One of the most formative films I ever saw on the television as a child was Anne of the Thousand Days. The title refers to Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, who reigned for 1000 days before her beheading for treason, incest, adultery and witchcraft. Why Anne Boleyn is such a totemic figure for gay men I do ponder.
Perhaps it is the combination of a young, bewitching creature who led a king a merry dance for years playing for a crown before a premature end anticipates the protocol of other gay icons from Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday. Strong women such as Anne Boleyn appeal to gay men of old. One wonders whether the new generation are more enamoured of fluffy creatures such as Kylie Minogue, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.
But back to Anne of the Thousand Days. The film won mixed reviews despite being nominated for ten Academy Awards. The French Canadian beauty Genevieve Bujold lost the Oscar to Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie although in any other year her bravura performance was deserving of the gong.
I don’t think another actress has given a more accurate portrayal of Anne Boleyn and that includes the illustrious roll call of Merle Oberon, Dorothy Tutin, Vanessa Redgrave, Charlotte Rampling, Nathalie Portman and Claire Foy. Bujold is prettier than the Anne Boleyn in the National Portrait Gallery but they share the same hazel eyes, pert nose and thin but beautiful lips.
Apparently the producers wanted Olivia Hussey, Julie Christie or Faye Dunaway for the role before casting Bujold in her first English-speaking role. This was a miracle of casting as were the Oscar-winning costumes. I was most taken by the tawny satin gown Anne wears in her trial scene in the Tower of London and the pearl-trimmed Gable headdress that we know she wore.
The execution is also as honest as history tells us down to Anne’s last words inviting anyone who wishes to meddle with her cause to do as they will. The film took liberties where any film should giving Anne a confrontation in the Tower with Henry offering her a bargain of life in a nunnery in exchange for a divorce which never happened.
Bujold was particularly magnificent in the aforementioned scene because Richard Burton – who won the Oscar playing Henry VIII – had brought wife Elizabeth Taylor onto the set. Not only had Elizabeth been rejected for the part because she was too old, she also suspected Bujold of having an affair with Burton. Just before filming the jail confrontation, Bujold allegedly said ‘I’m going to give that bitch an acting lesson she’ll never forget’. And she did.
Genevieve Bujold’s Anne is in turn imperious, taunting, haunting and melancholy. The moments of vulnerability when Bujold’s hazel eyes mist over with tears are some of the most poignant ever laid down on celluloid. I adore Anne of the Thousand Days because it only gave history a hand when the film demanded that the chess pieces be placed just so.
I did think Claire Foy made a good fist of Anne Boleyn in the TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall novels though she was forced to choose the mean, manipulative side of Anne’s character by Mantel and screen writer Peter Straughan.
Anne evidently had steel to keep the king dancing on a string for the best part of the 1520s and the early 1530s. But I felt Foy had to be too bitter and hard-faced when she had to display a modicum of charm after the birth of Elizabeth I to keep Henry’s attention throughout two more births be they stillborn male heirs.
Vanessa Redgrave and Charlotte Rampling were too witchy for my taste and, besides, they only played cameo roles in larger films about Henry VIII and Sir Thomas Moore respectively. Nathalie Portman showed a little more vulnerability but she still played Anne Boleyn as a jealous, social-climbing shrew. What I loved about Anne of the Thousand Days was setting up the love story between she and the future Duke of Northumberland Harry Percy that was thwarted by a lustful Henry VIII.
It is a tribute to Bujold’s performance as Anne Boleyn that nobody even attempted another movie portrayal of Anne Boleyn with she as the central character between 1969 when Anne of the Thousand Days was made and The Other Boleyn Girl starring Portman in 2008. I still can’t name an actress who could make as nuanced a portrayal of Anne Boleyn as Genevieve Bujold.
There is an amusing post-script to Anne of the Thousand Days. Richard Burton loathed the film and his performance in it though the Oscar probably assuaged his fears. He even loaned one of the costumes to Sid James to wear in Carry On Henry that was filmed on the abandoned sets at Pinewood studios.
Anne of the Thousand Days remains my favourite Sunday afternoon movie after a sumptuous lunch nursing the last glass of Malbec. I am with Genevieve Bujold from the first frame when we discover the youthful Anne on location at her childhood home Hever Castle preparing to meet her lover Harry Percy. She is pert, pretty and full of the life that Henry VIII would leech away from her.
I wonder whether Anne Boleyn pondered whether it was all worth it when she spent her last days in the Tower of London. I would like to think that her motivation was what she considered the true reformed religion. Without her we might still be a Catholic country.
For a woman to split the earth like an apple for the love of a King was nothing short of miraculous. In this respect alone, Anne Boleyn deserves our attention and our fascination. Until next time…