Quo Vadis. Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Produced by Sam Zimbalist; screenplay by John Lee Mahin and S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien; directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. Originally produced as a motion picture in 1951. Performers: Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Peter Ustinov, Patricia Laffan, Finlay Currie, Nora Swinburne, Buddy Baer, Marina Berti, Abraham Zofaer. Summary: the story of Emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians set against the canvas of the decadence and decay of the Roman Empire.
In a prior post I wrote, favorably, of the of the movie Pompei. It inspired me to investigate, among other things, volcano stories. But the theme of Ancient Rome led me elsewhere, specifically to those bloated late Forties and early Fifties epic movies, for which, guilty pleasure-esque, I confess a fondness. One of my favorites is Quo Vadis.
To be sure, there are things about QV I’m not so fond of: the slow patches, Finlay Currie’s heavy-handed monologues, the overture, the romantic subplot with the Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr characters. But these quibbles are easily trumped by the pluses: the huge spectacle, costumes and sets; Strelsa Brown’s golden-voiced invocation of the gods; Peter Ustinov’s serious scenery chewing as Nero, as well as his more low keyed interactions with mentor and ‘critic’ Leo Genn. Finally the Miklos Rosza score which set the template for historical epics.
But for my money the best thing about QV is Patricia Laffan’s scrumptious turn as Empress Poppea. Everything about her – wardrobe, pet leopards, sideways glances, nibbling on a red tinted magnifying glass, munching grapes as she watches lions devour the Christians, and not least, her plummy, slithering enunciation – just screams glorious excess and depraved sexuality. But there’s nothing screaming or excessive about her performance, which can be described as a miraculous tightrope walk of understated nuance combined with touches of high camp.
Still alive at 94, living in London in the Chelsea district, Patricia Laffan is the only surviving major cast member of Quo Vadis. I’m not familiar with her theatre work but it’s no exaggeration to say she was criminally underutilized as a film actress . To be sure there were a few minor roles, including nice cameos in Shoot First and 23 Steps to Baker Street. Alas she’s best remembered today as the man-hungry Nyah in the sci-fi cult classic Devil Girl From Mars. More happily, her supreme cinematic moment is in a far more worthy vehicle, where she plays, well, a different kind of man-eater, one with greater appetites and literally much more color.
We first view her in QV, significantly, from the back, which gives us a pleasing peek at her topographic charms. Reclining resplendent in green dress and regal purple cape, leopards in tow, Poppea observes the ponderous goings on at Nero’s court. She appears to be both bored and suspiciously alert, but in any case her visage suggests she just can’t wait for all the pomp to be over so she can get back to her scheming.
Patricia must have enjoyed this role immensely as she chews over every line she speaks, suggestively projecting the character’s barely concealed sadism and perverse lust. In fact so serpentine is her Poppea that we have to wonder: was the historical Poppea as irredeemably evil and corrupt as the portrayals in pop culture make her out to be? Maybe so. This was Ancient Rome after all.
In any case has an actress ever brought elegantly sinister depravity to the screen with such relish, and in such a sensually alluring package?  As she approaches her 95th birthday on March 19, we offer our tribute then to an actress worthy of playing an empress. More so, we admire her pluck. Much as Poppea always seems to be pre-empting Nero in Quo Vadis, it’s only appropriate that Patricia Laffan, the actress who embodies Poppea, does the equally impossible: (almost) upstaging Peter Ustinov, in his signature role at that.
 Incredibly, aside from QV and the aforementioned 23 Steps, Patricia made no American films, and even these two films have dubious American bonafides, one shot in Italy with a largely British cast and the other shot in and around London. Maybe the filmmakers thought her screen persona was too Lady Macbeth-like and as a result she’d be hard to cast.
 For all her beauty and ability as an actress, Claudette Colbert, the Poppea from Sign of the Cross (1932), simply can’t compare, at least in this writer’s humble opinion.