I have been recently overdosing on watching Wyler's version of Ben-Hur, among the things I have watched are the documentaries and extras tucked away on the fourth DVD of the box set that includes the 1959 movie and its predecessor the 1925 silent.
In one of the documentaries its mentioned that Haya Harareet was born in Palestine. Naturally this piqued my interest to learn more about Ms. Harareet. The information is scant and after 1967, she never worked in the film industry again. She was born on September 20, 1931 in what was Haifa Palestine. The first film she worked in was called Hill 24 Doesn't Answer set during the 1948 War for Independence in which four wildly disparate individuals find themselves holding a strategic military hill, this film gained an award from Cannes which turns out to be the only award Haya Harareet ever received.
Of course the film she is most known for is Ben-Hur in which she plays Esther, a slave of Judah Ben-Hur's house. The more I watch this movie, I have to wonder if the Academy of Motion Pictures tossed the Best Actress Oscar to Room at the Top just to make sure this film did not sweep the awards with Haya Harareet winning. In Esther we see the internal dilemma Judah faces. She has suffered as he has, her world has been destroyed by Judah's downfall and her father tortured for what he knows until he is but half a man; all of this so Messala can realize his hunger for power. But it is she who, in a soft voice like the wind, talks to the returned Judah of a young Rabbi who preaches forgiveness. She strives to steer him away from what has consumed her father these past four years. Through Esther we hear echos of Christ's teachings because Wyler wisely decided that, since everyone knew who Christ is, why film the Christ from the front or hear Christ speak but the messages pervade this whole film of redemption and forgiveness while punishment is meted out. Esther's own cross for a good part of this film is caring for Miriam and Tirzah after their release from the Roman prison because they became lepers and Miriam makes Esther promise on her love of Judah to never tell him what has happened to them. Esther, after hearing the Sermon on the Mount, becomes the catalyst that causes Judah to reconsider and to change from his path of vengeance which leads to the finale of the cruxifiction. So anyone who thinks Esther's role in this film is drab is just a tad off the mark.
Back to disc 4 of the DVD set, there are included screen tests of some of the actors who did not make the cut, like Leslie Nielsen as Messala. But included is make-up and costume footage of Haya Harareet. I am not sure where this costume would have been used except in a marriage scene for Esther. Her hair was the color of freshly spun copper. Nestled in her hair was a complex golden tiara that had cheek pieces that curved forward of the ears before sweeping back over the earlobes. From there golden cheek pieces covered part of her lower jaw. And hanging from these cheek pieces were small golden tassels. All of this gold was framing her face while her large black eyes captivated the viewer. Simply put, Haya Harareet was gorgeous and a far cry from what she did wear in the finished film as the above picture shows. Too bad no one has captured this and posted to YouTube. And if this test footage had leaked to the IAF, yowser some Mirages might have been sporting her as nose art.
One scene in the movie I think captures the dilemma many of us face in this modern world. Judah has just come from finding his mother and sister in the Valley of the Lepers and is just simmering with resentment and anger towards Rome and even Esther for hiding the truth when his friend Baltazar hails him and says he has found the child all grown and truly the Son of God. Judah refuses Baltazar's entreaties to listen. So as Esther sits down to hear the Christ's Sermon on the Mount, in the broad panoramic shot we see off in the distance Judah standing beside a tree and looking before he hurries off to what he considers more important. Sound familar?