Playing Jesus in a movie doesn’t bestow professional obscurity so much as signify it. Take The Passion of the Christ: Before starring in Mel Gibson’s goregasm, Jim Caviezel was best known for a role in The Thin Red Line that was essentially a dry run for his turn as the Messiah. Shouldn’t actors be restricted to one Christly performance per lifetime?
Maybe B-listers make the best Jesuses because they work cheap: When Spanish econ student Enrique Irazoqui nabbed the lead as a proto-Marxist Christ in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, profit points most likely weren’t discussed. The only genuine movie star to grace a JC biopic was Willem Dafoe in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, but even he’s a glorified cult actor.
The antithesis of Dafoe’s angsty Jesus is surely Max Von Sydow’s ultra-serene savior in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), a movie brimming with second-tier talent. Blue-eyed Brit Robert Powell was just as ethereal in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 TV Christravaganza Jesus of Nazareth, where he also assumed the mantle of “dreamiest Jesus ever” once worn by Jeffrey Hunter (remember him?) in King of Kings (1961). Jeremy Sisto also played up Christ’s noli-me-tangere hunkiness in the Eurotrashy 2000 miniseries Jesus, and somewhere underneath all that flayed foam rubber so does Caviezel.
Parlaying a Son of God performance into heartthrob status seems dubious, but stranger things have happened in Hollywood (Gibson’s directorial career, for instance). Future celluloid Jesuses would do well to remember this prophecy from Powell: “I hope Jesus Christ will be the last in my line of sensitive young men for quite a while.” Amen to that.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 24, 2004