Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)

5 Nominations, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - Leon Shamroy
Nomination: Best Sound - James Corcoran (20th Century-Fox SSD)
Nomination: Best Costume Design, Color - Vittorio Nino Novarese
Nomination: Best Music, Score, Substantially Original - Alex North
Nomination: Best Art Direction, Set Decoration, Color - John DeCuir, Jack Martin Smith, and Dario Simoni

The Agony and the Ecstasy is many different types of film in one: part historical epic, part documentary, part biopic, even part buddy comedy.  The film tells the story of Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel under the watch of Pope Julius II.  The two men battle various forces, the greatest of which is their egos, to create what would become both men's greatest legacy.  At times their relationship is depicted as one of respect and at times it is contentious, but the film is always about their relationship.

Photo Courtesty MoviePosterDB.com
This decision to focus on the relationship of the two men was a wise one.  Watching an artist consider various artistic choices of color and form would not have been terribly interesting, and focusing on Julius's Holy League battles would have been an entirely different film.  The problem with focusing on the relationship is the wildly different acting styles employed by Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison.  Heston plays Michelangelo as a tortured artist, suffering in body and soul for his art, while Harrison's Julius II is a bit of a wisecracking gentleman.  Harrison's performance gives the film some needed levity, but it also makes his performance more of a star turn than a real effort at being a thespian.  Despite this, Heston and Harrison have a strong chemistry, and both were, for the most part, well cast in their roles.

When it comes to categories such as art direction, costume design, and makeup, Academy voters are split into two camps.  Some favor imaginative leaps of fancy, preferring unique visions and renderings of wholly created worlds.  Others favor historic accuracy, designing epic sets and costuming hundreds of extras in period-appropriate garb.  The Agony and the Ecstasy was nominated for its costume design and art decoration by the latter type of Academy voter.  The costumes are beautiful and elegant recreations of the fashion of the day, and the lush colors of Vittorio Nino Novarese's costumes are beautifully picked up by the camera.  The sets are also remarkable recreations of the Vatican, and the film almost certainly would have won an Oscar if not for the unlucky fact that Doctor Zhivago was released in the same year.  Also receiving nominations for color set decoration were The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Sound of Music, and Inside Daisy Clover, making 1965 one of the great years of epic art direction.

I imagine that there are very few people who have watched The Agony and the Ecstasy more than once.  This isn't because the film is bad or unenjoyable, for it is neither.  Instead, the film is just very straightforward and a bit boring, with little other than the impressive sets to make it a truly memorable film.  Still, director Carol Reed did an admirable job of turning a potentially dry story with a great deal of historical context into a mostly enjoyable film.

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