Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The best Joseph

Followers of Mormon film are aware of the difficulty of casting and playing the role of Joseph Smith, the prophet. It is somewhat similar to Richard Bushman's dilemma in writing a Joseph Smith biography. (See the preface to Rough Stone Rolling.) No matter what you do with the role, someone will be disappointed. The zealously faithful will complain that it wasn't laudatory enough. The cynics and skeptics will claim that it's too hagiographic. If you split the difference, everyone will complain that it is boring and stale.

Fortunately, the church has gotten better at casting the prophet's role over the years. I think it's safe to say that the recent (within the last two years or so) film is probably the best church-produced Joseph Smith picture and Nate did the best job of playing Joseph.

Part of the problem in playing Joseph Smith is that the man is a bundle of paradox. You have to be a mystic, but you have to be a down-to-earth Yankee and a frontier mayor. You have to be a visionary, but also a wrestler. You have to be a radical and also a man of power. It can seem schizophrenic. Mormons who play the prophet are even more keenly afflicted by the paradox, even if they are not conscious of it. The result can be paralyzing. Another problem is that for us Mormons, there is often so much emotion involved that you can easily get an over-the-top beyond Kenneth Branaugh-style portrayal---so emotionally charged that it borders on manipulative.

Non-LDS actors fare a bit better. Paradoxically, because they don't have the intimate personal experience with Joseph's legacy that Mormons do, they are not bound by the awful burden of trying to portray revelation---which no tongue can tell---on screen.

Oddly enough, my opinion is that the best Joseph Smith on the screen was Vincent Price in the 1940 picture Brigham Young. What I like about Price's acting is that he is otherworldly and mystic (this is Vincent Price, after all), but in a subtle and guileless, and natural way. He doesn't use overmuch emotion. He keeps it cool and collected, but not spookily so. He also portrays the friendship that Joseph had with his friends. Mormon Joseph's too often have had some kind of sacred distance between them and the rest of the cast that gets in the way. (Although more recently, this is better).

And a few years back there was the rumor that Richard Dutcher was going to bill Val Kilmer in his treatment of the prophet's life. Who knows how that would have gone. I'm inclined to think he'd do okay with it, but I think his performance would be more physical. I'm not convinced of his ability to really capture the charisma, though.

But if I could pick someone that would have played Joseph well but never did, I would have to pick Gene Wilder. Yes, yes, I know, that sounds absurd. But hear me out. Think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Maybe this is just because when I was young I saw an awful portrayal of Joseph Smith in a very low-budget 1970s-era BYU student production. At the end of the film, a dead Josph Smith appears to Brigham Young in vision wearing, of all things, a purple tuxedo. Maybe it was this association between Joseph Smith and purple tuxedos that makes me think Gene Wilder would do a good job.

But think of Wilder's Willy Wonka. A man full of secrets, a man who loves children, values loyalty, a man who loves creativity. A visionary man who creates whole worlds in his factory. And think of Joseph Smith, a man who likewise revealed worlds, a man who loved to innovate, and who, like Willy Wonka, envisioned sending the fruits of his visions to bring joy to the whole world.

The chocolate factory itself (at least in the version Wilder appears in) is in some ways like the temple. You can't get in without a golden ticket (though, of course, the qualifications for getting one are just a little different from the temple recommend). Once inside you can't go anywhere unless directed. You are essentially taken on a journey by your guide through different worlds. There is a sin, some forbidden thing is taken, and it is only through admitting guilt and accepting responsibility that reconciliation with the creator can be achieved.

Yes, of course, that's a strained analogy. And yes, of course, I'm being half facetious. But when I say that Gene Wilder would have been a good Joseph Smith, I'm only half joking. I think he could have done it.


Amanda said...

What's the parallel to the creepy boat ride through the tunnel? Or the oompa loompas, I wonder?

Really, though, aside from the fact that Gene Wilder sort of kind of creeps me out in the movie, I'm inclined to agree. It's all in the eyes, I think.

JKC said...

Okay, the boat ride is an illustration of Joseph's statement that "the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God." The boat ride is the "darkest abyss."

The oompa loompas? That's easy---they're the ubiquitous, helpful, identically dressed temple workers.

JKC said...

Yeah, I think the eyes have something to do with it.

But Wilder's also got the prominent nose too. That clinches it.

Amanda said...

Ooh, good answer, jkc. Good answer.

apyknowzitall said...

I hope you don't mind me posting, I kind of cyberstalked my way from salsa night.

Being a big fan of Gene Wilders, particularly his role of Willy Wonka, I agree that he would be able to play a good Joseph. (As sacrilicious as that sounds.) Aside from having such a personal rapport with children after being isolated for so long just with oompa loompas for company, he seemed to have something deeper within. Does that make sense? I'm going to see if I can't find a copy of the 1940 flick mentioned. I've never heard of it and I also like Vincent Price.

BTW- can you actually imagine walking into a temple and seeing oompa loompas instead of temple workers? Next session I go to I know that thought will pop into my head:)

JKC said...


You're always welcome. Post away.

Verna said...

Good for people to know.