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.)
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?