Monday, June 6, 2022

Recasting 1977 (supporting): "Jesus of Nazareth"

From as early as I can remember, every spring around Easter, a network TV station would air the sweeping Franco Zeffirelli miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth. I'd been brought up Roman Catholic, and the life of Jesus Christ was a ubiquitous story in the small world of my rural hometown, my school, and family. Released in 1977 (at Easter), I'm convinced the production helped shape my ideas on what life might have been like for those living at the start of the Common Era. We'll get to how innaccuate that likely was in reality a bit later, but suffice it to say, that the series transported me into a world that blended the historical with the supernaturual in a way that to this day seems expertly done. I'll mention that I'm a total heathen now (I don't believe there is a divine being overseeing the universe, much less that it's some dude who lived and was excecuted in modern-day Israel 2000 years ago) and have been for some time. So I have very little trouble delineating the fantasy of the biblical story of Jesus of Nazareth from the way it was so realistically portrayed in Zeffirelli's work. 

I'm not going to go into the plot. Even non-believers likely have a general idea that Jesus was born, crucified, buried and allegedly rose on the third day. The story pretty much follows all that from a biblical point of view, with a fair amount of background involving the political and religious conflicts at the time. The whole series is a whopping six hours (about a half hour longer than 2003's Angels in America, for reference). It still sort of boggles me the scope with which this project was undertaken and the high-wattage ensemble cast that Zeffirelli was able to assemble for TV. Anne Bancroft, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Ernest Borgnine, James Earl Jones, Anthony Quinn, Rod Steiger, Peter Ustinov. Eight eventual Oscar winners in total, among other brilliant actors. 

Whom did I have in mind for Meryl in this project then? No other than Mary, the mother of Jesus, of course. Originally portrayed by Brit Olivia Hussey (who had been Zeffirelli's Juliet in 1968's Romeo and Juliet), the actor needed to realistically be able to portray someone from age 17 to 50. Hussey, who would've been 24 at the time of shooting, is just shy of two years younger than Meryl. So if she was able to pull it off, I suspect Meryl would've had little problem with it as well. I actually rewatched the whole series in recent months. And I have to admit, there was a little more to do in the character of Mary than I had remembered. Not unlike themes in Colm Tóibín's novella, The Testament of Mary, we can almost get a sense in some earlier scenes, when an adolescent Jesus reads scripture to rabbis, that there's a hint of uncertainty in Mary's eyes about what her son's "attributes" may mean for him as he ages into adulthood. Starting at 2:46, it's a pretty intense scene for the character. 

Streep likely would've gotten a fair amount of attention after acting in something like this. Knowing that Zeffirelli cast Hussey, like many of the other actors in this production, after having worked with her on an earlier project, it's unlikely that Meryl came close to auditioning for this part, much less getting cast. But it's the kind of project she would've been on people's radars for around the time. After all, she starred in and won an Emmy for the CBS miniseries Holocaust only a year after this. And she could've used the same black wig she wore in her actual 1977 project, Julia, for Jesus of Nazareth instead ha:

There's no way this series would get cast the same way today. While there is a fair amount of diversity in the original, the majority of the main characters are played by white people. And not just like not brown or black, like paralyzingly blue-eyed Jesus:

While I'm certainly not in favor of casting white folks in roles for people that would definitely not have been white, the idea of Jesus Christ being a god who performs miracles and rises from the dead essentially moves the story out the realm of a pure preiod piece and one with elements of, to me, fantasy and mysticism. Put another way, the Bible is fiction. That being said, people did not look like this in first-century Jerusalem, fiction or non-fiction. At the time Jesus of Nazareth was made, the propagation of the image of Christ as someone who looked like he was born in Scandinavia had been very successfully orchestrated and carried out with multiple cultural and artistic depictions as such. It's perpetuated to this day, if perhaps with better knowledge and recognition of how inaccurate it really is. I've read that Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino were originally considered for the role of Jesus, but even they were passed over in favor of Robert Powell, who was eventually cast, due to Powell's image more closely matching the "popular percetion of Jesus held by the American public." Yikes. 

The project received praise from critics and was a massive hit around the world. It's a bit perplexing to me that it didn't get more award recognition in the United States (only two Emmy nominations). It did much better with BAFTA (it was a British/Italian production), with six nominations (winning none). I tend to wonder if, despite the high quality of the production and excellent performances from the star cast, if it was a bit too obvious and "known" as a story. It had almost a documentary feel to it, which I have to admit is one of the more appealing aspects of it for me. Regardless, it's fun to imagine Meryl having been part of something so epic and memorable from my childhood!


  1. A very interesting analysis on the whole TV series, Jeff. I remember seeing this broadcast a couple of years after its release, also at Easter. It did feel quite documentary-like, shocking at times in its brutal depictions of Roman rule. It's the perfect alternative to Streep's role in 'Holocaust', you're spot on!

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  3. I'll go with the Leslie Browne role in "The Turning Point". I bet Meryl could have mastered dance easily in her 20s. It's also a good role to show off her great looks, if we are taking a completely route to Meryl's stardom.

    Jeff, is this Supporting filmography to go with the reimagined Lead filmography, as in Meryl does two roles per year, or as she solely plays Supporting roles?

    1. Great question, Charlie. I think of this supporting recasting filmography as a sort of side list of films she might have had time or the inclination to squeeze in. Picture her actual filmography or my reimagined filmography or my lead recasting filmography and then having a peppering of these supporting roles throughout. She wouldn't have done them all, but a handful of them here and there depending on the schedule could've been feasible. I think my brain would melt if I tried to coordinate a shooting schedule in my mind for all of these supporting roles to have been practical in the context of my reimagined filmography or lead recasting list (the way I generally tried to do with the lead considerations).

      I hope that makes sense!

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  5. Skipping the completely uninformed remarks about the Bible being fiction; it is obvious there are many things you don't know. Like the earliest representations of Jesus - scratched by persecuted Christians meeting in caves about 300 years after his death - portrayed him with red hair. And so did ensuing depictions. Also in dispute is what a Palestinian (i.e.) Jewish man would have looked like around 4 BC. There are plenty of blue-eyed people identifying as Jewish living in that part of the world today. Next, most Americans in 1977, as they are today, are white. Next, most American's perception of Jesus was influenced by Sallman's Head of Christ, not their own imaginations. And, the popular image of Christ has also been formed by the image on the Shroud - which also looks like Powell.