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The Honey Pot

The Honey Pot(1967)

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teaser The Honey Pot (1967)

Fresh from his 1965 Academy Award win for playing Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964), Rex Harrison may have felt the time was right to try something a little unusual. The opportunity presented itself when old friend Joseph L. Mankiewicz delivered to him a manuscript that would undergo several title changes in the coming year, from Anyone for Venice?, Mr. Fox of Venice, and It Comes Up Murder to The Honey Pot (1967). The director of the Academy Award-winning Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950) was still reeling from the disastrous reception that had greeted his epic Cleopatra (1963) three years earlier. Apart from drawing a raft of Oscar® nominations (among them one for Harrison, for Best Supporting Actor as Julius Caesar), the film had proved a $44,000,000 white elephant, a logistical nightmare, and a three-year migraine. Mankiewicz's therapy had consisted of writing The Honey Pot, an adaptation of a Frederick Knott play that was itself an adaptation of a 1955 novel, The Evil of the Day by Thomas Sterling - both of these inspired by Ben Jonson's 1606 Elizabethan satire Volpone. Mankiewicz offered to Harrison the role of an elegant trickster who, brought to ruin by a profligate lifestyle, cons three former lovers into rushing to his alleged death bed, with each believing she stands to inherit his fortune only to be duped into giving up hers.

Mankiewicz had written the role of Cecil Fox (the surname a literal translation of the Italian volpone) specifically for Harrison. As charmed as he was by the gesture, the actor was more enthusiastic about the unorthodox style in which The Honey Pot was crafted - as a meta meditation on avarice and artifice, with the actors breaking character periodically to discuss their motivation and the progress of the plot, while the action was interrupted from time to time by meddlesome studio memos from unseen executives that manipulated the narrative in unforeseeable, and at times unforgiveable, directions. Quick to sign on with Harrison were Susan Hayward, Capucine, and Edie Adams as Cecil Fox's former lovers, while Cliff Robertson won the role of Fox's slimy amanuensis McFly (another Italian-to-English translation from Jonson's "Mosca"). Though Harrison agreed to play the part and flew to Italy with great enthusiasm for the adventure, production of The Honey Pot soon became mired in personality clashes between Mankiewicz and his star attraction. Initially grumpy that his big scenes had been scheduled too close to one another, Harrison grew paranoid when he was not required on set, compelling the actor to rush to Cinecitt, convinced that Mankiewicz was trying to replace him. Not helping matters was Harrison's brittle relationship to fourth wife Rachel Roberts, a brilliant but emotionally unstable actress who had expected to be given one of the supporting roles, only to see it go instead to Maggie Smith.

By the time of The Honey Pot's London premiere in March 1967, the Pirandello-like framing device that had so charmed the players was long gone. Dismal box office returns prompted distributor United Artists to demand twenty minutes in cuts (and the loss of a character played by Herschel Bernardi), though even at its shorter length the film found little favor from the critics and went unnoticed by the majority of moviegoers worldwide. Sent into a fresh panic that he had made a terrible career move and feeling out of fashion as he neared sixty, Harrison jumped at the opportunity to play Dr. Dolittle (1967) for 20th Century Fox even though he had initially turned down the offer. (Fox had settled on Christopher Plummer as a surrogate Dolittle and had to pay the actor $300,000.) Convinced the film would have broad appeal, Harrison again began micromanaging the production, nixing the casting option of pairing him onscreen with Sidney Poitier and forcing director Richard Fleischer to restructure the film to his own personal tastes. Fox went the distance to both promote the film and attract attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but Dr. Dolittle was yet another box office non-performer whose failure all but put paid to Rex Harrison's long run as a Hollywood leading man.

Seen afresh at the distance of nearly fifty years, The Honey Pot wears its age well. An enduring benefit to the production is the sumptuous widescreen color cinematography of Gianni di Venanzo - DP of choice for Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini - whose unexpected death from hepatitis during production left his assistant, Pasquale de Santis, with the task of finishing the film. Despite his off-camera misgivings, Harrison turns in a charming later life performance, by turns high-handed, puckish, and vulnerable; the aging actor's repartee with the thirty-something Robertson is one of The Honey Pot's many highlights. Holding their own as well are Susan Hayward, Capucine, and Edie Adams (in a role first offered to Anne Bancroft, who opted instead to star in Michael Cacoyannis' Broadway staging of John Whiting's The Devils) - though it's Maggie Smith, as Hayward's secretary, who comes close to stealing the show. Smith had just played Desdemona to Laurence Olivier's burnt cork Othello (1965) and was headed to an Academy Award for her star turn in Ronald Neame's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). Smith and Harrison remained friends throughout the actor's long life, and she eulogized him at his memorial service in 1990.

By Richard Harland Smith

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