Jeffrey Hunter portrayed Capt. Christopher Pike, the first commander of the U.S.S. Enterprise, on the original "Star Trek." Max Von Sydow played Ming the Merciless in the 1980 version of "Flash Gordon." Robert Powell portrayed Capt. Walker, the martyred father, in Ken Russell's 1975 adaptation of The Who's "Tommy."
These three actors have one role in common a role also played by Willem Dafoe, Jim Caviezel, Ted Neeley and hundreds of other film actors in the past century, and countless stage performers over the past two millennia.
They all have portrayed Jesus Christ.
(Hunter starred in the 1961 Biblical drama "King of Kings," von Sydow in the 1965 epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told" and Powell in Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries "Jesus of Nazareth." Dafoe, Caviezel and Neeley were in three of the more controversial tellings of the Christ story: respectively, in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" and the rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar.")
It's perhaps the toughest role for an actor to crack, because there are few people in the world and certainly none in Judeo-Christian culture without a preconceived notion of who Jesus is or how he should be portrayed.
A fascinating new exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art asks viewers to consider what we look for in a Jesus while also satirizing how the world makes momentous cultural decisions these days, via the format of a reality game show.
"Casting Jesus" is a video installation by Berlin-based artist Christian Jankowski, who videotaped a competition last year at the Complesso Monumentale Santo Spirito, a 1,000-year-old hospital in Rome, in which 13 actors performed before a trio of judges MonseÃ±or JosÃ© Manuel del Rio Carrasco, a Vatican priest; Sandro Barbagallo, art critic for the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano; and Massimo Giraldi, a journalist and secretary of the Commission for Film Classification of the Italian Bishop Conference. The event is presented on two massive video screens, one showing the actors, the other fixed on the judges.
Think of it as "Vatican Idol," but without a studio audience. (When Jankowski filmed the event, an audience of 300 was watching via live video stream elsewhere.)
The competition was broken up into three rounds. In the first, the 13 actors, each clad in peasant robes and no shoes, performed some basic moves: walking, looking skyward, smiling, crying and uttering a line of Scripture.
In the first round, we begin to see the varied approaches to playing Jesus. Some do the walk with quiet deliberation, while others translate that as just walking really slowly, which begins to annoy the MonseÃ±or, who fiddles with his iPhone during one actor's particularly long walk.
Six semifinalists were chosen for the second round and lined up side by side for their next challenges. They had to break bread, answer the question "Are you the Christ?" with the response "It is you who say that I am" and endure the taunts of a hostile crowd.
In the second round, sometimes the performances turn oddly comical such as one actor who overemotes the bread-breaking, looking more like Oliver Twist seeking more gruel than a savior offering his disciples a sacrament. Then there's the scene in which the actors take turns being heckled and pushed around by the other five, creating the bizarre image of one Jesus being berated by five other Jesuses.
For the final round, three finalists are given the hardest challenges: laying hands on the moderator as if to cure his illness, carrying a cross fashioned from two-by-fours, and, finally, simulating Christ's death at the crucifixion.
So why is Jesus such a difficult role to play? A lot of it is the fact that so many people know who Jesus is, or at least carry some iconic image of Jesus, so an actor risks a lot of disappointment and anger. (Just look at the reactions to Dafoe's rebel Jesus in Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" or Neeley's "screaming Jesus" in the stage and screen versions of Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Jesus Christ Superstar.")
The prime difficulty is something acknowledged by the moderator in Jankowski's work, who says the actors must portray Jesus as someone "who has an aura that is consummately and perfectly human." But how do you portray as human i.e., flawed someone who is also divine? It's a puzzle that flummoxes even great actors, as evidenced by the wan, wooden performances of Von Sydow and Powell.
In the end, "Casting Jesus" does find a winner an actor who embodies the judges' ideal of a pious figure, ready to pose for the postcards, as one of the judges jokes. But it's a Jesus cast in our image, a two-dimensional representation that takes the passion out of the Passion Play.
Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/themoviecricket.
'Casting Jesus' at UMOCA
The video installation "Casting Jesus," by German artist Christan Jankowski.
Where • Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, 20 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City.
When • Now through July 28.
Hours • 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; closed Sundays and Mondays.
Admission • Free.
Events • A public panel discussion on the issues of portraying Jesus Christ, set for 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 19. Anticipated panelists include Rita Wright, chief curator, LDS Church History Museum; artist Ben McPherson; Sheila Muller, professor emerita of art history, University of Utah.