FlixChatter has invited movie bloggers to “shine a spotlight on the ‘unsung heroes’ if you will, the overlooked performers who add so much richness & entertainment value to the film no matter how brief their appearance is, but yet they don’t get the credit they so deserve.” Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the title up there, and you’re thinking “Gladiator? Unsung?? This is just another excuse for you to talk about Russell Crowe, isn’t it?” I will grant you that I’m breaking a little bit with the spirit of this blogathon, but when I started thinking about “small roles, big performances,” Gladiator sprang quickly to mind. In part, perhaps, because I’ve seen it a number of times, but also because I think it is a movie full of really great moments, and those moments are created by really talented actors who, despite the movie winning Best Picture, were perhaps not noticed individually as much as they might’ve been. I want to talk about two of the actors featured in Gladiator particularly. Both gave fine performances that added greatly to the film overall, and both were actors from an older generation, here shown late in their careers. Neither was a complete unknown, but nor were they ever true household names. In my opinion, part of what makes their roles in Gladiator so important is the fact that this is a film for which they will both be remembered, and perhaps it will serve as an introduction for modern audiences to their earlier work.
Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius
Before he strode onscreen as Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter film, Richard Harris made a big impression with new audiences as Rome’s “last good emperor,” the philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius. Harris fills the screen with his quiet dignity and whispered wisdom. Through his eyes, we see Crowe’s Maximus as more than just a good soldier; we see him as a loving and loyal man. Aurelius helps to shape the character of Maximus, and Harris imbues him with paternal pride, love, and the certain knowledge that those he loves are hopelessly flawed. Aurelius must make the difficult decision of either naming his son his successor, or choosing what is best for Rome, and returning her rule to a governmental body. In essence, he must choose between being an emperor and being a father, and Harris shows so clearly the heartbreak that Aurelius goes through in making that decision. Here we see him change between those two roles effortlessly; from the commanding emperor to a father at the end of his life, asking for forgiveness from the son he has disappointed.
Gladiator may have been the first film in which I saw Richard Harris, but his performance, brief yet lasting, has certainly assured that it will not be the last.
Oliver Reed as Proximo
Gladiator is, in fact, Reed’s final performance; he died before he had finished shooting all of his scenes in the movie. Special effects were used for those final appearances so that he wouldn’t be replaced. It is, in my opinion, the perfect tribute. Proximo, the slave owner who essentially kidnaps Maximus and transforms him into “The Spaniard,” is also a father figure, but one cut from an extremely different cloth than Aurelius. His business is the purchase and disposal of human beings, and most of his demeanor is accordingly blunt and disaffected. Still, in his later scenes with Maximus, we see the same paternal pride and even a measure of respect. He also conveys a great deal of intelligence and hard-fought wisdom. I like to think that this final role embodies much of what made Oliver Reed a great actor. He was rough-hewn but intelligent, full of bluster and heart. Like Harris’ Aurelius, Proximo adds layers of depth to the character of Maximus, and both Reed and Crowe portrayed their bond extremely well. Here, Proximo speaks to Maximus as an equal, showing his respect and pride.
In Maximus, Proximo finds someone to confide in; in a way, I think he also sees the younger man as someone who might succeed him. In the end, he chooses to embrace Maximus’ (and Aurelius’) dream of Rome’s restoration. Like Harris, Reed makes a transformation of sorts, from hard-bitten slave driver to a man willing to die for others’ freedom.
Gladiator was the biggest movie of the year. It won many, many awards, but neither Harris nor Reed were particularly recognized for their efforts (Reed was nominated for a BAFTA). And yet, without them, I don’t believe that Gladiator would be the film that it is. It is a testament to the abilities of all three men that we are able to see the extent to which both Aurelius and Proximo shape the character of Maximus and move him through his journey. In that way, I believe they truly exemplify the idea of “small roles, big performances.”