This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.
After finishing both the Wolf Hall miniseries on PBS, and the two books from which it was adapted (Booker Prize winners both, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel), which I read pretty much in tandem with, or just ahead of, the miniseries, I decided to really overwhelm myself with some Tudor mythology. I rewatched the fantastic 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII (directed by Alexander Korda). Other interested parties should know that, in addition to being on DVD, the film streams at Hulu (with a Hulu Plus subscription) and for absolute free at archive.org.
The movie is the story of a former king of England, Henry VIII, the one we know had six wives in succession. This movie opens on the day of death of Anne Boleyn, wife #2, and continues through wife #6, showing how the different women drifted in and out of Henry’s life, how they pleased and disappointed him in their own unique ways, and how Henry, powerful as he was, never managed to marry a good woman and keep her. I love this movie, because I’m completely in the bag for any story set amidst the Tudors, especially the larger-than-life Henry and his iconic daughter Elizabeth I (who makes only small cameos in this film). (Well, that’s why we needed Cate Blanchett.)
The film is overall a bit sunnier in appearance than more modern palace intrigue films; the vogue now is to film inside cramped spaces lit by a single candle so everyone and everything is in shadow and we can understand how brutal it all was. The action is mostly concentrated inside, so we don’t get any jousts, though there are choreographed dances and a wrestling match. The relationships are the feature and the draw. But further, there is something odd and beautiful in the narrative structure that even after this, my third or perhaps fourth watch, I can’t quite put my finger on.
The story unspools strangely. The first scene (after the titles which give the viewer a brief orientation in Henry’s marital history) is an unlikely one: a gaggle of women, seamstresses or embroiderers, giggling over Henry’s bed and speculating what it must be like to sleep with a king. A double-edged sword it is, really, as indicated by this particular, a day when Anne Boleyn will be executed for treason, and when, once the death is verified, Jane Seymour will marry into her place. Being married to a powerful man means also being vulnerable to the man’s power.
In the first few minutes, we also get to meet the townies who are settling into the bleachers, primed and ready to watch Boleyn’s death, and an English and a French executioner posturing over who is more qualified to behead a queen. Then courtier Thomas Culpepper goes to fetch Jane at the king’s behest, and the two of them run, childishly, from one end of the palace to the other, to return to him. The odd playfulness of the moment renders it almost dreamlike. Certainly, it does not adhere to any sort of standard biographical film template (which may not have even existed at the time).
Anne, played by Merle Oberon, floats languorously through her few scenes, getting prepped for her death in the Tower (“will the cap hold my hair, when—when—“) and speaking philosophically about her death, all while seeming tragic and scared. The film draws a direct parallel from Anne to Jane by having Anne remark ironically (literally from atop her beheading block), “It’s a lovely day,” and then cutting to Jane, peering out a window and feigning cheerfulness: “What a lovely day!”
Henry finally appears something like 10 minutes into the movie, his voice knifing through the chatter of his servants, his stance in the doorway imperious. He barks at his advisors, but also lasciviously nibbles at the neck of Jane (played by Wendy Barrie) when she comes in. He’s a huge man and boorish, but also graceful and emotional. Though the Oscars were barely in their adolescence when The Private Life of Henry VIII came out, it did manage to claim a nomination for Best Picture and a win, Best Actor for Charles Laughton, who—Damian Lewis be damned!—is my quintessential Henry VIII, red hair or no.
We get another parallel here—a chilling one, where the film cuts from the man hammering away at the chopping block where Anne will lose her head to Henry, pressed up against the grating of his palace window, rhythmically tapping, impatient for the act to be done, the barbaric act he has put into motion.
Henry VIII: “Consider it [marrying for a fourth time]? I would consider it a victory of optimism over experience!”
Poor Jane Seymour is dispatched with quickly, as she was in real life, and the largest portion of the movie deals with Henry’s fifth wife, Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). Fifth chronologically, she is second of the ambitious schemers, Boleyn being the first. She manipulates her way into Henry’s favor, secures herself the queenhood, but continues to carry on with Culpepper, to the detriment of everyone.
My favorite of the wives is the fourth, Anne of Cleves, the oddest of odd ducks, an awkward but intelligent German noblewoman who agrees to be married to the great king, but then talks him out of consummating it, ensuring herself a favorable annulment settlement and status as the “King’s Beloved Sister” that she would retain for her natural life. The scene where Henry and Anne spend their wedding night playing cards is a classic—she beats him soundly, and Henry stalks out of the chamber, where multiple noblemen and statesmen are waiting to hear of the de-virgining, and are instead met with the interrogation, “Anybody got some money? Somebody get some money!” Anne turns out, improbably, to be a confidant for Henry. It can’t be an accident that this great role went to Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s wife (and future Bride of Frankenstein).
The women are a great draw in this movie, but the true star here is the gruff, plump Laughton, virile in his character’s youth but increasingly grizzled as the years and wives wear on. (Those ever-changing embroidered initials over Henry’s bed mark time passed and new vows said.) Henry does awful things, and allows awful things to be done in his name; he is far from a pure soul. (The movie seems to want to position Culpepper, played by Robert Donat, in this role. It doesn’t really succeed at that, especially because his part in the Katherine Howard affair is never resolved in the movie.) But when Henry gloats and beams over his newborn son, he seems like a good man, just one stuck in a difficult situation. The character’s increasing age also brings increasing sympathy, and late in the film he describes feeling more peaceful, less inclined to fight and wage war over territory. Not really a factually correct facet of Henry’s history, but narratively, so very satisfying.
These are the Oscars Also-Rans: the movies I saw because I thought they were going to get some Academy love. They didn’t.
Unfulfilled Pretensions Toward Oscar Glory: multiple Best Supporting Actor nominations for Patton Oswalt, multiple Best Actress nominations, including at the Golden Globes, for Charlize Theron; two Best Screenplay nominations for past Oscar winner Diablo Cody (Juno, 2007)
Charlize lost the Golden Globe, which turned out to be her only real shot at major awards glory for playing the unrepentant mean girl Mavis Gary, which is a shame, because she does something great here with a role that seems far less complicated than it is.
In an interview with NPR, Young Adult scriptwriter Diablo Cody described how much Charlize did with this role without the benefit of makeup, comparing it to her previous Oscar-winning role in Monster, where she looked like this. The idea is that Theron didn’t have to work as hard to differentiate the Monster character from the Charlize Theron we’re all tired of seeing pitching Dior. She does this same thing in Young Adult, largely through posture, stance, expression, wardrobe, attitude. It’s especially visible because she swings back and forth. Every time we see Mavis on the prowl—chasing after her long-lost boyfriend, Buddy, now a married father, or just dressing to impress other past acquaintances—she looks like you expect Charlize to look. Stylish clothes, stilletos, cheekbones for miles. But when she’s alone—when, in other words, no one who cares is there—she slogs. Not just that she’s wearing T-shirts and sweats, that her hair is sticking out where she slept on it and yesterday’s makeup is smeared on her face, but that she is physically drooping, shuffling her feet across the ground instead of picking them up. This is a woman who has very little pleasure in life. She is severely depressed, which she may or may not know, and an alcoholic, which she absolutely does know, not that anybody she tells (including her parents) believe that any intervention is necessary. (Even when she is dressed to the nines, the movie takes pains to reproduce the effort she is putting into the act: makeup, manicurist, clip-in hair extensions.)
The best thing about Young Adult is Charlize—this character, and what she does with it. She’s funny, she’s sad. As viewers, we feel free to consider her a dismal failure at life—because in some ways she is—but then she glams up and we all sit there, “…Wow.” In fact, her beauty, and the resultant popularity, is a major factor in her arrested development. Pictures, plus other characters’ accounts of her, let us know that she never had a real awkward phase—that she is the prototypical girl who peaked too early. There’s more to Mavis than arrested development, though. She’s not just a delusional freak. At the “naming party” for Buddy’s baby, Mavis has a climactic explosion of emotional turmoil in which she reveals hidden depths—a past of disappointment and loss of which she is keenly aware.
The movie is built on contradictory ideas. Mavis truly believes that this bourgeois, small-town chicken wings wife-and-baby existence is too stultifying to sustain life. She thinks Buddy will be all too willing to run away with her, but Buddy is actually really happy with his wife, who is normal and cool and really nice to Mavis. But then, the movie also offers some reinforcement for Mavis and her lifestyle. Her hometown really is pretty bleak. It’s a dark, dark movie. Very funny, but not set up by Hollywood standards re: lesson learning. Cody plotted it especially to subvert typical romantic comedy expectations. Regardless of her charm or will or absolute certainty that she and Buddy are meant to be together, she is not getting him back. Nor is there a conveniently single handsome guy waiting in the wings to sweep her away when she humbles.
There is Patton Oswalt, who walks with a cane because in high school a bunch of jocks gave him a severe beating because they assumed he was gay. He’s so pathetic he was the victim of a hate crime for which he didn’t even fit the criteria. He and Mavis spend a few nights getting drunk together, while she details his plan for him and he tells her all the ways in which it won’t work. “One true pairing” never flashes over their heads. And despite what kind of plotting and/or romantic entanglements they might get into together, despite what parallel disappointments they may have suffered that have rendered them kindred spirits in adulthood, they are both just too screwed up to wander off into the sunset together.
Last word, on Diablo Cody’s script: people complained to NO END that Juno was insufferable because of its mystifying hipster dialect. I personally didn’t mind any of it save “Honest to Blog,” which is too stupid to exist. Young Adult actually makes veiled reference to this—I think—when we see that Mavis, who writes young adult novels, cribs her teen terminology from eavesdropping on actual teens conversing with each other. She is secretly lame: a grown-up who plays at knowing what the kids these days are into. Apology accepted, Ms. Cody.
P.S. Another little moment I loved: Mavis walks into a cheesy sports bar to meet former boyfriend Buddy, and waits for him. She is all glammed up with no real place to go and obviously wants to exhibit that she is too cool for the room. Deliberately shunning conversation with the plebes, she starts poking away at her cell phone. What is she texting? “asdlkjadsflkajdflkasdjflasj” P.S. I have done this.
Ahead: sci-fi, murderous teens, and sex addiction