A newly-mastered, slightly problematic 70mm print of Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus (’60) was screened last night at the Academy theatre. And I’m sorry to say that it looked a bit darker than it needed to be (and no, it wasn’t the fault of the Academy’s projector lamp). To indicate the problem I’ve posted crude simulations of the difference between how Spartacus looks on Universal Home Video’s excessively DNR’ed Bluray vs. what we saw last night.

Simulation of how this Capua gladiatorial school scene looks on the “shiny” Spartacus Bluray.

Simulation of how this same scene looked last night during the Academy’s 70mm presntation.

The bottom line is that many of the details didn’t seem as crisp and needle-sharp as they are on Universal Home Video’s “shiny” Bluray, which is considered by grain monks to be just as bad as Fox Home Video’s overly glossy Patton. The close-ups on the big screen were magnificent but many of the particulars captured by Russell Metty‘s Super-Technirama 70 cinematography were simply obscured in shadows. This, I regret to say, is the way it is almost every time I see a 70mm film projected at the Academy or the Aero or Hollywood’s American Cinematheque. 70mm just doesn’t stand up to Blurays or DCPs. The absolute best large-format presentation I’ve recently seen was the big Lawrence of Arabia screening at the Academy, but that was a DCP.

Are Universal Home Video execs listening? You guys need to allow Robert Harris, who co-directed the original Spartacus restoration in 1990, to do a Bluray that’s really right, and I mean in a way that truly captures the textured wholeness of Mr. Metty’s photography. Your current “shiny” version isn’t right, last night’s 70mm print wasn’t really right — and you can’t let the “shiny” version be the last word.

Producer-star Kirk Douglas, 95, showed up before the film began to speak with Pete Hammond, ands was his usual plucky, good-humored self, old-mannish in some respects but very sharp and on-the-stick in others. He and Hammond recounted how Douglas’s tough-darts decision to give blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo full credit in the opening titles had essentially ended the Hollywood blacklist. This story and others about the making of this 1960 film are recounted in Douglas’s new book, “I Am Spartacus!” (which I haven’t read but intend to get into). Douglas mentioned that his son, Michael, has recorded the audio version.

After introducing Douglas and Hammond and before surrendering the mike and leaving the stage, Academy president Hawk Koch said to Douglas, “Kirk, I just want you to know that I’m Spartacus.” At which point pretty much everyone in the seats (and I’m talking about at least a couple of hundred people) leapt to their feet and began shouting “I’m Spartacus!” and “No, I’m Spartacus!” and so on. It was quite a moment. A minute later I was asking myself, “Did that just happen?” Update: I got there about ten minutes before the chat began and didn’t realize that this audience-response thing was orchestrated by Tom Sherak — i.e., he had asked everyone to do this.

“Shiny” Universal Home Video Bluray version

Simulation of 70mm projected version of same shot.

Last December I passed along a funny Spartacus story told by James Toback, one that happened during the cutting. The story came from editor Robert Lawrence, who later edited Toback’s Fingers and Exposed.

Kubrick and Lawrence were editing the finale when Jean Simmons, escaping from Rome with the help of Peter Ustinov, is saying goodbye to Douglas, who’s dying on a cross. Kubrick told Lawrence he didn’t want to use what he felt was a grotesque close-up of Douglas. Lawrence said the shot wasn’t so bad, and in any case Douglas will surely complain when he notices that his closeup is missing. “I don’t care what he says,” Kubrick said. “I’m the director…take it out.” They later showed the scene to Douglas, and his immediate comment was “Where’s my closeup?” Kubrick shrugged and said, “I don’t know, Kirk.” He then turned to Lawrence and said, “Where’s his close-up?”