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A Man For All Seasons (Best Picture, 1966)

I’ve studied this period of English history quite a bit.  Henry VIII’s life and court have always seemed like a soap opera to me – so astonishingly, emotionally dramatic that if I didn’t know it was real I’d think the whole incredible story was made up.

One thing that fascinates me about this period, especially that of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Anne Boleyn, is the way it has entered the cultural vernacular.  It’s a favorite historical story, endlessly told and retold in novels, biographies, films, plays, and television shows.

Paul Scofield’s turn as the martyred Thomas More is iconic.  And in some ways, he makes the sainted More a little more human. He gives More a sense of humor, and shows the earthly devotion to his family.  Scofield also makes More a bit more of a politician – principled, religious, and conscientious, but still a courtier.  One of the great things about More’s place in the story is he’s not a sycophant.  He knows how to preserve his safety in the minefield that was the Tudor court, but doesn’t seem afraid of Henry the way other courtiers are.  Frankly, in this version, the courtiers are a bunch of cheap comedy – multicolored peacocks, laughing only at Henry’s cue.  For Scofield’s More the issue at stake is conscience.  It is not a question of whether Henry’s actions are right or wrong, but simply that they are contrary to More’s conscience.  In a scene when he is questioned by Cromwell, Norfolk, and an archbishop, More tells Howard that if he were to swear to the Act of Succession, Howard would go to heaven for following his conscience while More would end up in hell for not following his. It is not a question of right or wrong, but of belief and conscience.

It is natural that I should compare these representations of historical figures and events I know so well to other versions in popular culture.  Most recently, I enjoyed watching THE TUDORS.  The show has its flaws, certainly, but it captured an essence of the time that I think has not yet been adequately explored.  Most representations either play up the Henry-as-tyrant story or lean heavily on a modern conception of sixteenth-century formality.  And those are both parts of the story, I believe.  But THE TUDORS put the emotionality of the time under a microscope and let the audience stare.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Henry VIII may not be the red-haired Goliath of history, but the intensity of his gaze, always just shy of madness, makes him mesmerizing.  He shows Henry’s intelligence, passion, volatility, and insecurity.  Likewise, Scofield as More is very different from Jeremy Northam’s More.  Northam makes More a zealot, giving him a religious intensity that probably existed but is usually cloaked by politeness in other interpretations.  Furthermore, he gives More a tinge of grief, as though some part of him is subconsciously aware that doom lies ahead.  Scofield is more intellectual, more political – still sad, still passionately devoted to his faith, and still stubbornly willing to draw a line and refuse to cross even if it means his life. In both interpretations, More is willing to speak his mind to the king, treating the younger man as more of a friend than an autocratic boss.  And this is because the king treated More as a friend – and thus More believed he might speak honestly when the matter was serious enough.

I’m not saying one interpretation is more accurate than the other.  I think that the whole picture of these historical figures and events can only be seen by compiling all of the interpretations into one version.  More was a martyr and scholar, but also a politician and courtier. Henry VIII was selfish, greedy, volatile, far too influenced by his hormones, and by today’s standards, abused his position.  But he was also intelligent – precocious as a child, as were his children – legitimately interested in matters of religion and politics, a talented musician, athlete, and in general the definition of a Renaissance prince.

In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture, 1967)

All of the movies in the Best Picture lineup are iconic and famous, at least in their own time. There are a handful that stand above the rest, as iconic even amongst the iconic. IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is one of those.  What courage it must have taken for all involved to create this film in 1967, with all that was going on in the country regarding race relations.  In one of the featurettes on the disc someone says that as much as possible they filmed north of the Mason-Dixon line, since Sidney Poitier was understandably apprehensive about going south of it. For the few scenes that couldn’t be filmed anywhere else, supposedly Poitier had a loaded gun in his hotel room at all times.

Perhaps that’s what gives this gritty film its continuing strength.  It must have been uncomfortable to watch then, if possibly for different reasons than it is uncomfortable now.  IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT knocks the air out of the audience because the combination of anger, fear, and determination in Poitier’s every move is real.  He understood he might be putting himself in danger. This film came out the year before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. In fact, if I understand correctly, one of the awards ceremonies in which awards were given to In THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT had to be postponed because of King’s assassination.  Poitier saw that he had made himself recognizable, conspicuous, and that he was taking on some explosive topics in his films. As Virgil Tibbs he’s an educated, intelligent, trained professional, trying to seek out justice in a small and seemingly very racist town in the South. In GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER, Poitier and the others tackle the issue of miscegenation.

When people think of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, they tend to think of Poitier’s performance. But Rod Steiger deserves massive praise for his explosive performance as the short-tempered, well-meaning police chief who is caught between cultural tradition and the scientific expertise of the black homicide specialist Tibbs. His character has to walk a delicate line to keep his job but also catch the right killer, and Steiger himself has to walk a delicate performance line between realistic portrayal of a white police chief in a prejudiced town and a man who’s coming to realize that maybe Tibbs is “just like us.”

I guess I’ve seen the last of happy pictures for best picture winners for a while. Looks like the films are going to be getting tougher to watch.

Up Next: Oliver! (Best Picture, 1968) and Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture, 1969)