My contribution to this year’s 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon is a look at A Man For All Seasons, the 39th Best Picture Oscar winner. The film also won Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Color Cinematography and Best Color Costume Design. Thanks to Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club for hosting this blogathon, and giving me an opportunity to share my love of this film.
Oscar season is a great opportunity to revisit the Best Picture winners of the past. It might be the only time anyone ever talks about some of the obscure winners, including Fred Zinnemann’s A Man For All Seasons. The 1966 winner was released at a time of upheaval in Hollywood. Perhaps Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? should have won, as it is the most influential film of that year’s nominees. But Zinnemann’s movie – coming 13 years after his From Here to Eternity won the same prize – remains frightfully relevant, even though it tells the story of a man dead for over 480 years.
A Man For All Seasons is based on Robert Bolt’s 1960 literate and poetic play of the same name, and tells the story of Sir Thomas More’s last years during the reign of King Henry VIII. More, who is best known today for his philosophical work Utopia (1516), refused to sign a letter to Pope Clement VII to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. After realizing he would likely not get the Pope’s annulment anyway, Henry had his subjects take an oath and accept him as Supreme Head of the Catholic Church. More refused to do this as well, and was later venerated by the Catholic Church for his actions.
How can something like this possibly be relevant today? That’s an easy question to answer. In today’s climate, people who stick to their beliefs are rare, and often can be ostracized. Bolt dramatizes a moral quandary, the kind people have every day. Do you stand up for what you believe in, or cave in to save your life?
However, there are aspects of More’s story some might find difficult to swallow. We expect heroes to stand up and fight, but More’s silence was not even action with words. It was actions without words. By not making his feelings known, he frustrated those in power and forced them to look like fools. Of course, they still had the ax though.
A Man For All Seasons sure feels like Oscar bait. It is a “Great Man” story, along the lines of The King’s Speech, Gandhi and The Life of Emile Zola. But unlike those films, it asks for the audience to do more than just take in a biography. We are asked to think about what we would do in More’s situation. Surely, no one seeing Gandhi is asked to find the inner strength to lead a people to independence. But anyone who sees A Man For All Seasons knows what it’s like to stand up for something you believe in, to be the contrarian and have to prove your point.
On the production side, the film is impeccable, with Zinnemann doing everything in his power to keep the movie from being a filmed play. He achieves this by successfully and effortlessly opening it up. While we never see the dirty streets of 16th Century London, we do visit the castles and take boat rides along the waterways of England.
Ted Moore’s Oscar-winning Cinematography and the Oscar-winning costume design by Elizabeth Haddenden and Joan Bridge make the movie look like a living painting right out of the period. It does for the art of the 16th Century what Stanley Kubrick later did for the art of the early 19th Century in Barry Lyndon. Moore, a veteran of the early James Bond films, creates an amazing, flat and almost two-dimensional look to the film’s dramatic trial scene at the end.
One reason why A Man For All Seasons has fallen into some obscurity outside film circles is its lack of a leading man well known today. Paul Scofield might be considered one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time, but he was more of a stage actor. He made just a handful of movies, and was not nominated for an Oscar again until he co-starred in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994).
Scofield is powerful as More, reprising a role that he originated on the stage and earned him a Tony after playing it on Broadway. He is on point in every scene and his familiarity with the role is clear. Scofield makes More a three-dimensional man, with all his faults on the screen. More is no image of perfection, and Scofield, Bolt and Zinnemann’s willingness to show that differentiates the film from stiff historical dramas.
Robert Shaw’s electric performance as Henry VIII also injects the film with much-needed energy. He is not on screen often, but when he does, he is bigger than life, hovering over the picture constantly. Shaw somehow lost the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to The Fortune Cookie‘s Walter Matthau. That’s a good performance, but A Man For All Seasons would be robbed of its best scenes without Shaw.
Wendy Hiller, who already won an Oscar for Separate Tables, was also nominated for her role as More’s long-suffering wife Alice. She lost to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?‘s Sandy Denis. It is one of Hiller’s best screen performances during her incredible career. It feels like her heart is actually being ripped from her chest when she is pulled out of More’s jail cell.
I could go on and on about the other great British actors in this film. Simply put, the brilliant court scene would not work if Scofield did not have Leo McKern to match wits with. More would have no heart without Susannah York’s performance as his daughter. Richard Rich would be a forgettable character without John Hurt’s portrayal.
A Man For All Seasons is a political film, and seeing it today in light of our political climate today makes it like a horror film. Last year, a president fired an FBI director for reportedly not taking an oath of loyalty, almost 500 years after Sir Thomas More lost his head for the same reason. Politics is politics is politics, all that changes throughout the years is the details. The sound of More’s silence still echoes, even if we’ve forgotten where it came from.