Divas, Gladiators, and Madmen

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Here’s a recap of Demetrius and the Gladiators that can be read in under 60 seconds. So in this sequel to The Robe hunky ex-slave Demetrius is arrested for hiding the Robe and is sentenced to gladiator school, where he catches the attention of flame-haired Messalina (looking for a few good men); meanwhile his girlfriend is assaulted and left for dead by a mean-guy gladiator, so Demetrius gets angry, forgets his Christian religion, and fights and kills in the arena; then he goes off to frolic with Messalina in her villa by the sea until Saint Peter comes along to douse the flames (of passion); then Demetrius finds the girlfriend alive and well and holding onto the Robe, which he takes to Emperor Caligula (very mad, Caligula); and then crazy Caligula insults the Praetorian guards, so they finally get fed up and off him, which is why old Claudius becomes emperor; so now Messalina goes off with him (after all, he IS the emperor), while a re-religioused Demetrius goes off with Saint Peter and another ex-gladiator and the Robe, and that’s the end, only where they’re all going is never said. It might have been interesting if someone had done a further sequel, but enough was enough, I guess.

My question is: just what was Susan Hayward doing here?

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I thought that by this time (circa 1954) Hayward was a pretty big star by Hollywood standards. She had one or two Oscar nominations under her belt; she was doing these serious parts, playing lushes (Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman); tough cookies (I Can Get It for You Wholesale); biographical sufferers (With a Song in My Heart); and First Ladies (The President’s Lady); AND she was even top-billed in that super-masculine rodeo film The Lusty Men. So what’s she doing in what’s basically a hyped-up sword-and-sandals flick? Hayward was a MAJOR actress at this point; shouldn’t she have been getting the ’50s equivalent of the ’40s Bette Davis roles? That’s why I wonder why she did a sexpot role like Messalina: it requires someone to wriggle—which Hayward does quite well, actually, twitching on her excitable bottom every time she watches Victor Mature slam a sword into another gladiator—but not much else. Except look good in skimpy costumes. And maybe look passionate. Flashing eyes, parted lips, heaving bosom. Something that screams Virginia Mayo.

But what Hayward does is make Messalina look and sound intelligent; this twitchy dame is no blow-up sex toy. That was Hayward’s great quality: she gave you brains. No matter what the role, you saw Hayward’s mind working, you sensed something happening behind her eyes and voice. She was as sharp as knives. Had Gone With The Wind been made five years later than it was, and Hayward (one of the original auditionees) auditioned for it then, she might have made an interesting Scarlett, playing her as a deceptively flirty Southern belle with the mind, and balls, of Margaret Thatcher. What was embryonic in Hayward in the early 1940s was in bloom by mid-decade: the smartness, the shrewdness, the held-in-check sexiness, and the sheer guts. You can see it in her playing of the young taxi dancer in Deadline at Dawn. This is no die-cut ingénue, but a cynical, bruised, been-through-the-mill woman who yet holds onto a core of decency. What a shame Hayward was too late for the complex women of pre-Code cinema.

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I’ll admit, though, Hayward wasn’t the most subtle actress. She’d pull out a character’s psyche in big chunks and spread them, raw and throbbing, across the screen. Even for a dish-of-tripe part like Messalina, Hayward overdoes it, as if she was trying to dig out a more intelligent script than the one she had to work with. I get a sense of her wielding an icepick, or even a gladiator’s sword, hacking and chopping away at the dialogue, trying to find something to get her teeth into. There’s a fury in Hayward, a looking-for-something-deeper when she tackled a part. In a standard Hollywood Biblical Epic like Demetrius, she seems to want to be acting not Demetrius and Messalina, but Antony and Cleopatra. She’s looking for a ROLE. I don’t know if Hayward could have done Shakespeare (though I bet she would have fearlessly tried), but she wants something like the Queen of the Nile—sexy, smart, alluring, changeable yet eternal, calculating yet passionate—feminine but with a hard edge. Depth is what she’s digging for, and she may not get it, but by god, she tries to give it; and that’s what probably makes her look so overwrought onscreen.

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Lana Turner might have been better as Messalina; Turner understood that you can relax when you lounge on a couch and flaunt your assets (and Hayward really should have done Turner’s angst part in The Bad and The Beautiful). But Hayward wanted to act, not just look glamorous. She’s the Mickey Mantle of powerhouse actresses, always wanting to swing from the heels. She didn’t have Bette Davis’s icy smolder, nor Ida Lupino’s neurotic subtlety, nor Barbara Stanwyck’s cynical cool, nor Joan Crawford’s I’m-the-goddamned-diva-here attitude, not quite. But she had intensity, she had feeling, she had guts, and she had a sense of what I can only call I’m-gonna-dredge-up-every-last-bit-I-can-get-from-this-character quality. She lacked—nuance, I’d call it. A sense of when to pull in her effects. She’s too ON. She didn’t have lightness. Stanwyck had that quality; it’s rare in a diva (and Stanwyck was the least diva-ish of divas). It’s why Stanwyck could play comedy so brilliantly; she could turn off the heavy artillery and go for caviar and champagne. Davis and Hayward couldn’t. They couldn’t step back, throw it away, play it cool and charming, make it delicious and delightful and easy. Stanwyck does just that in The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, purring up to a man, letting us know that she knows it’s all a game. Hayward did NOT play games. She was grim. She wouldn’t purr; she’d stare down a man; for her it was a battle. Stanwyck knew that giving way can be the win (watch how she cuddles Henry Fonda in Lady Eve), but Hayward has to give orders. Even in David and Bathsheba, she has to be honest and tell David she wants him as much as he wants her. Yes, it’s in the script, but Hayward makes it a Declaration of Principles; her stand on equal rights.

What was Hayward doing in David and Bathsheba, by the way? She looks as out of place in a BCE Hebrew palace as she does in the Roman Empire. Hayward is modern, she doesn’t suggest ancient history. She’s the tough urban girl; the career woman who needs to know how to handle men to get ahead in a man’s world, and she brings those facets to her Messalina. She calculates everything, you see her thinking as she watches and analyzes Caligula (oh so mad, Caligula), figuring out the angles. She doesn’t relax a moment but she keeps still; she lets this nutty loon have his way, but she does not do sexy and charming around him. She’s deadly serious (her life is at stake), and she plays it cool. But tense. Hayward was always tense. She’s never loose and at ease. Stanwyck was. But Hayward seems unable just to BE in the moment. She seems always plotting her next move, always full throttle, as if afraid that relaxing means she’ll drop out of sight in the movie. Even when Messalina is ogling all that prime beefcake at the gladiators’ banquet, Hayward is watchful. And tense.

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Demetrius and the Gladiators itself is basically beefcake on parade, a spectacle of oiled flesh and bulging muscle. As the title spells out, the film has dozens of half-naked gladiators slicing and dicing during combat, when they’re not romping with ladies of easy virtue the night before. That’s the fun, and challenge, of the Hollywood Biblical Epic: leavening the piety with audience-pleasing displays of sex and violence. DeMille was the absolute Master of such exhibitionist balancing acts, but Demetrius’s director, Delmer Daves, does keep the narrative lively and interesting, if not always wince-free. Like The Robe, Demetrius can be ploddingly serious while yet as garish and loud as a circus. Beginning production supposedly only a few weeks after The Robe had finished, it has that greatest-show-on-earth aspect endemic to its genre, with huge sets and gaudy costumes and an utter lack of quiet reflection or intimacy concerning what I would think would be deeply personal matters of one’s conscience and relationship to a deity. It was Hollywood’s idea of mainstream religion, after all, with Victor Mature doing what he called his “holy look.” And like Hayward’s acting, the film doesn’t go for subtlety, but lays it all out with a trowel. We know where we are to stand on the issues.

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Roman emperors have it all over us city dwellers when it comes to housing.

But the film does have its surprises. One being the character of Claudius, played by Barry Jones as a smart, thoughtful, but curious man. The script gives him no religious convictions whatever (he’s clearly an atheist), but makes him the film’s semi-hero; at the end he’s perfectly willing to leave the Christians alone as long as peace is preserved. He’s the enlightened rationalist, able to tolerate diverse viewpoints without needing to take sides. Another is the great William Marshall, as the Nubian gladiator Glycon who converts to Christianity. Glycon can be read as the token black character, a standard Hollywood virtue signal; but, under Marshall, he’s played not only with dignity but intellectual ferocity. Marshall’s eyes, and voice (as deep and profound as the sea), are always active and alive; he makes his conversion not emotional boilerplate but a conscious decision by an intelligent man. The movie also gives him a scene where he bashes a white gladiator (Richard Egan) right in the face. And suffers no consequences for it. True, Glycon is defending his (white) friend Demetrius; but, I did wonder how 1950s audiences reacted to a scene of a black man so vigorously, and righteously, asserting himself.

And then of course Jay Robinson steals the whole film.

Does he ever. Oh, Jay. So outré. He looks ready to torch the very celluloid holding his image. No one who sees his Caligula, first in The Robe and then in Demetrius, can forget him. Jay really set a new high in acting for me. Never have I seen such commitment to going all the way possible with a performance. He rants, sneers, snarls, screams; bares his teeth, stamps his foot, sweeps his cloak, and throws the godalmightiest hissy fit in the history of cinema. I can still recall my sheer incredulity when I first witnessed him onscreen. Restraint is not his forte. Jay hits it out and keeps it going; his hysteria mounts till you’re sure he’ll burst a blood vessel. He doesn’t let up, but is always willing to ratchet it up another notch. And yet—I believed him; I believed his character. His performance is high-octane camp, but I think Robinson’s intent was serious; he wanted to get across, to impress, and even to alarm viewers with the horror of living under a madman granted absolute power. (Well, he convinced me.) I might giggle when an actor goes to such extremes, but I’ve also come to admire it. Like Hayward, Robinson was willing to put it all out there. Look, this isn’t Pinter; understatement is not necessary. The big actors know when to reach for the big effects. “Never stop daring to hang yourself,” the great Charles Laughton once told Bette Davis. Maybe you’ll go too far, but you’ll also know the exhilaration of swinging free.

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