Sunday, 31 March 2013

She's a Woman; on Anne Baxter in The Ten Commandments

Religious or not, it's impossible to ignore the wave of religious films permeating the television stations during Easter time - a decisively more "religious" holiday than Christmas has become. In the canon of biblical films none is as notable as DeMille's The Ten Commandments - at least, I'd readily argue none is as excellent. The four hour epic is lengthy, but it's an impressively milestone to watch and even amidst its marvellous technical accomplishments - the special visual effects, the photography, the marvellous costumes by Edith Head and company - the film has secured an immovable spot in my memory for the work of the woman near the man at the centre. Not the wife of Moses the saviour, but the Queen Nefretiri his forgotten lover.

I've always been partial to Anne Baxter. Case in point, I'm just as fond of her duplicitous Eve as I am of Bette Davis' Margot Channing in All About Eve. I love her Lucy in The Magnificent Ambersons and her troubled Sophie in The Razor's Edge but before all these I knew Anne for Nefretiri. Truthfully, The The Commandments' level of enjoyability comes from its discordance when measured against biblical epics before and after it. The film's scope is large and with over 200 minutes at its disposal it moves between history, drama, comedy and downright silliness. In the writing, Nefretiri, is probably most guilty of this - her character development is somewhat frustrating, and yet that's not a negative thing. Nefretiri is the throne princess of Egypt destined to marry the next Pharaoh. No film, even a biblical epic, is complete without romance and the love triangle of Moses/Nefretiri/Rameses which persists for the rest of the film does reek of a DeMillean inclination for increasing drama at any cost, but the conceit works. And it works because Nefretiri is, I would argue, the drama's most intriguing character.

The irony of Hollywood making money on religious epics in the 50s is, I'd imagine, none lost on anyone. And, not to politicise religion, but it's intriguing how in a film which boasts a cast "of thousands" Nefretiri emerges as the only female who consistently tries to counteract the patriarchal society she inhabits. I'm dubious of turning this into a feminist reading of the film ("good" wife Zephora comes off as stoic, but it's difficult for anyone to seem passionate opposite Baxter's hypersexual performance - but more on that soon) but the confluence of odd character with unique actor is essentially the platform on which all of Anne's significant performances are built on. DeMille is clearly testing us with the use of Nefretiri.

Unlike the other Egyptians in the palace she is disinterested in Moses' Hebrew roots, she loves him so his genes are irrelevant. They are so irrelevant that she - in a typically rash moments - murders the slave peddling the news. It's the first of a number of gasp-worthy moments coming from the character. There's the steady suggestion that Nefretiri's gumption runs deep so that she seems like a wiser idea for Pharaoh than her indecisive future husband Rameses.

That early murder is only one of the moment where Nefretiri's entire existence poses problems to the audience. How are we to feel about this woman? She's the only character in the film whose "point" isn't telegraphed to us with immediacy and it's both a performance issue on Anne's part as it is a structural point on DeMille's part. Sure Head and her costume team are robing her in transparent chemises and ornate gowns, but Nefretiri is still carrying herself as if she knows something that those around her, specifically the men folk, don't. It's why two of my favourite moments in the film surround her. Credit again to DeMille for asking tough questions - how are we to feel about the death of Nefretiri and Rameses' son at the film's end? In a move that still surprises me in its earnestness Nefretiri makes her way to Moses, the now-married lover who has spurned her, to warn him that his eldest son is in danger. Anne persists in her vampy glory, but the honesty of the scene always gets me.
 

When Baxter urges, "But he is my son, Moses.You would not harm my son" it catches the audience. How to respond? The palpable feeling is difficult to ignore. Not only is DeMille playing with our head (Nefretiri isn't a completely mean woman) but Anne is doing so much in the scene and it's a moment like that which sells the later moment when her son actually does die a scene I'm never sure is supposed to have as much emotional effect on the audience as it does on me. Brynner's asshole King does not elicit sympathy and yet the moment pierces probably because in all her vampish glory Nefretiri's devotion to her son is significant. (The random moment where she draws him close when Moses' staff becomes a snake is such a nice touch.)

The grief at her son's death is only a prelude to the best line of the film.
 His God? The priests say that Pharaoh is a god. But you are not a god. You are even less than a man! Listen to me, Rameses. You thought I was evil when I went to Moses. And you were right. Shall I tell you what happened, Rameses? He spurned me like a strumpet in the street. I, Nefretiri, Queen of Egypt! All that you wanted from me he would not even take! Do you hear laughter Pharaoh? Not the laughter of kings, but the laughter of slaves on the desert island!
For all her talents, Baxter's largest claim to fame is the husky musicality of her voice and the entire sequence gives her much to play with. I do not jest when I say I'd have handed her the 1956 Oscar in a minute because even as she, a moment later, asks her husband to go kill the hero of our film as an audience I'm so drawn to her performance, I can't help but hope she gets her wish. Each and every time I watch this. It feels curmudgeonly to bemoan Sephora's devotion to her husband, but I feel I can hardly be blamed for finding Baxter's Nefretiri more interesting. She embodies the good and bad turning her from mere biblical creation into a human being. A true woman, I'd say.
               
Anyone else as enamoured with Anne's Nefretiri as I am?

7 comments:

Walter L. Hollmann said...

This is the film by which all epics are measured -- for me, anyway. It's interesting that people seem to use the phrase "DeMille Epic" now in an ironic, scoffing way, but he didn't just give the audience their money's worth in visual wonders. His femmes fatales are always interesting, complicated creatures, evidence that his films were far more than the lascivious finger-wag modern critics want to paint them as.

When years went by between viewings of this film, I honestly forgot there was a Sephora or Miriam -- but I sure as hell remember Anne Baxter! Your appreciation is much...appreciated.

Nick Prigge said...

When I was growing up my Mom, whenever this movie was on or might be mentioned, would say in that Baxter-ish voice "Oh, Mooooooooses." It always made me laugh. This gives you an idea of the kind of household I grew up in.

Anyway, lovely piece, and it truly makes me want to watch this film with a more open mind. I confess, I have painful memories of it from Sunday School. I hated Sunday School and that always unfairly colored the mind in my film. I've always associated it with being somewhere I don't want to be and doing something I don't want to do and that's completely unfair.

Perhaps next year I'll come back to it the way I should.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

walter agree with your entire comment. i mean demille's epics have their issues, yes, but they have significant strengths which are often not discussed, and he wrings some fine performances of the performances.

nick haha. i love that anecdote of yours. my mother knows verbatim more or less all the lines of ben-hur so i understand. but, anne baxter in this with her sheer clothing is basically the most anti-sunday school thing, nick!

Ken said...

Amen. "The Ten Commandments" worked in 1956 and it still works. The script is beautifully crafted pulp poetry and nobody in the cast rides that wave quite as gloriously as Baxter. The casting's unexpected because by '56 she was neither a fresh new face nor had she built up any particular reputation as a screen vamp. But thank God (and C.B.De Mille) she got the part. I've always thought she belonged in the Oscar hunt that year. Glad to hear someone else agree.

joel65913 said...

I'm glad you mentioned the husky musicality of her voice it truly was a great gift that she knew how to play like a piano.

Her performance here is fun if not my favorite of hers but I do remember in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" the three main characters were watching this with the young kid and explained as they watched the scene of her throwing roses at Moses that she was MISS ANNE BAXTER and I've never been able to think of her otherwise since!

This is right in her most entertaining and fruitful period that included two indelible performances in Three Violent People also with Heston and best of all One Desire where she suffers and suffers mostly in feathers and sequins as a gambling house queen with a yen for Rock Hudson and crossing swords with a deliciously evil Julie Adams.

MJ said...

I always love Anne Baxter. She looks so beautiful as princess and later as queen Nefretiri. She deserved to be nominated in 1956 for best actress for her performance in "The Ten Commandments"and also deserved to be the winner that year. Anyway she became a winner because we all have in our memories Anne (Nefretiri) Baxter. We see her year after year in the tv.broadcast and in our dvd/blue ray discs.

Anonymous said...

I FIRST SAW THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AS A CHILD AND IT HAS ACCOMPANIED ME ALL MY LIFE . SO MY MEMORIES OF FRIENDS , FAMILY AND GIRLFRIENDS ARE INTERWOVEN WITH THE MOVIE. MISS BAXTER HAS SINCE BEEN MY FAVOURITE ACTRESS . I FIND HER PERFORMANCE VIVID AND INTELLIGENT . I ALWAYS THOUGHT MR.DE MILLE MUST HAVE SHOWN HER CLAUDETTE COLBERT IN CLEOPATRA AND TOLD HER :" SEE , THESE ARE THE GESTURES " .SHE IS IN A GREAT MANNER , RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FILM´S APPEAL . I THANK HER FOR MAKING ME SO HAPPY ALONG THESE YEARS .