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 title 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 doesn’t—the playwright dares to create a coup de théâtre by allowing speculation about the twosome that eloquent actors can swashbuckle through. (So enamoured of Anouilh’s conceit that Laurence Olivier enacted both parts in separate productions.) Adapting Anouilh’s play for the 1964 movie, Edward Anhalt maintains the conjecture as the basis for the “betrayal,” that 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. The script also races toward the crisis of backstabbing ecclesiasticism without much preparation: Becket, who admits he loves little if anything, suddenly loves God, deems himself the sole adjudicator of criminally accused priests and, as retaliatory ammo, administrator of Excommunication against Henry’s lacqueys. (Unwittingly absent in the movie, Becket, when exiled over the growing antagonism, stayed in France for roughly seven years before negotiating the brief uneasy truce.) Making the movie pleasurable is the grand pairing of lushes who booze their way through “unhealthy” scenarios. Starting out sober for maybe the first severl weeks into filming, Burton and O’Toole then imbibed so regularly thereafter that 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 dipsomaniacs, or that together they fed 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,” observing Burton’s archbishop seek refuge in the cloistered world of the Church wherein he admits that Henry’s “never forgiven me for preferring God to him,” you begin to believe that the actors have to be hammered in order to deliver the duologues. Without O’Toole’s fancy masochism and Burton balancing with rare downplaying, the guessing game of Becket would be a stone-cold experience. Still requires a pullover, though: 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 represents the effete French, Donald Wolfit, Martita Hunt, and Paulo Stoppa become period piece caricatures, and Eliot’s chorus shows up in the Vatican’s cardinals as fatisfied gossips, the king’s eager henchmen and lurking monks as floggers. Pamela Brown’s mousy, repugnant portrayal of Henry’s wife Eleanor 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 when under house arrest. (But the foundation of Henry’s humorous contempt for his sons as “royal vermin” is poured for the later companion piece The Lion in Winter.) The lasting heritage of Becket isn’t history or juicy gossip filling in the elusive motives, it’s in the counterpoints of two show horses maximizing their rearing while still managing to keep their self-respect. National Board of Review winner for best film; nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including Best Film, Actor (both leads), Director, Supporting Actor (Gielgud), Color Cinematography, Costume, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Film Editing, Sound, Music (substantially original), winning best adapted screenplay for Anhalt. Filmed in Panavision.
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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER (Revised 12/2017) All Rights Reserved.