Who is the youngest Mary of them all?


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:

  1. From the Manger to the Cross (Oct 1912) — Gene Gauntier, 27 (b. May 17 1885), Y/O — she also wrote this film’s script!

  2. Ben-Hur (Dec 1925) — Betty Bronson, 19 (b. November 17 1906), Y
  3. The King of Kings (Apr 1927) — Dorothy Cumming, 28 (April 12 1899), O
  4. Ben-Hur (Nov 1959) — José Greci, Y
  5. King of Kings (Oct 1961) — Siobhan McKenna, 38 (b. May 24 1923), Y/O
  6. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Sep 1964) — Margherita Caruso, Y; Susanna Pasolini, O
  7. The Greatest Story Ever Told (Feb 1965) — Dorothy McGuire, 48 (b. June 14 1916), Y/O
  8. The Messiah (Feb 1976) — Mita Ungaro, Y/O
  9. Jesus of Nazareth (Apr 1977) — Olivia Hussey, 25 (Apr 17 1951), Y/O
  10. The Nativity (Dec 1978) — Madeleine Stowe, 20 (August 18 1958), Y
  11. Jesus (Oct 1979) — Rivka Neuman, Y
  12. Mary and Joseph: A Story of Faith (Dec 1979) — Blanche Baker, 22 (December 20 1956), Y
  13. Je vous salue, Marie (Jan 1985) — Myriem Roussel, 22 (February 26 1962), Y
  14. A.D. Anno Domini (Mar 1985) — Millie Perkins, 46 (May 12 1938), O
  15. The Last Temptation of Christ (Aug 1988) — Verna Bloom, 49 (August 7 1939), O
  16. The Visual Bible: Matthew (Oct 1994) — Joanna Weinberg, Y
  17. Mary, Mother of Jesus (Nov 1999) — Melinda Kinnaman, 28 (November 9 1971), Y; Pernilla August, 41 (February 13 1958), O
  18. Jesus (Dec 1999) — Jacqueline Bisset, 55 (September 13 1944), O
  19. The Gospel of John (Sep 2003) — Diana Berriman, O
  20. The Passion of the Christ (Feb 2004) — Maia Morgenstern, 41 (May 1 1962), O
  21. 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.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05113670876288157267 Matt Page

    This doesn’t really count as a film portrayal, but the BBC’s 2002 documentary featured 3 mary’s GHISLAN ROUJNA, NESRINE CHERKAOT, FATIMA HARAKAT, who were the young mary, archetypal mary and the old mary respectively. The young mary (pictured here) looked very young indeed.

    Oh and both Jesus and The Passion have flashbacks to a young(er) Mary.

    Matt

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Ah, good catch! Does Jacqueline Bisset — at 55, or possibly 54 when the film was shot, the oldest confirmed actress on this list — play the younger Mary too? I can’t remember, and the IMDB doesn’t list any other actresses in the part.

    Side note: The ages listed above are the ages of those actresses at the time that their films came out. But in many cases, the actresses had had at least one birthday between the time their scenes were shot and the time their films came out.

    So, unless these two films were shot very close to the wire, it would seem that Betty Bronson was actually 18 when she played Mary in Ben-Hur (1925), and Madeleine Stowe was actually 19 when she played Mary in The Nativity (1978).

    Keisha Castle-Hughes, in contrast, turned 16 last March, only a few weeks after filming started, so she will be the same age at the film’s release that she was when she shot a significant portion of her scenes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05113670876288157267 Matt Page

    Bisset definitely plays the “younger mary” – it’s in quotes because they have Maryr wear her hair out a little bit, but it doesn’t really work – it’s obviously not her hair, and the face looks just as old – it’s very poorly done.

    Matt

  • Paul

    Jacqueline Bissett WAS very attractive back in the day, though.


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