HURT SO BAD
In his published diaries, Richard Burton wrote of Peter O’Toole: “He looked like a beautiful, emaciated secretary bird...his voice had a crack like a whip...most important of all you couldn’t take your eyes off him...Acting is usually regarded as a craft and I claim it to be nothing more except in the hands of a few men and women who, once or twice in a lifetime, elevate it into something odd and mystical and deeply disturbing. I believe Peter to have this strange quality.” Filming Becket at the time, playing the titular role opposite O’Toole’s Henry II, Burton’s may be the most succinct assessment of the appeal of his co-star; it may also be as useful an explanation as any for the unending fascination historians, poets and dramatists have with the tormented combatants Thomas and Henry. Perhaps the reason the histories and dramas, including T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral with chorus verses begging for the Mel Brooks treatment, become fundamentally unsatisfying is why Jean Anouilh’s 1959 French play Becket isn’t—the playwright dares to create a coup de théâtre by allowing speculation about the twosome that very eloquent actors can bluster through. (So enamoured of Anouilh’s conceit Laurence Olivier enacted both parts in theatre productions.) Adapting the play for the 1964 movie, Edward Anhalt heightens the curiously mystic relationship as conjecture for the basis of the “betrayal,” wherein Henry’s “love” of whoring buddy-now Archbishop of Canterbury must be requited by acceding to kingly dictates in the battles of State vs Church. Half way in, the script suddenly develops into crisis of sectionalization: Becket, who admits loving little if anything yet discovers his ecclesiastic duty to God, deems himself the sole adjudicator of a priest accused of a sexual relationship with a young woman. Before the priest can be returned to the sanctuary of the Church, Henry’s lacquey-enforcer executes him. Becket, enraged and in retaliatory mode, administers excommunication against the willful murderer. A war of words and threats erupt and to spare himself Henry’s own wrath, Becket exiles to France, which in fact lasted six years before negotiating the uneasy truce infamously violated within weeks of returning to England. (Missing from the movie: upon reentry Becket continued overt criticisms of Henry and would excommunicate bishops who sided with him.) The movie is made pleasurably intense by a grand pairing of lushes who booze their way through “unhealthy” scenarios. Starting out sober for the first few weeks of filming, Burton and O’Toole then imbibed so regularly thereafter many have wondered how the movie ever got made. Is there any evidence of their soused condition? Beyond the occasional bloated faces, no, yet you can definitely feel something’s a little off. The suspicions aren’t necessarily derived out of the knowledge of the performers as notorious dipsos feeding each other’s habits. They largely derive out of the edginess of O’Toole’s wracked emotionalism as Henry and Burton’s bridled Becket as a “spiritual gate-crasher”; they’re anxious compadres who can’t consummate. Watching O’Toole’s Henry reel from rebuffs, aching out lines to Becket like “You’re wrong not to love me,” and observing Burton’s archbishop seeking refuge in the cloistered world of the Church wherein he admits Henry’s “never forgiven me for preferring God to him,” you begin to believe the actors have to be hammered in order to deliver the purposeful éclaircissement. Without O’Toole’s fancy masochism and Burton balancing with rare downplaying, the guessing game of Becket would be a stone-cold experience. It still requires a pullover: director Peter Glenville, who also mounted the Broadway premiere, solemnizes his conservative Catholic closet by stressing the reverential spotlessness and echo chamber sounds of cathedral; his genuflections are matched by choral alleluias as downers and Laurence Rosenthal’s loftily estranging roadshow score. Glenville sticks to prejudicious formula with the supporting cast: John Gielgud’s Louis VII represents the effete French; Donald Wolfit, Martita Hunt and Paulo Stoppa become period piece caricatures; Eliot’s chorus shows up in the Vatican’s cardinals as fatisfied talebearers; the king’s henchmen keen to dispatch and lurking monks eager to flog. Pamela Brown’s mousy, repugnant portrayal of Henry’s wife Eleanor of Aquataine is insulting; even during Henry’s “Becket” days, and in spite of being irrepressibly in love with him, she was actively embroidering plots against him, subordinated only slightly when under house arrest. (Though no mention of her preceding annulment of marriage to Louis VII after birthing five daughters but no male heir, it and Henry’s contempt for his sons as “royal vermin” will be explicated in the later companion piece The Lion in Winter.) The lasting legacy of this Becket isn’t only the perplexing history and juicy gossip filling in the elusive motives, it’s also in the counterpoints of two show horses maximizing their rearing while still managing to keep their self-respect. Filmed in Panavision, with 70mm blowup. (Opening 3/19/1964 at the Cinestage, running for 16 weeks.)
Oscar win for best adapted screenplay (Anhalt). Oscar nominations for best film, actor (both leads), director, supporting actor (Gielgud), color cinematography, costume, art direction-set decoration, film editing, sound, music (substantially original).
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 12/2017) All Rights Reserved.