Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Days Gone By: “Anne of the Thousand Days” and the Oscar Films of 1969

It was Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the all-powerful “fixer” in the service of England’s Henry VIII, that led me to watch a starry 1969 film, Anne of the Thousand Days. In this classic costume drama, Henry is played by Richard Burton. His  imperious performance here is far more interesting than the long-suffering roles (like that in the film Becket) he’d played earlier in the decade. Stalwart character actors, including Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Wolsey, are also shown to good effect.

 I was looking forward to seeing Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold as Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Bujold had won my heart for her spirited yet deeply innocent portrayal of Joan of Arc, in a TV adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. (This was the era when Hallmark Hall of Fame could be relied upon for glossy versions of the classics.) I had expected Anne of the Thousand Days to view the doomed queen with sympathy. But to my surprise, Bujold as Anne doesn’t make a lot of sense. She boldly stands against King Henry when he forces her away from her first love, treating him with angry disdain. When Henry humbly pleads for her affection, she scorns him. Then, presto!, she declares her affection. As Henry’s newly-crowned queen, she’s cranky as all get out. The fact that she’s blamed for not producing a male heir doesn’t help, of course. But when Henry accuses her of infidelity and witchcraft, I wasn’t all that sorry to see her led to the chopping block.

 In retrospect, what’s interesting about Anne of the Thousand Days is the era in which it was released. Historical dramas about the doings of royalty had, since the beginning, been a Hollywood staple. Audiences had always seemed to appreciate dramas set long ago and far away. I gather this was still true in 1969: Anne did well at the box office, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. There were three acting nominations (Burton, Bujold, and Quayle), and one for the screen adaption of Maxwell Anderson’s Broadway play. The craft categories also got nods, and the film was up for Best Picture. After all that, it must have been a disappointment to everyone concerned that Anne won only a single statuette, for its sumptuous costumes. 

 The 1969 films and performances  honored by the Academy in 1970 are a fascinatingly mismatched lot. The Best Actor Oscar was a nod to old Hollywood: Burton was bested by John Wayne in True Grit. Best Actress was Maggie Smith, near the start of a long career with a bravura performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In support, Anthony Quayle lost to that complex figure, Gig Young, a standout as a sinister emcee in one of the darkest and most brilliant films I can remember, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?  Cutie-pie newcomer Goldie Hawn was honored in support for a blithe Broadway comedy, Cactus Flower. And the Best Picture winner was the gritty Midnight Cowboy, first and only X-rated film to take home the top award. Aside from some nods to tradition, 1970 was a mostly a year for honoring material that strove to connect with the youth audience and make sense of the modern world. (Butch Cassidy, Easy Rider, Alice’s Restaurant, and The Wild Bunch all received some recognition.) How did Anne of the Thousand Days fit into this trend? Frankly, not at all. The most honored films of 1969 recognized the modern age. Voters understood that Anne was too distant in its concerns to have much real impact in a complicated era.


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