If you’re going to watch two actors duke it out (both in character and as actors), you can’t do a whole lot better than to watch Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole go at it as Thomas Becket and King Henry II of England. In this historical drama (adapted from a French play by Jean Anouilh), Henry is sure of the loyalty of his friend, Becket, when he elevates him to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury, and is astonished when Becket views the appointment as a higher calling and declares a greater loyalty. The film focuses almost entirely on the relationship between Becket and Henry, and allows both actors to perform at the very highest levels. O’Toole is grating but effective as the rather spoiled Henry; a fascinating contrast to his performance, only four years later, of the same man in The Lion in Winter. Clearly, O’Toole’s Henry does some growing up in the interim. Meanwhile, Burton gives an astonishingly deep and nuanced performance as Thomas Becket. He shows great intelligence and wit throughout, and when he takes the mantle of the Archbishop on his shoulders, he makes a marked change from disinterested aesthete to pious servant of God without missing a beat. Both are powerful performances, but Burton (and Becket) proves to have the upper hand, even in giving his life to remain true to his sense of duty. John Gielgud makes an entertaining appearance as King Louis VII of France, providing a bit of (sly and sophisticated) comic relief. As with most plays-turned-films, Becket is light on action, and a little slow at times, but worthwhile for fans of great acting.
Royal Wedding (1951)
I’ve wanted to see Royal Wedding since I was a kid. The “I Left My Hat in Haiti” number is featured in That’s Dancing, and I’ve long been interested in the colorful costumes and the performance of Jane Powell. However, the film as a whole is somewhat disappointing. Fred Astaire and Powell play a brother-sister duo who travel to London to perform against the backdrop of a royal wedding. They’re both marriage-shy, but of course they each meet and fall in love with their perfect mates (played by Sarah Churchill and Peter Lawford). There are some fun and imaginative numbers, the highlight of which is Astaire dancing with a hatrack, but the pace of the movie is slow, and there’s very little going on, plot-wise. Powell’s dancing is great, but her style of singing leaves a lot to be desired. It must’ve been popular at the time, though, because she gets no less than three solo ballads. Apparently, the original copyright for Royal Wedding was never renewed, and as such, the film is now available mainly in poor copy. It’s incredibly dark and in serious need of re-mastering, but as an inferior example of Astaire’s work, it’s probably not high on anybody’s list of priorities.