"No one knows the real story of the great King Arthur of Camelot," intones a woman gliding in a boat across a mist-shrouded lake. "Most of what you think you know about Camelot, Guinevere, and Lancelot and the evil sorceress known as Morgaine le Fay is nothing but lies."
She should know. She is none other than Morgaine herself, and her version of the Arthurian legend will be told in "The Mists of Avalon," adapted from Marion Zimmer Bradley's best-selling novel and airing tonight and Monday on TNT. In this telling, Arthur and Lancelot are bit players manipulated by women who have traditionally been supporting actors or even nonexistent: Viviane (Anjelica Huston), Morgause (Joan Allen), and Morgaine (Julianna Margulies). To put it in terms of another Camelot, it's like saying John and Robert Kennedy were played for fools by Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Judith Exeter. Have feminists taken a seat at the Round Table?
"Sometimes I don't quite know the definition of 'feminism,"' Allen says. "If it encompasses very strong women being proactive, I guess the movie is a feminist perspective on the King Arthur story."
"I don't know if it's a retelling of the story or a different story," says Margulies. "It's from the female point of view. You're seeing Morgaine le Fay (or Morgan as she is usually known) as good versus evil. And you're bringing in ideas of Christianity versus paganism and what is the meaning of organized religions and why we can't all get along."
Some of this may irritate Arthurian purists and the religious right. For example, there is a soft-core--and mysteriously modern-seeming--threesome, and Christians are depicted as intolerant and fearful of anyone practicing a religion other than their own.
"Yes, it's definitely controversial," executive producer Mark M. Wolper says. "That's why we did the movie. That's what's different about it. I don't want to make a movie about something we've seen a hundred times before."
"I think the criticism has to be leveled at Marion Bradley," says Huston, laughing because she's well aware that she's passing the buck--to a person who's dead. (Bradley died in 1999.) Then she adds, "Christianity is punitive. Women were burned at the stake for witchcraft. Where once women were revered as healers, as doctors, as mystics, all of a sudden, with the onset of Christianity, male power came into being. And guilt. Christianity is so largely based on guilt."
Of course, "Mists" is a fantasy, not a polemic. In the traditional story, Arthur, with Merlin's help, ascends to the throne, marries Guinevere, assembles the Knights of the Round Table, is cuckolded by trusted right-hand man Sir Lancelot, unknowingly begets a child by his half-sister Morgaine, and comes to grief at the hand of his bastard son Mordred. "Mists" follows this basic architecture but has a different group drawing up the plans, with a different agenda. Consider the scene in "Mists" in which Arthur, wearing a mask, deflowers Morgaine, who is also wearing a mask, neither knowing who the other is, an arrangement designed by Viviane to perpetuate the Old Ways. Traditionally, Morgaine has known what she was doing and whom she was doing it with and wasn't exactly interested in the Old Ways. And Viviane wasn't orchestrating anything. She was simply Merlin's love interest. The result, however, is the same.
"Viviane screws up big time," says Margulies, admitting that even with a woman calling the shots and looking at the big picture, the characters end up acting out of self-interest, which benefits no one.
To put this melodrama across, these three great actresses--and all the lesser men and women running around them (Samantha Mathis as Gwenhwyfar, or Guinevere in more traditional tellings) Edward Atherton as Arthur, Michael Vartan as Lancelot)--had to play it straight, which takes a certain suspension of disbelief. They had to feel comfortable wearing funny robes and raising their hands in the air and speaking in elevated language. Huston admits that during the first scene she shot--in which she addresses a roomful of dread-locked extras who seemed "stoned out of their minds"--she was self-conscious announcing that she is the queen of Avalon. Margulies balked at a scene in which she has to make the mists part so Lancelot and Guinevere can get a look at each other.
In what is perhaps a leap bigger than all of these acting moments is Allen's portrayal of an evil character. Morgause, who is Viviane's sister and Morgaine's aunt, wreaks havoc on the kingdom when Viviane won't allow her to be the mother of the future king, Arthur. Morgause does so by corrupting Mordred (another departure from the original--corrupting Mordred was Morgaine's job). This is a far cry from the strait-laced women Allen has played in such films as "Nixon," "The Ice Storm," and even "The Contender."
It turns out she almost wasn't offered the role. Wolper says director Uli Edel and the people at Turner, despairing at finding the right actress, were willing to settle on a lesser-known one. However, Wolper felt they needed someone who could hold her own against Huston and Margulies.
"People asked me if I was surprised that Joan Allen had this in her, and I can't say I was surprised, because I think she's a mighty actress," says Huston, who would more typically be cast in such a role. "There was a sort of glee that I saw in Joan at the idea that she could expand into this really nasty person. Her enjoyment of it is infectious."
Allen had a lot of fun with the role. "It was one of the things that made me want to do the part. My agent called me and said, 'They offered you this role as a villain.' I was like, 'Send it to me."'
Unlike Allen, Margulies had to be "pushed" into reading the script, according to Wolper. He says she wasn't sure she wanted to take the role because it meant returning to TV after having extricated herself from her stint as Nurse Carol Hathaway on "ER." But she loved the script and threw her hat into the ring.
All the actresses say they were reassured not only by the script, but also by the presence of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind") and Edel ("Last Exit to Brooklyn"). Edel might seem like an unlikely choice for a project like this, given the fact that "Brooklyn" is one of the bleakest films in memory, but that--especially for Margulies--was part of his appeal. To her way of thinking, "Mists" had the potential to be excessively girlie, like a soap opera. Edel, who orchestrated savage beatings and a harrowing gang rape in "Brooklyn," wasn't likely to allow that to happen. Even so, it's still pretty soapy, and Margulies says she sometimes found herself at loggerheads with him over how much emotion her character should display. She wanted less, he more.
Margulies concedes some key scenes were trimmed to keep the story--there's a lot of story in this story--moving. In one instance, it's not entirely clear why Morgaine abandons her son Mordred to Morgause's safekeeping.
"It wasn't addressed well enough," she admits. "In the book it is. In the book she constantly says how guilty she feels for leaving her child but how much sadness that child brings her because it ruined the one pure love she had in her life. Hopefully people draw the conclusion that this child is too much of burden for her; she couldn't handle the idea of it. She didn't do right by him."
No doubt this and many other issues are why the project has taken 16 years to make it to the screen. Originally optioned by James Colburn (who may have had a passing interest in playing Merlin) and his partner, Lisa Alexander, it made the rounds at the studios, landing at Warner Bros., which sold it to TNT (both of which are owned by AOL Times Warner) at Wolper's behest.
"It's not their kind of women," Wolper says, explaining why the studio was willing to let go of the project. "These are three mature women, to be politically correct." (Huston is 50, Allen is 44 and Margulies is all of 35.)
For good locations and economics (the film cost around $20 million), they shot the film in Prague. What do you do in Prague for three months? Sit in coffeehouses, gamble, ride horses, go antiquing. Margulies, who was there the longest, did most of the above and one more thing: She watched tapes of "Sex and the City." Somehow, given the estrogen in Camelot, this seems appropriate.
* Part I of "The Mists of Avalon" is scheduled to air at 8 and again at 10 tonight on TNT; Part II is scheduled for Monday night, also at 8 and 10. The network has rated it TV-14-SV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with special advisories for sexual situations and violence).