of the three performances on display here, each has elements that recommend it to the viewer. The characterizations all share certain elements, while each emphasizes different aspects that we have come to associate with Antony. No doubt viewers will have their favorite, though Purefoy’s performance will be tough to beat. Even so, given the shear number of projects currently in development, we will be seeing a lot more of these characters. Perhaps that definitive Antony is out there still, waiting for his cue.
The author wishes to thank Graham Sumner and Jennifer DeCosta for their insights and assistance.
Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, ©2010
Rome – History Makes Television edited by Monica S Cyrino ©2008
The Ancient World In The Cinema by Jon Solomon, ©2001
When Liz Met Dick by David Kamp ©2011 Vanity Fair
When In Rome by Hannah Pool ©2007 The Guardian
A few of the actors who played Mark Antony
Maurice Costello 1908
Thurston Hall 1917
Henry Wilcoxon 1934
Luis Sandrini 1947
Raymond Burr 1953
Sid James 1964
Richard Johnson 1974
Osami Nabe 1970
Billy Zane 1999
Charlton Heston 1950, 1970, 1972
This article first appeared in Ancient History Magazine #19 Jan 2019 Hollywood Romans
(c)2019 David L Reinke