Directed by Charles Jarrott
Screenplay by Bridget Boland, John Hale and Richard Sokolove, from the play by Maxwell Anderson
Starring Richard Burton, Genevieve Bujold, Anthony Quayle and John Colicos
Richard Burton was nominated for seven Oscars over a 25-year span, including three straight in the 1960s:
- Best Actor 1977 – Equus
- Best Actor 1969 – Anne of the Thousand Days
- Best Actor 1966 – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- Best Actor 1965 – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
- Best Actor 1964 – Becket
- Best Actor 1953 – The Robe
- Best Supporting Actor 1952 – My Cousin Rachel
You would think the closest he came to the winning was in 1966 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was the year’s most nominated film with 13, and which won his then-wife Elizabeth Taylor her second. So, an Oscar for Burton has the appeal of being a good story – matching man and wife Oscars. Alas, Burton lost to Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons. In Oscar history there is just one bigger acting loser than Richard Burton: only Peter O’Toole has more Oscar noms (eight), without a win.
I don’t go through this litany of Oscar futility to rub in Richard Burton’s lack of luck at the awards. And it’s not like he was completely futile at winning awards, because he did manage a BAFTA, Tony and Grammy in his career. Rather, it is to point out how strange it is that The Also-Ran’s Project has come almost to the end of it’s life and this is the first post that is basically about Richard Burton. You’d think it should have happened sooner. After all, the man was in six Best Picture nominees, only two of which I’d previously seen, so you’d think we’d have gotten to him by now. The ironic thing is just a couple entries further along here we’ll actually see him again, suiting up for 1953’s The Robe. After all the love showered on William Holden in this series, to the extent I kind of think of him as a co-star in every film we’ve gone trough, it’s about time we got to something with Burton in it. Or, if you prefer it that way, it’s maybe too little too late.
What’s It About?
King Henry VIII of Britain (Richard Burton) wants a son. Unfortunately, his wife Kate (Irene Pappas) – who happens to be the widow of his brother – has only birthed him one surviving child. A girl. Dissatisfied, he schemes to be rid of her via annulment, which causes all manner of sabre-rattling with Spain and the Vatican. As that’s in progress he turns his attentions to the comparably-young Anne Boleyn (Genvieve Bujold). After pursuing her and winning her – no small task – Anne gives birth to a girl, much to Henry’s dissatisfaction. When a second child is stillborn, he aims to be rid of her, too. Only, since he already used the ‘annulment’ excuse on Kate, he can’t very well play that card again, which means a more devious, and deadly ending for Anne is hatched by Henry’s scheming advisor, Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos).
How Was It?
Anne of the Thousand Days is a costume drama in all the best ways, in that it is an all costumes, all the time drama kind of film. There are hats and frocks and dressed and buckles and headgear galore. Everything is decked out with fur lining, or dangling pearls, or anything else it can get its hands on. The film won the Oscar for Best Costumes and while I can’t say for certain whether it was the best, it certainly was the most.
The unfortunate thing is that, while there was so much attention paid to the costuming and sets – the sets are also glorious – there seems to have been a lesser amount of attention paid to pacing the film, or the script. On the whole, the film is not terrible – it’s actually quite good, and many of the things in it make my blood boil, which means it’s dramatically successful. The problem is too often the film plods where it should gallop, and the stories meanders where it should be clarified. No, these things don’t sink the film, but they do make it feel like a missed opportunity.
Much of that blame, you’d think, could be laid on the director, Charles Jarrott. No, he’s not a terrible director by any means, though it’s said Pauline Kael described him as nothing more than a traffic cop – he can move the pieces around, but he has no style. Before I saw this movie I just assumed that was more of Kael being the bitch she always seemed to be. Afterward, I’d say it’s pretty dead on.
That all said, there is one sequence Jarrott gets 100% right, and that’s the execution of Anne Boleyn by beheading. There, he shows skill. Rather than make the sequence something quick, or overly bloody, he slows the pacing of it, and makes it methodical, so we can take in the grim details of impending death. The building of the scaffolding, the sharpening of blades, the strewing of straw about to soak up the blood. In a perverse was it’s a pleasure of cinema. The best choice, though, is he makes the scene quiet and dignified. The crowds are not clamoring for death, nor does Anne fight in fear. Rather, the quiet and dignity raise the horror of it and give it real weight. And it is sad when Anne is finally at the block and tries to look around at the executioner, only to be distracted at the vital moment so the end can come. No, her death did not drive me to tears, but it was a rather moving and difficult scene to consider, especially considering the miscarriage of justice leading to it. In all, though, the handling of that scene made me wish Jarrott had pulled off the same effect throughout the rest of the film.
Lastly, while Burton and Bujold will get more attention in a later section of this post, I did not want it to pass without spending a moment talking about the one truly great performance in the film, which is John Colicos as Henry’s advisor, Thomas Cromwell. In Colicos’ hands, Cromwell becomes one of cinemas great hissable villains, because he’s a man who enables horrible things for no other reason than his own self-interest. And there is obviously no limit to what he will propose because, when a mere annulment will not do to relieve Henry of his marriage to Anne, Cromwell willingly trumps up treason charges against her, even as it will surely mean her execution. The unrepentant, self-righteous take on the part by Colicos is so delicious that you want him dead, too, which is the hallmark of a great film villain, and a great performance. And while it won’t bring back Anne Boleyn, or undo her murder, take some solace in knowing the real-life Cromwell suffered his own ignominious end, stripped of all tittles and property and beheaded himself in a public execution.
Do The Double
This film almost works as a prequel to The Private Life of Henry VII, which won Charles Laughton the Oscar for his portrayal as Henry VIII. In that film the story kicks off with the offscreen execution of Anne Boleyn, with Henry whispering a quiet mea culpa to himself when he hears the chop that does Anne in. From there it carries on through the remainder of Henry’s life up to his last wife, Catherin Parr.
Anne of the Thousand Days ends with that same execution, though it shows us a Henry VIII not feeling any sort of remorse over the death, but using it as the literal starting gun for his conquest of Jane Seymour. That he married her a mere 13 days after Anne’s death tells you all you need to know about the true amount of remorse Henry had over the death.
Better Than Best?
For Best Picture 1969, Anne of the Thousand Days competed against, among others, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the eventual winner, Midnight Cowboy. There is no need to rehash my Best Picture Project entry on 1969 here other than to say that Butch Cassidy is one of my all-time favorite films, better than the winner Midnight Cowboy, which increasingly looks like a dated relic. Either way, no matter how good Anne is, it’s just won’t be good enough to be better than Butch, though I honestly think I might prefer it to Cowboy.
Given that, the more fruitful discussion will certainly be over the worthiness of Burton and Bujold for the Oscars they were nominated for, but did not win.
Burton’s nomination for Best Actor was his sixth overall and if he’d won, it would have been something of a coronation for him, given the kind of 60s he had. Better, he’d have won it for playing a King, and if you’re going to be coronated, that seems appropriate. Unfortunately, there was literally no way he was ever going to win the Oscar in 1969, not with John Wayne finally getting his first nomination ever for True Grit. Sure, Burton was a star, of a type, but John Wayne was a STAR, of the oldest type, with a career stretching back to the 1930s. And because he had just one prior acting nom in 1949 for Sands of Iwo Jima made him the sentimental choice in 1969. What would make Wayne’s win easier to take would be if the performance as Rooster Cogburn were actually good. Yes, it’s iconic, but it’s almost a cartoon character come to life and Wayne only seems to be half-heartedly caricaturing himself as the racist, drunk lawman who isn’t above shooting a man in the back because it’s convenient. If only this was his turn in The Quiet Man, where he gets to play sensitive, yet gruff, and seems like an actual human that could exist in the world, and which should have gotten Wayne an Oscar, but got him nothing.
On the other hand, Burton is perfectly cast as Henry VIII. Sure, he’s not as lusty, or slovenly, as Charles Laughton was in the same role, but Burton perfectly embodies the petulant, impotent man, who is more an overgrown man-child masquerading as a proper gentleman than an actual proper gentleman. He plays well the challenge of bedding a woman, then losing interest the moment he has her. He is perfectly quick to anger and lust and, frankly, he is masterful at playing what we expect the royals of old to be: people who were out of their depth, but who were nevertheless made disgustingly hedonist by the money and enabling power of the position.
Given how well he played the role, it’s a shame Burton had to lose to a fun, yet substandard Wayne performance. But honestly, given both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman were in the race for Midnight Cowboy, you’d have to believe Burton was probably fourth choice out of the five, standing above only Peter O’Toole for the misbegotten musical version, Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
As a relative newcomer in film, Bujold probably had the higher hill to climb to an Oscar. Moreover, she was paired against two actresses in the second generation of Hollywood royalty – Jane Fonda for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Liza Minnelli for The Sterile Cuckoo – not to mention longtime Hollywood actress, Jean Simmons for The Happy Ending, and your eventual winner, Maggie Smith for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Under those circumstances it was probably not in the cards for Bujold to take the Oscar, no matter how good she is in the film.
And how good is she? In a word, terrific.
Of the two stars of the film – Burton and Bujold – Bujold obviously has the hardest part to play. While Burton gets to essentially indulge in the largesse of the crown, Bujold has to play a young woman who initially rejects the King and finds him loathsome, to a girl in love with him, to a woman willing to sacrifice her own life to him in order to maintain her dignity. She has the strongest, most compelling arc in the film, while Burton’s is more or less consistent from beginning to end.
And that arc itself, combined with the stature of the real-life woman, poses a challenge because it requires a petite woman to be bigger than herself. Obviousl, being a small, slight woman makes Bujold physically a match for the role. Indeed, on the eve of Anne’ execution when she remarks that the execution will be quick, owing to her having such a small neck, she actually has a small neck. Indeed, because Anne is also so young in the film, it is appropriate that Bujold looks so young and innocent and pure.
On the same token, Anne must also be headstrong and scheming, and you get that from Bujold. She has powerful, intent eyes, and it never pushed around by her King or anybody else. It is she who gets all the most memorable lines in the film, and it is she who gets the big speech. This is on the eve of her death, when Henry comes to offer her a way out of execution, and she basically tells him to go to hell. She might not have the gravity of the big, booming voice Burton does, but that makes it all the more powerful when she goes a little bug eyed in it. You’d have to think it was that speech alone which won her the nomination.
Only quibble with the way Bujold plays it is the strange accent she puts on. Bujold is Canadian, but Anne is a Brit who spent her formative years in France. This left Bujold playing around with a strange accent that shifted about from here to there, but never seemed consistently British or French, or both, or neither.
In the end, Bujold did not win, and one would have to think the Oscar might have changed her career path. Certainly while she’s had a good career since then, it’s hardly on par with the sort of thing you’d see from an Oscar winner.
Produced By Hal B. Wallis
Hal B. Wallis was the producer of Anne of the Thousand Days, which was his third official Oscar nomination for Best Picture. His other two were for Becket (1964) and The Rose Tattoo (1955). But that he only has three nominations undersells the number of Best Picture nominees he was producer on. In all he produced 19 Best Picture nominated movies, and one of the films he produced actually won – Casablanca (1943). But if he produced a Best Picture winner, why doesn’t he have a nomination/award for it? Because back then the Academy gave those things to the studio, not the producers.
But don’t be sad for Wallis. After all, not only did he produce 19 Best Picture nominees, he also produced other, indelible films like Barefoot in the Park, True Grit, and a handful of Elvis Presley Pictures. And on top of that he was a two-time recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Award, which is now considered a lifetime achievement award for producers, but back in the day was more an award to be won on an almost annual basis by the year’s best producer.
Sure, Wallis may not be as well known as producers Sam Spiegel, or Arthur Freed, but given the breadth of his career, he’s easily on the same level they are.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 While his 1965 turn in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold might be stronger than the eventual winner, Lee Marvin for Cat Ballou, both were not nearly the better of Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker. Similarly, while his turn in Becket in 1964 is probably historically better than Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, they are both not nearly as good as Peter Sellers was in Dr. Strangelove.
 Also, while Peter O’Toole was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2002, Richard Burton died before he could cop one of those.
 The Robe (1953), The Longest Day (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Becket (1964), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969).
 Actually, we have spent time with him before, as he was one of the million costars of The Longest Day. To be fair, though, there are so many people in it I’ve basically forgotten he played a part.
 You see, Kate is Spanish and Catholic.
 He was also nominated as a producer on The Alamo (1960)
 Even if Voight is not all that good.
 Relative is the key word, given she was in French films, Canadian films, and on TV prior to this role.
 For the sword to cut through, of course.
 My favorite is when she has had enough of Henry’s shit, and she tells him, “you make love as you eat—with a good deal of noise and no subtlety.” It’s quite cutting, especially coming from a woman as delicate as Bujold.
 Including The Maltese Falcon and The Adventures of Robin Hood.