I’ve presented my Jesus freak side before or in other words, I’m sure my ambivalence towards my provenance has seeped into my blog especially when discussing religious movies. That important factor in my life makes me hesitant in fully embracing Robert Bolt‘s play A Man for All Seasons. Again, I’m crudely comparing the first cracks of this Renaissance-era schism to its counterpart across the pond. The American Civil War was formally about ‘the power struggle between the federation and its states but really it was about slavery. In that same vein, the play masquerades its main crisis that it’s about the protagonist, English Lord Chancellor Thomas More (Paul Scofield), and that he should be able to pledge allegiance to his religion over his country. But it’s really about calling his king King Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) and adulterer and his new seventeen-year-old wife Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave in a silent but nuanced performance) a whore. I read the play as part of my Catholic high school curriculum – I don’t remember our class performing it and in my mind all actors had the right to defend their own stance as the correct one. But Fred Zinneman‘s movie adaptation feels so one-sided. This is especially true in casting Henry and let’s be honest: if a director tells Shaw (charming and handsome as he is and what is wrong with me?) to yell and be a boor it’s not like he’s going to say no. I can only imagine Seth MacFarlane being inspired by Shaw’s performance in portraying Peter Griffin’s real Irish dad.
But I do like the lawyer-like talk in vogue for the movie second half. There’s a subplot about John Hurt’s character where the visuals do the storytelling and another one on More’s daughter’s marriage to a man who is against any religious institution, a postmodern touch to a traditional landscape. Scofield and Wendy Hiller, who plays his wife, are more subtle in the delivery of their flowery lines than I remember, the former earning that Oscar especially in the last scenes, where he has to bellow his last thoughts without overacting. It’s a fascinating look towards the Medieval/Renaissance struggle from a mid-twentieth century lens, the latter grappling with its own changing stances towards morality.
- Book Review: A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt (todworner.wordpress.com)
Exhausted. This is after the disastrous tea time social with the Higgins’ family and friends. Colonel Pickering tells Henry Higgins (Leslie Howard) that they’ll never be able to pass off Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) as a duchess. Higgins asks her if she wants to go on and says yes. She tells him in a later scene why she decides to go on. What follows is a really crappy montage, Howard portraying an affected caricature, making himself look older, making Hiller look like the better actor as she deserves to be hailed as so.
Perfection. Eliza enters the room with fear in her eyes, but she puts this mask on and she transforms into elegance. She smiles at the right people with warmth. She’s in the receiving end of a conversation and she’s so worried about standing gracefully that she might as well not be listening. She does the right moves, performing, so calculated that people can marvel at her and know that she’s not ‘from here.’ Karpathy (Esme Percy) tells his former teacher Higgins that she must be a Hungarian countess. I would have put my five pounds on outer space.
Mad. Eliza is exhausted again after the Embassy Ball. She is furious at Higgins, then anger turns slowly into depression. She asks him ‘Where am I to go? What am I to do?’ He hells her that she’ll get married, which doesn’t comfort her, retorting that as a Covent Garden girl she sold flowers but not herself, a line I don’t remember from the play, but packs a big punch. She easily moves from upper class to a refined Cockney within her anger.
Let’s discuss the ‘noirlike’ style here. I’ve noticed a lot of shadow play in ‘British’ movies between this one and The Secret Garden in 1949. Pygmalion‘s cinematographer, Harry Stradling Jr., is also responsible for Southern Gothic films like A Streetcar Name Desire, and actually shot the colourful My Fair Lady as well.
The scene also hints on the uselessness of institutions like education and marriage. Upper class people learn to speak the King’s English and ‘science and literature and classical music.’ Then they start a business and marry. It’s easy for the upper class to get from one institution to another, but those are hurdles for Eliza. Her education with Higgins isn’t adequate.
Awakened. Again, this scene is probably not a part of the play. Context. Freddy has waited outside Higgins’ door for Eliza for days, without looking like he smells. Eliza, while constables are watching, tells him to kiss her again. Both factors should seem creepy, but it’s not. Both actors don’t play the scene as if it is real love, and neither does Hiller act out Eliza like she’s using Freddy, not consciously anyway. It’s a fine line between those two extremes of love and rebound that this scene walks on, and greatly so.
Triumphant. There are ups and downs within this scene and Hiller’s elastic facial expressions takes us to this last stop. For this film, she’s looked like many personalities between her transformation. From an ancestress of a chavette as she to a mannered Hungaian ‘ingenue’. From boyish innocence to an elegant, chiseled-face goddess. Eliza is now a ‘pillar of strength’ over Higgins. This part of the scene is actually when Eliza lovingly tells Higgins why she has gone along with the experiment, even if it has meant emotional strain on her. But she leaves for a while anyway. Also, I dare you to find me a more prominent set of cheekbones in the history of cinema.