In the 1960s, costume dramas with faint high-brow appeal were all the rage. Complete with Roman pageantry, thrilling battle scenes and misty allusions to the divine, Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy from 1965 stands as a prototypical example of this era’s Oscar bait. The film is a highly fictionalized account of the painting of the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling frescos, focusing on the tempestuous relationship between the reluctant Michelangelo (Charlton Heston) and his patron, the headstrong - to put it mildly - Pope Julius II (Rex Harrison). The production was timed to coincide with Michelangelo’s 400th birthday and an exhibit of the sculptor’s iconic Pietà at The World’s Fair in New York, making The Agony and the Ecstasy one of the first films devised as part of a larger marketing scheme.
While Hollywood’s record at depicting the lives of artists is spotty at best, The Agony and the Ecstasy succeeds as sheer spectacle, both physical and psychological. Here the opulent splendors of Rome are counterbalanced by Heston and Harrison’s deeply internal clash of wills. The Pope merely seeks decorative images to enliven his unimpressive chapel, but Michelangelo, after many fits and starts, eventually finds inspiration in the book of Genesis, and designs a grandiose mural that dramatically increases the scope of the project. The skeptical Pontiff slowly buys into the vision of this scruffy Florentine sculptor, even taking time out from the bloody siege of Bologna to review the artist’s sketches while cannonballs zip over their heads. Ultimately, The Agony and the Ecstasy delivers a tale of catharsis, with Michelangelo finding renewed faith and creative vigor, while the Holy Father gains deeper respect for the potential of humanity.
The film received five Oscar nominations, all in technical categories, leaving its actors bereft despite some strong performances. Charlton Heston was always at his best when covered with grime and sweat, and here he wears his filthy tunic and random splatters of paint like badges of honor. Harrison, as the regal Julius II, strikes a perfect contrast with his flowing silk robes and golden battle armor. Harrison truly dominates the film, and proves himself the master manipulator; at turns cold and impervious then gentle and tender depending on his needs. Harrison seems to glide through his scenes; his elegant demeanor and pitch perfect line readings a testament to his consummate skill. Even the burly Heston seems in awe of him, and often can only sit and marvel with the rest of us. The Sistine Chapel frescoes may have stunned visitors for centuries, but Rex Harrison’s work in The Agony and the Ecstasy will also leave viewers with a sense of the miraculous.