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Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Role of Roles (originally published 12/99)

Actors will tell you that there are no small parts, only small actors. It's a laudably positive outlook to maintain, especially for actors who specialize in supporting roles, but I suspect that most actors would still rather play Hamlet than do a walk-on on a sitcom. At the same time, some roles are so big, and come freighted with so much emotional baggage, that it must be intimidating to contemplate playing them.

The supreme example of such a part must surely be the role of God. I'm not talking about playing Jesus, mind you. I'm talking about appearing in a movie as God the Father, the apex of the holy trinity. Even in a profession not known for modesty, it's difficult to imagine anyone agreeing to appear in a movie as God Almighty without thinking twice.

And yet it does happen. Just recently we've had Dustin Hoffman appearing in "The Messenger" as the source of the voice heard by Joan of Arc, which would certainly imply that he's supposed to be God, although the film doesn't explicitly say so. Also, in the controversial recent release, "Dogma," God is played, interestingly enough, by Alanis Morissette. If you'd like to see some earlier representations of God in the movies, look for these titles on home video.

"The Green Pastures" (1936). It so happens that one of the first actors to personify God on the screen was a black performer. In fact, the entire cast of this retelling of the Old Testament, based on Marc Connelly's play, is black. The premise is to take familiar characters from Genesis, like Abraham, Moses, and Noah, and present them in the context of rural black culture of the Thirties. If you're wondering how a film from that time could present such material without being insulting to blacks, the answer is that it couldn't. The exaggerated black dialect spoken by the actors, for example, is uncomfortable for today's audiences (Rex Ingram, as God, is referred to as "De Lawd," for example), and yet the film is an entertaining gloss on the Old Testament if you can get past the veneer of racial disrespect.

"Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975). One of the most unusual appearances as God in a movie was a posthumous one. For the scene in which God addresses the Knights of the Round Table from Heaven, director Terry Gilliam animated a picture of W.G. Grace, the Michael Jordan of English cricket during the late 1800's. The voice of God is uncredited, but the image of Grace in that role would scarcely seem out of place to a rabid cricket fan.

"Oh, God!" (1977). In 1975, at the youthful age of 79, George Burns made an impressive return to the big screen with his Oscar winning role in "The Sunshine Boys." How do you follow a triumph like that? One way is by playing God in your next role, which is just what Burns did. Larry Gelbart's clever and charming script suggests that if God were to physically appear to a human, it would have to be in a form that the human could comprehend and accept - that of an affable octogenarian, for example. Burns and John Denver, as the human to whom God appears, play off one another flawlessly under the expert direction of Carl Reiner. The film went on to spawn two sequels, but neither is a patch on the original.

"Time Bandits" (1981). Although this isn't officially a Monty Python picture, it is directed by Terry Gilliam and the cast includes Michael Palin and John Cleese, placing it well within the Python canon. As in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," Gilliam and Palin (co-authors of the screenplay) have used the Almighty as a character. Referred to as the Supreme Being, he is played by Sir Ralph Richardson. It is from this Supreme Being that six dwarfs have stolen a map indicating gaps in the structure of space-time, allowing them to move through history as freely as through space.

By the way, Alanis Morissette is not the first woman to play the part of God on the screen. Back in 1978, a TV movie called "Human Feelings" featured Nancy Walker, probably best remembered as Rhoda Morgenstern's mother, as the Almighty. It isn't available on home video, but perhaps they'll get around to releasing it one day - God willing.

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