A Man for All Seasons...if you’re into literature this name represents one of the best historical dramas written. If you’re a film fan this name holds a different meaning for you. You know this title because it robbed Mike Nichols Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? of the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It’s always unfortunate when one work of art falls in esteem because it robbed another. Regardless of whether they were good or not to begin with Grace Kelly in Country Girl, Crash, Oliver, Ordinary People, The Greatest Show On Earth and so many casualties have become infamous not for having won Academy Awards but for robbing others of the Award. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. However, I think that of all the notorious underserved winners – in whatever category – A Man For All Seasons is one of the most unfairly maligned. I would have given the Oscar to A Man For All Seasons – for Best Picture at the very least.
A Man For All Seasons tells the story of Thomas More a British nobleman who is a member of the Catholic Church. It is the time of Henry VIII and his legendary marriage to Katherine of Aragorn. When Henry was but a child he was betrothed and later married to his deceased brother’s wife. A woman many years his senior. The move was purely political. Whatever their relationship was like, Henry has long since become disgusted with the relationship and wants to remarry. This time for l’amour to the beautiful and young Anne Boleyn. Chances are you’ve probably already heard this story. The telling varies from portraying Anne is a woman in love to a conniving bitch [re The Tudors, The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne of the Thousand Days etc]. But more than likely you’ve never seen it this way. Because A Man For All Seasons is not about Henry; it is about Thomas More. Thomas is a devout Catholic and a man who Henry holds in high esteem. When Thomas More said he does not agree to the divorce Henry wishes to continue with Henry’s anger begins as a slight flame and grows into something wild and dangerous.
At the helm of this film is Paul Scofield in a good performance as the eponymous Man for All Seasons. I’ll always wish that Richard Burton won the Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; but I will not deny that Scofield was a very worthy opponent. His Thomas More is not an annoyingly good character. It’s not just that Thomas More is a better man than his counterparts – he just believes in what he believes. And he cannot be swayed. At his side is wife, Alice [an Oscar nominated Wendy Hiller]. Hiller gives a good performance as his wife. I remember being annoyed when I was younger by her grating personality and having read the play I did not find Alice to be as unpleasant as Hiller portrayed. But as the film progresses she gets better. In that final scene with Scofield she is wonderful and thoroughly deserved her nomination. Susannah York plays his daughter Margaret. Her role to me seemed more paramount than Wendy and her performance is also impressive. Seeing that Oscar was so in love with this flick I am surprised she did not earn a nomination alongside her mother. And I don’t think I would have minded much.
But although the film is centred on More it is not solely about his family. It deals to a large extent with the English Political system and it is scattered with some very good performances. Reading the play I always found the character of Richard Rich to b excessively fascinating – and I found John Hurt’s characterisation to be spot on. The villainous Cromwell and More’s friend Norfolk played by Leo McKern and Nigel Davenport respectively also give good performances. Davenport’s role was a difficult one since we had to empathise with him while still staying on More’s side. And Orson Welles also lends his supporting talents. But of course the best Supporting Performance of the film was Robert Shaw as the petulant Henry VIII. He is probably the actor that I most identify with Henry VIII whenever I think about his tenure in England. He earned an Oscar nomination... but alas did not win...and they couldn’t even give it to the excellent George Segal either. What utter rot. A Man For All Seasons also features a cameo of sorts by Vanessa Redgrave [pictured above]. She reportedly refused payment for her blink-and-you’ll miss role as Anne Boleyn.
This is a good film. Many of you are probably fans of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But don’t go in hating this film for winning. Go into it not only to entertain but perhaps to learn. Of course it’s not history as it was. But perhaps...it was dangerously close. And it’s a wonderful film...so it’s really a win/win situation.