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January 27, 2024

Paul Newman in His First Film “The Silver Chalice”, the Worst Motion Picture Produced During the 1950s

The Silver Chalice is a 1954 American historical epic drama film directed and produced by Victor Saville, based on Thomas B. Costain’s 1952 novel of the same name. It was one of Saville’s last films and marked the feature film debut of Paul Newman; despite being nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his performance, Newman later called it “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s.”

Paul Newman plays a Greek slave called Basil, and why the hell anyone thought Basil was an authentic-sounding ancient Greek name remains a mystery. After discovering his talent for sculpting, he starts a new life as an artisan, marrying his beloved Deborra. Again, this is Ancient Greece, not 1950s Swindon, as the names suggest. Shortly after they’re wed, Basil is offered the job of a lifetime: casting and engraving a special cup for Jesus to use at the Last Supper. While a mysterious magician sets about convincing the crowds that he is the new messiah, Basil travels to Rome and then to Jeruselum to complete his holy task.

Newman was apparently not proud of his performance in The Silver Chalice. When the film was broadcast on television in 1966, he took out an advertisement in a Hollywood trade paper apologizing for his performance and requesting people not to watch the film. This backfired and the broadcast received unusually high ratings. The film is sometimes referred to as Paul Newman and the Holy Grail. Newman called the film “the worst motion picture produced during the 1950s,” and once screened it for guests at his home, handing out pots, wooden spoons and whistles, encouraging the audience to offer noisy critiques.

Martin Scorsese has since confessed that The Silver Chalice is a guilty pleasure of his. In a 1978 piece for Spectacle titled Martin Scorsese’s Guilty Pleasures, the director wrote: “The Silver Chalice is one of the reasons I hired Boris Leven to design New York, New York. Giant and The Silver Chalice: any man who could design those two films ... that’s it, I had to have him. The Silver Chalice, which is a bad picture, has no authenticity. It’s purely theatrical, and this is mainly due to the sets. They’re clean and clear; it’s almost like another life, another world. We don’t know what ancient Rome was like, so why not take the attitude Fellini had with Satyricon: make it science fiction in reverse? The Silver Chalice came close to that fifteen years earlier.”


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