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A Man for All Seasons: Best Picture, 1966

amanforallseasonsposterThe 39th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Bob Hope. A Man for All Seasons was nominated for 8 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Paul Scofield), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Robert Shaw), Best Supporting Actress (Wendy Hiller), and Best Costume Design. It was not a very notable year in English-language cinema (although it saw the release of foreign masterpieces like The Battle of Algiers and Au hasard Balthazar). Quite the opposite, in some ways, as Cary Grant appeared in his final film, the amusing but trite Walk, Don’t Run.

The situation at the Oscars was an unusual one. Three of the Best Picture nominees (The Sand Pebbles, 8 nominations, Alfie, 5 nominations, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, 4 nominations) walked away empty-handed. There were only ever two front-runners, both adaptations of stage plays: A Man for All Seasons and the explosive Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (13 nominations, 5 wins). Of the awards they were competing for, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? got Best Supporting Actress and lost the rest. Best Supporting Actor went to Walter Matthau for The Fortune Cookie (4 nominations, 1 win), leaving A Man for All Seasons with 6.

The film, based on a Tony-award winning play by Robert Bolt (previously nominated for an Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia), follows the political fortunes of Thomas More from King Henry VIII’s initial bid to divorce Catherine of Aragon in about 1525 to his beheading in 1537. More, widely regarded as a man of incorruptible integrity by the entire country, is initially named as chancellor by the king in the hopes that More’s wisdom and reputation will be of use in procuring a divorce. However, it soon becomes clear that More has no intention of compromising his convictions or his loyalty to the Catholic church, and the king’s favor turns to annoyance and then to enmity.

In cinematic terms, A Man for All Seasons is a bit of a relic. It never really escapes the stagy feel of an adapted play, or transcends the generic look of period piece of the time (aside from a few noteworthy elements like the on-location bits at Hampton Court). It would simply lie there, quite forgettable, were it not based on such excellent material. While remaining accurate enough to keep grumbling historians quiet, Bolt transforms the story of More’s life into a sort of fable for the 20th-century humanist (and never-mind that More is the only character we are meant to care about).

At its heart, this is a story about a crisis of conscience. Specifically, the main character has one, and no one else does. Thomas More is a marvelous character study because he knows the demands of his conscience with such incredible precision, while at the same time possessing such a prudent and thorough knowledge of law that he can keep himself out of trouble (at least for a time). The audience (whether or not they completely agree with More’s principled stand) can remain sympathetic because More does not simply throw his life away in a defiant fit of pique. He clings to life almost as desperately as he clings to his beliefs, which makes his sacrifice all the more heroic.

There are two chief ways in which the filmmakers establish More’s exceptional moral character: by example and by contrast with other characters. There is a noteworthy scene early on where More accidentally accepts a bribe (a rich silver cup) from a woman whose case is awaiting his judgment. He has been up half the night, called to visit the current chancellor (Cardinal Wolsey) down the river at Hampton Court, and he is obviously not thinking clearly when she shoves the cup into his hands with a vague utterance and disappears into the crowd clamoring for his attention. Immediately after this, he refuses a basket of baked apples from an old couple, telling them that their daughter will receive “the same judgment I would give my own: a fair one, quickly.”

On the way back down the river, he finds an inscription on the bottom of the cup and throws it overboard in disgust. The shocked boatman is quick to rescue it, reminding him “That’s worth money, sir!” More settles the cup back into his lap, but when he finds Rich (a young man hoping for a position at court through More’s influence) waiting for him on the dock, he gives the cup to him as an object lesson in temptation and corruption and encourages him to take a position as a schoolteacher. “If I was [a great teacher], who would know it?” Rich wants to know. “You,” More replies, “your pupils, your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.”

Rich, however, is determined to sell his soul for a position of power, which leads him to conspire with Thomas Cromwell in order to bring about More’s downfall. Their plots begin with an attempt to use the silver cup to show that More accepted bribes and end with Rich bearing false witness in front of Parliament, a lie which prompts More to say, “In good faith, Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than my peril.”

Meanwhile, lest we miss the significance of More’s prudence, the film puts him in conversation with his daughter Margaret’s principled but hot-headed suitor (and later husband), William Roper. Roper appears early on as an unwelcome visitor when More returns home from his all-night visit to Wolsey to find him wooing Margaret. More does not approve of Roper because his sharp criticism of the Church has led him to become a Lutheran. Roper repeatedly makes it clear that, given the chance, he would actively create trouble for himself.

Unlike More, Roper remains clueless about the appropriate time, place, and manner in which to dissent from authority or go about fighting evil. At one point, he passionately proclaims his willingness to (as More puts it) “cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil.” But he is left speechless when More explains that even the Devil must be granted benefit of law, if only so it may remain intact to protect the righteous.

And so it goes, with More standing as a continual contrast to the example of everyone else. In fact, More is lionized to such a degree (even forgiving his executioner on the chopping block) that I have always regarded the film as something of a hagiography, which is appropriate since More was officially canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1935. He has all of the most quotable lines, and while this portrait of Thomas More, the saint, may not be the most well-rounded perspective on Thomas More, the man, what we see on the screen is inspiring.

However, his story has more value than simply to model how a courageous man of conscience handles himself. What keeps this story surprisingly relevant is its examination of the relationship between private faith and public morality, and of the responsibilities of a statesman who also happens to be a churchman.

The English Reformation is a rich setting for this sort of inquiry, representing as it does one of the many historical points of crisis during which the Christian church became a tool to serve the interests of the state. Cardinal Wolsey (played with relish by Orson Welles) is introduced immediately as a man of the church whose interests, ambitions, and sensibilities are tied completely to terrestrial politics.

Ultimately, disgraced and stripped of his title, he seems to realize his mistake: “If I had served God half so well as I have served my king, God would not have left me here to die in this place.” More, as he also dies, disgraced and stripped of his title, is secure in his knowledge that God “will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”

The inescapable truth about both of their lives is that they, like everyone, end in death. The difference between them lies in how they have allowed their personal faith to inform their political actions. The example speaks to anyone involved (as either observer or participant) in the political process. Whether they have convictions, as More does, merely claim to have them, like his predecessor, Wolsey, or make no pretense of having them, as with his successor, Cromwell, A Man for All Seasons has a message for them.

I like  A Man for All Seasons, as I have said, but it is undoubtedly a flawed film. So, too, is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, although that film at least has a more legitimate claim to cinematic significance, if only because of its unprecedented success in defying the Production Code. However, this is one year where all of the attention should probably go to foreign films, and no list of the best movies of the year could be called complete if it didn’t include The Battle of Algiers or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly for consideration. If it were up to me, I’d go with one of those.

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~ by Jared on October 6, 2009.

2 Responses to “A Man for All Seasons: Best Picture, 1966”

  1. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? got Best Supporting Actress and lost the rest.”

    That’s not true. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won five Academy Awards that year; Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Black-and-White), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), and Best Costume Design (Black-and-White).

    It should also be noted that your two choices for Best Picture – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and The Battle of Algiers – were not eligible for consideration until two years later. In fact, The Battle of Algiers recieved two Academy Award nominations in 1969.

  2. Right. As I wrote: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (13 nominations, 5 wins)” . . . With respect to that I was specifically referring to “the awards they were competing for.” That is, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” lost all but one of the awards that both it and “A Man for All Seasons” were nominated for. I have a great deal of information shoehorned into that paragraph, so it’s probably not terribly clear.

    Thanks for the info on eligibility. I just noted that “Battle of Algiers” was nominated for Best Foreign Film that year, but I know very little about the various rules about what films can be nominated for which awards, and how those rules have changed over time.

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