Peter Ustinov received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Roman Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis.
Ustinov plays up just how absurd of a ruler Nero is the entire film, he is always just one big man child who wants his ways and his whims, and wants everyone to appreciate how great he is. Ustinov is very entertaining in the role, always sitting in some off kilter fashion, always making broad gestures and making very distinct facial expressions. It is one big broad portrait of a complete lunatic, that really works well. He performance could easily be characterized as insane, and it is. This style absolutely works for Nero, and even though insanity can be played in a subtle fashion that probably would not have been the right approach for Nero.
The reason that this broad portrayal is perfect for Nero is because Nero is not only insane, but he is the ruler of a whole country who is completely off his rocker. Ustinov does not hesitate to show that not only is this many crazy by nature but his power he has from his position only serves to amplify it all the more greatly. After all Nero is the man who killed his own mother, and even sets the whole city of Rome on fire. He sets his own capital on fire for nothing more than just to fulfill his own pipe dream of a greater palace. Ustinov brings to life the absolutely deranged man who could have done these almost unbelievable actions.
Ustinov is an excellent villain here, and does absolutely control every scene he is in, in fact even when he is not on screen his whole character is the driving force of the film. Ustinov is terrific here because he both has fun with his portrayal of Nero, while still does keep him threatening as a villain as well. Ustinov shows that Nero is not overly smart in fact in many he ways he is quite a bumbler, and is actually quite amusing in showing just how much of a spoiled brat he is. He certainly plays these as "big" but never overplays them these too much and does bring the humor out of the scenes whether he is complaining about his people, or singing one of his terrible songs.
Ustinov though also manages to be an appropriately chilling villain, and he is particularly amazing though because he always shows it as one and the same as in his more humorous moments. Ustinov effectively shows that although Nero can be entertaining in his behavior he can be equally a dangerous one because the exact same tendencies can bring death. In his scenes where he watches people being brutally murdered, or orders the death of many it is all in the same exact way. Ustinov shows that Nero is so deranged and has been so in that way his whole life he really cannot understand even that he is being immoral.
Ustinov gives a great performance here, and is without question the best part of the film. I frankly think it would have been a far far better film if it had only been solely about Nero since really Ustinov's performance is the only performance that is at all interesting. I would say that in fact Ustinov almost makes the film worth watching, but he is not quite in this three hour film enough to make the film enjoyable. Nevertheless when ever he is on screen he instantly makes those scenes worth watching. This is certainly not a subtle turn for Ustinov but it is an incredibly effective performance that made me wish the film actually had been about his character.