I just love this IMBD synopsis: “A young poet sells his own suicide to a marketing firm as a mass media spectacle”.
Once thought to be lost or hidden away in some film vault, out of distribution for over 40 years, with only a handful of initial screenings, Herostratus (1967) disappeared from public view, remaining all but forgotten to this day. Misunderstood and reviled when it was first released, admittedly flawed, this film offers a compelling critique of the failure of 1960s postwar idealism in Britain, a vision portrayed by the filmmaker as having degenerated into deviant debauchery.
Commissioned in 1962 by the BFI Experimental Film Fund, which provided budgets to make short films, director Don Levy found his ambitions exceeded his budget as his Herostratus expanded into a feature-length production.
Inspired by, and named after, the legend of the man who burned down the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus to achieve immortal fame, Herostratus is the story of Max, a young poet who pitches to a marketing firm the idea that his suicide from jumping off a tall building could be made into a mass media spectacle, a final performance that he conceives as a sacrificial act of protest against modern society. Much to his dismay, however, his supposedly subversive intentions are perceived as a reactionary gesture and his motivation is seen as a desperate attempt to seek attention through celebrity. In other words, it was six decades too soon.
Levy claimed that the film was a complex interconnected series of sights and sounds made to trigger emotional responses in a viewer’s subconscious. There are images of postwar urban decay juxtaposed with stripteases and hanging carcasses. There is a repeated appearance an ashy woman in black leather that is particularly prevalent: she appears as a phantom who plagues Max’s mind as it begins to unravel.
Some smart film historians have noted Herostratus‘s influence on Stanley Kubrick‘s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Levy was respected by many important contemporary British directors of his era, but Herostratus‘s failure in Britain made him move to the USA.
He never made another feature film. In 1968, Levy started teaching at Harvard. Two years later, he moved to Los Angeles to teach at the new California Institute of the Arts, where he did research in film, video and multimedia until his death in 1987, gone by suicide.
Mirren’s contribution (about 54 minutes into the film) is her performance as “Advert Woman”, and it provides one of the few moments of humor in an otherwise very, very dark film. She is wearing rubber gloves for the filming of a commercial which is supposed to be a statement about consumerism, but the real product is her boobs. The camera lingers lasciviously over Mirren’s talented cleavage. The scene is only a few minutes long.
Mirren collected paychecks from some other bizarre films; she had one of her earliest juicy roles in Caligula (1979) about the erotic rise and fall of the Roman Emperor Caligula, starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, and John Gielgud. This one is produced by the men’s magazine Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, who planned to produce a series of explicit pornographic films with a feature film narrative and high production values. He cast his “Penthouse Pets” as extras and filmed the unsimulated sex scenes during post-production by himself.
Gore Vidal wrote the Caligula screenplay and Tinto Brass, an Italian maker of Avant-garde films directed. Brass made big changes to Vidal’s original screenplay, and both Brass and Vidal disagreed with Guccione’s use of real sex acts, which Brass refused to film. Brass was not allowed to edit the film, and its tone and style changed with added hardcore sex scenes not filmed by Brass, changing Caligula from a smart satire of politics into a pornographic phantasmagoria. Gore and Brass disavowed the film
Caligula‘s release was met with legal issues and controversies over its violence and sexual content. Its uncut version remains banned in several countries. Although reviews were overwhelmingly negative, Caligula is now considered to be a cult classic. A restored version was shown as an “Ultimate Cut” at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Mirren went on to bigger, brighter things. She became a Dame in 2003. She began her long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company the year Herostratus was released. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2007 for her performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen (2007), and she received an Olivier Award (2013) and Tony Award for playing the same queen in The Audience in 2015. Besides her Oscar and Tony, Mirren has four BAFTA Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and five Emmy Awards.
Mirren’s Academy Award nominations were for The Madness Of King George (1994), Gosford Park (2001), and The Last Station (2009). Playing a police detective on the British television series Prime Suspect (1991 – 2006), brought her three consecutive BAFTA Awards and two Emmys. She has an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her performance in the miniseries Elizabeth I (2005). She hosts the deliriously funny IFC series Documentary Now!
She gives a spirited performance in Paramount+’s Yellowstone spinoff 1923, which also features fellow senior citizens Harrison Ford and Timothy Dalton (imagine how gassy that set must have been). She can be seen in Fast & Furious 9: The Fast Saga (2021) and Fast X (2023), plus Shazam! Fury Of The Gods (2023), streaming on MAX, which sounds a lot like Herostratus in its IMBD plot description. Next month she stars as Golda Meir, Prime Minister of Israel in the already controversial Golda. And most importantly, she is the narrator some movie titled Barbie (2023).
She recently told the Radio Times, a British weekly magazine: “…we’re all somewhere in the middle in a wonderful mix of male and female. I don’t believe that at all. An awful lot of actors have male and female in them. A lot of great actors, great masculine actors, are actually very feminine. Great heart-throbs have a very present feminine side to them. A lot of very strong female actors, have a very strong male side to them.”
In 2011, Mirren told Esquire magazine:
“I am quite spiritual. I believed in fairies when I was a child. I still do sort of believe in the fairies. And the leprechauns. But I don’t believe in God.”