Montgomery Clift once said, “Richard Burton doesn’t act. He just recites.”
In the 1964 film “Becket”–a film based verrrry loosely on the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas a Becket–Burton was cast as Beckett, alongside Peter O’Toole as Henry. Compared to O’Toole’s delightfully mad, effortless work, Burton does appear to be merely reciting.
Thomas a Becket didn’t call for the histrionics O’Toole’s role did. Burton’s recitative style works here. In fact, the pairing of these two actors in these two roles is inspired.
The film starts with Henry and Becket out debauching. They narrowly escape a young lass’s angry father, and ride off into an early morning. When Henry invades France, Becket is there to convince the cities to surrender peacefully. Then, when the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry appoints his old friend–and fellow debaucher–as the new Archbishop, thinking it would be nice to have an ally running the Church in England.
The one thing Henry never considered is that Becket would take his new position seriously, excommunicating a Lord over a matter of principle. Faced with imprisonment, Becket fled to France, placing himself under the protection of Sir John Gielgud.
I mean, King Louis VII of France, played by Sir John Gielgud.
Eventually, Henry and Becket reach a compromise allowing Becket to return to England. Becket remained a thorn in the Royal Side, and soon some of the King’s men dispatched Becket as he conducted evening vespers.
If you were watching this as your sole source of information on Henry and Becket, and you were to take a college English History exam on the subject, you would most definitely not get an A. This is also true if you took an American History exam on the Kennedy Assassination based solely on watching Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” Both films have a nodding-acquaintance with the truth, although The Truth would be unlikely to invite The Films over for dinner anytime soon.
What both films share, though, is two things: first, that they are excellent films, embellished facts or not. Second, they are tours de force in acting. “JFK” has a huge ensemble of actors, each of whom gives a splendid performance. “Becket” relies almost solely on O’Toole and Burton, and the two Shakespearean actors nail their respective roles. Burton plays Becket as being intelligent, respectful of his king, yet opinionated–three traits which endear him to Henry as a friend, and chap the Royal Ass when Becket becomes Archbishop. If Montgomery Clift is right–and I think he is, for the most part–this is the perfect role for Richard Burton, who can be stiff and recite, and it suits his role perfectly.
As good as Burton was, Peter O’Toole absolutely crackles as King Henry II. He throws himself into this role with such gleeful energy–whether he’s deriding his wife and mother as shrews, or drinking and misbehaving with his court, he is always brilliant. Sometimes, Henry’s mood turns on a dime, and O’Toole is right there, up to every demented twist. As much as O’Toole comes off as brash and stage-actor-loud, my favorite line he speaks is barely above a whisper. He’s called Becket to be judged in his court. When Becket arrives for judgment, Henry is watching, hidden in a window. Becket pronounces that he knows the charges are false, and he will not accept the judgment of anyone less than the Pope. Furthermore, any court official who pronounces sentence will be excommunicated, and condemned to God’s judgment, and likely hell. Becket then turns and walks out, unmolested. Henry pulls back from his window, whispering “Well played, Thomas.”
It’s O’Toole’s power and skill that makes “Becket” a great film. Any number of actors could have played Burton’s role, but I can’t think of anyone in 1964 who could have performed the acting gymnastics Peter O’Toole made look so effortless.
The reason I chose to watch “Becket” tonight is simple: it was nominated for 12 Oscars, and lost 11-times. It’s tied for the most-ever Oscar losses for one picture. It’s a pity that Richard Burton was nominated aside Peter O’Toole for Best Actor. My guess is that they split the vote, and thus Rex bloody Harrison wins Best Actor for “My Fair Lady.” (He was fine, but nowhere near as brilliant as O’Toole).
While I love the Oscars, and I could whip most people in Oscars trivia, the most-egregious sin the Academy has performed is never awarding Peter O’Toole a competitive Oscar. No matter what film I’ve seen him in, he has always been brilliant.
Somewhere, a few Academy members, circa 1964, are being justifiably excommunicated from Movie Heaven.
(Becket is rated PG-13. There’s nothing subject-wise a ten year-old couldn’t handle–a couple hints of wenching, and a murder–but this is a costume drama, and I doubt anyone under 13 could watch this without being a bit bored)