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Monday Monologue: Anne Baxter’s Nefretiri

Hollywood's found religion again so here's Andrew on The Ten Commandments

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) is the epic by which all biblical epics should be judged. There's something for everyone: romance, drama, melodrama, religious feeling, glorious Edith Head costumes and a wide scope.  And, yet, despite so much to choose from and no matter the scene, I always find my eyes settling on Anne Baxter, my pick for MVP and the Best Supporting Actress of 1956 (she wasn't nominated). Baxter’s husky tones and lilting line-readings are so memorable that it's easy to reconfigure the film and the dialogue as a series of actressy monologues...

But this is not so. Nefretiri doesn’t have that many lines altogether. Yet, as good as her scene partners are (Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston do some of their best work) Baxter forces your attention from them to her, so you THINK her scenes are monologues though they’re really not. Her blocks of lines / quasi monologues, often feature classic Anne, growlingly teasing Heston and reciting lines like off-beat poetry.

A shepherd girl. What can she be to you? Unless the desert sun has dulled your senses... are her lips chafed and dry as the desert sand, or are they moist and red like a pomegranate? Is it the fragrance of myrrh that scents her hair or is it the odour of sheep?

Old time religion aside, The Ten Commandments is expert melodrama and Anne milks every single consonant. Baxter excelled at playing morally ambiguous women but it's a disservice to remember only the vampy quality of this star turn. Consider her tender and true tears when she learns of Moses’ Hebrew roots, the way her love for her son plays significantly even in incidental moments (note the way she pulls him toward her when Moses's snake is let loose) and she earns the film’s most tender line-reading when she begs Moses, “You will not harm my son”. No matter how religious you are it’s impossible not to feel her earnest desperation.

It’s why her final moment in the film, her sole true monologue, despite representing a thorn in the Hebrew’s side moves me more than any act of true religious fervour. The Pharaoh’s son has died by God’s decree and Rameses has let them go, praying fruitlessly for his son to rise. Nefretiri is both saddened at her son’s death as well as disappointed in Moses (and herself, probably) for allowing it to happen. Anne is glorious when bitter...

He cannot hear you. He’s nothing but a piece of stone with the head of a bird.

Nefretiri is the only non-Hebrew smart enough to realise that the God of Pharaoh everyone else bows to has given her child nothing to hold on to. Her pain gives her clarity and she scoffs at Rameses decree of "I am Egypt." She moves from mournful to mocking in a seond.

Egypt? You are nothing. You let Moses kill my son. No god can bring him back. What have you done to Moses? How did he die? Did he cry for mercy when you tortured him? Bring me to his body. I want to see it Rameses. I want to see it.

Brynner is excellent with Rameses grief, "I cannot fight the power of his god." But, credit to DeMille, this should be the moment where the audience cheers but the film is gnarly enough to have cut any sense of triumph. Moses has been victorious only with the Pharaoh's son as collateral damage. Not a festive moment.


His god? The priest say that Pharaoh is a god but you are not a god. You are even less than a man. Listen to me Rameses. You thought I was evil when I went to Moses, and you were right. Shall I tell you what happened, Rameses? He spurned me like a strumpet in the street. I, Nefretiri, Queen of Egypt. All that you wanted from me he would not even take. Do you hear laughter, Pharaoh? Not the laughter of kings, but the laughter of slaves in the desert.

This is Nefretiri at her lowest - without lover, without child, without hope. Even her costume, though still stylish, is unusually simple. She is now only an angry woman demanding the death of the hero and handing her husband a sword.

Bring it back to me stained with his blood."

Though the film is ostensibly Moses', and she's completely at odds with the religious centre, The Ten Commandments feels slighter when she leaves it and so great is her electricity that you might secretly perversely root for her to get her wish.

The film is a religious epic, but it endures for me as an ornate altar to Baxter's spectacular performance. 

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Reader Comments (13)

Totally agree. "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "The Ten Commandments" display this fine actress at her very best. She seemed an unlikely choice when DeMille cast her - but, considering the razzle-dazzle performance she delivered - any other casting now seems unthinkable.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKen

Anne is so much fun in this one. I love how she uses her entire body in her performance--the way she writhes around Heston in seductive splendor, like a silky serpent going in for the kill. It's something to see. And how she seethes with lust when she huskily breathes out the word "Mohhh-sehhhz." Great.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I don't know if I'd say she was the best supporting actress of that year but I do enjoy her performance. A marvel of the pregnant pause and precise diction she gets knocked often for over emoting here, bringing the full MISS Anne Baxter persona to bear on the part. However that's what's required to make this overblown epic come to life. Also she has to compete against Heston socking the import of Moses at us at every turn as well as Brynner. A tiny little bit of a thing in stature, it's even commented on by Addison de Witt in All About Eve when he tells her she's too short for a certain gesture, she was able to command the screen with her presence and gravitas. She and Heston made another film in '56 called Three Violent People where their interplay is similar although they play very different parts and she gets to play more varied emotions.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Nobody can make "Moses" sound as sexy as dear Miss Baxter.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I've always loved her in this, even as a wee boy. That voice. That. Voice. The intonation. The elocution. The rise and fall. She takes a gamble with the style of her performance and wins big time.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

"Moses, Moses, Moses..."

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I am so glad that Anne Baxter is in this, just so that most people in the world, well the USA will have some idea who she is. I'm afraid us All About Evers are not exactly legion, and even the movie she won her Oscar for is pretty hard to come by.

And surely Anne could not have been the first choice for this role, or even in the first group. She seems so completely wrong for the role, even now. So kudos to her for making it completely memorable.

Dave-She wasn't the first choice but DeMille's preference is even wackier, Audrey Hepburn! I can't even imagine.

He also wanted Grace Kelly for Sephora instead of Yvonne de Carlo. She had just retired but I can't believe that she would have said yes even if she was still working.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Anne Baxter is the best part of this movie- one of my favorites easily top 3- as a child I always wanted her to go with Moses and leave Rameses because the movie gets so slow when she is not on screen, although that would be a pretty odd in a Biblical epic, the hero leading his wife and lover across the desert. Considering how popular the movie was and how many Oscar nominations it got, I'm still surprised she didn't get nominated.

May 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commentertom

Easily the BEST IN SHOW. Maybe this razzle-dazzle perf wasn't considered their cup-of-tea by the Academy (unfortunately that's possible) but still so wonderful...my favorite "hollywood egyptian sultry" along with BELLA DARVI in THE EGYPTIAN...even if that's a very different story...

May 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

And what about the wonderful suburban moment when she tracks Moses to his hovel and says, "Moses, you didn't speak to me at the palace today"?

May 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Brownsey

I just love Anne Baxter. Her performance as "Nefretiri" is unique. Is the best and right choice to play this part among all other actresses. Who else could have done this part better than Anne Baxter? NO ONE. I always have enjoyed her acting in her films,but in "The Ten Commandments" she was better than ever. And so beautiful she looks in this film. I felt very sad when she died in 1985. During that time she was working on the ABC show "Hotel". Some of her films I recommend to watch are: "The Blue Gardenia", "Carnival Story", "Bedevilled", "Chase a crooked shadow", "The Spoilers", "Three violent people", "Guest in the House" "One desire", "The Come On" among others. Anne Baxter was very special.

May 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMJ

I love Anne as Nefretiri. She was always my favourite character. As a little girl I root for her and Moses all the way, and I was so disappointed everytime they didn't end up together.

Now I still love her, but I don't like Moses that much. He didn't deserve her! That might be becase I find Ramses incredible hot... But I'm still so sad when her son dies. God and Ramses are both jerks. And Moses another!

But Anne is beautiful, a truly stuning woman. She had a beautiful face, and incredible body, amazing curves, and what to say of her eyes... I think she is much better looking than any current Holliwood actres. And her outfits in this movie are to die for...

December 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterrebeca

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