In anticipation of The Nativity Story, I’ve been going back and re-visiting earlier films about Jesus and Mary and making notes on how Mary, in particular, has been depicted.
I might say more about these cinematic portrayals of Mary later, but for now, I just want to focus on one facet of them — namely, her age, or rather, the ages of the actresses who have played her. And I have posted the above image, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings (1927), because it helps to illustrate the following point that I made in my review of the Criterion DVD:
Some aspects of the film seem more dated now. H. B. Warner’s performance as Jesus has its merits, but lends itself all too well to the wimpy “meek and mild” image that more recent filmmakers have tried to undo. In addition, Warner was 51 when the film came out, and must rank as one of the oldest actors to have ever played the Savior onscreen; presumably his age was meant to communicate Jesus’ wisdom and authority. In contrast, the Virgin Mary is played by Dorothy Cumming, who was only 28; presumably her youth, and her nun-like attire, were meant as a nod to Catholic beliefs about Mary’s incorruptibility.
Incidentally, there is no Nativity sequence in DeMille’s film, so this was not one of those cases where an actress was required to play both a “young Mary” and then an “old Mary”.
I got curious about the actresses in the other films I’ve been watching, and while a few of their birthdates are not available at the IMDB, I was able to dig up the info for most. What follows are the titles of each film, followed by its release date, the actress’s name, her age at the time of the film’s release, her birthdate, and whether she played the Young Mary, Old Mary, or both:
- From the Manger to the Cross (Oct 1912) — Gene Gauntier, 27 (b. May 17 1885), Y/O — she also wrote this film’s script!
- Ben-Hur (Dec 1925) — Betty Bronson, 19 (b. November 17 1906), Y
- The King of Kings (Apr 1927) — Dorothy Cumming, 28 (April 12 1899), O
- Ben-Hur (Nov 1959) — José Greci, Y
- King of Kings (Oct 1961) — Siobhan McKenna, 38 (b. May 24 1923), Y/O
- The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Sep 1964) — Margherita Caruso, Y; Susanna Pasolini, O
- The Greatest Story Ever Told (Feb 1965) — Dorothy McGuire, 48 (b. June 14 1916), Y/O
- The Messiah (Feb 1976) — Mita Ungaro, Y/O
- Jesus of Nazareth (Apr 1977) — Olivia Hussey, 25 (Apr 17 1951), Y/O
- The Nativity (Dec 1978) — Madeleine Stowe, 20 (August 18 1958), Y
- Jesus (Oct 1979) — Rivka Neuman, Y
- Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (Dec 1979) — Blanche Baker, 22 (December 20 1956), Y
- Je vous salue, Marie (Jan 1985) — Myriem Roussel, 22 (February 26 1962), Y
- A.D. Anno Domini (Mar 1985) — Millie Perkins, 46 (May 12 1938), O
- The Last Temptation of Christ (Aug 1988) — Verna Bloom, 49 (August 7 1939), O
- The Visual Bible: Matthew (Oct 1994) — Joanna Weinberg, Y
- Mary, Mother of Jesus (Nov 1999) — Melinda Kinnaman, 28 (November 9 1971), Y; Pernilla August, 41 (February 13 1958), O
- Jesus (Dec 1999) — Jacqueline Bisset, 55 (September 13 1944), O
- The Gospel of John (Sep 2003) — Diana Berriman, O
- The Passion of the Christ (Feb 2004) — Maia Morgenstern, 41 (May 1 1962), O
- The Nativity Story (Dec 2006) — Keisha Castle-Hughes, 16 (March 24 1990), Y
FWIW, some noteworthy Jesus films don’t show up in this list because they left Mary out of the picture completely, e.g. Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Godspell (1973), both of which were more concerned with the parallels between Jesus’ disciples and the hippies of their day; or because they don’t quite fit on a list like this, e.g. The Miracle Maker (2000), which is an animated film and thus requires an actress to provide only the voice of Mary.