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Henry VIII and his court in 'The Tudors'

A couple of years back, while visiting England with two then 13-year-old nieces, I took them to see Hampton Court, where Henry VIII and other British rulers lived and frolicked. When I suggested that we view a special temporary exhibit on Henry VIII, one niece responded, “Some old guy king? I don’t think so.”

“He was married six times and had two of his wives beheaded,” I countered.

“That’s cool. Let’s go,” said the now eager niece.

The House of Tudor had won another fan.

After viewing the exhibit, they still wanted to know more so, in addition to recommending various books, I also started listing the many movies and TV series that have had Henry VIII front and center. Mindful that BBC America begins airing Season 3 of The Tudors, the soapy Showtime series that focuses on Henry (played with insinuating charm by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), his wives and his retinue, this coming Wednesday (Nov. 16), now seems like a fitting time share that list.

Henry, who ruled England from 1509 until his death at age 55 in 1547, is best remembered for his multiple marriages, prodigious appetite and intellectual prowess, as well as for transforming Britain from a Catholic country into a Protestant one, with the new Church of England headed by Henry himself.

In movies, depictions of Henry go back to the silent days. Few of these films have survived or proved memorable.

The first great modern day portrayal of Henry was by English actor Charles Laughton in the 1933 drama The Private Life of Henry VIII. The movie was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and Laughton won for Best Actor. His Henry was a lusty fellow, as fond of food as of women. The scene in which Laughton enthusiastically gnaws away at a giant hunk of meat remains an indelible screen image. Actresses playing his many spouses in the film included Merle Oberon, Wendy Barrie and Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s real life wife (though he was gay). The actor reprised the role of Henry VIII twenty years later in Young Bess, a biopic about Elizabeth I’s early years; it starred Jean Simmons as Henry’s younger daughter.

Other great British actors who’ve taken on the role on screen include Richard Burton in 1969’s Anne of the Thousand Days, which focused on Henry’s romance and marriage with second wife Anne Boleyn (played by French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold), which ended with her losing her noggin. Both Burton and Bujold received Oscar nominations for their portrayals.

Robert Shaw played Henry in 1966’s A Man for All Seasons, an Oscar-winning historical political drama that examined the monarch’s clashes with Sir Thomas More when the king was trying to shed his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and battling the Roman Catholic Church. Proving that playing Henry VIII is Oscar bait, Shaw too received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

More recently, Aussie hunk Eric Bana pulled on Henry’s hose in 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl. His was a vigorous and athletic monarch, a man as attractive to women as they were to him. The movie, in which Natalie Portman was miscast as a vixenish Anne Boleyn while Scarlett Johansson stretched as her wallflower sister (who also had an affair with Henry), failed to stir much interest at the box office despite being based on a bestselling historical novel by Philippa Gregory. (Jared Harris played Henry in a 2003 TV version based on the same book.)

There have also been multiple Henrys on the small screen as well, with Showtime’s The Tudors being the most recent and lengthiest example. This TV series, which began in 2007 and ran for four seasons, concentrated on sexual hijinks and political intrigue in the Tudor court. The Irish-born Rhys Meyers was twice nominated for Golden Globe awards for his smoldering portrayal of Henry.

Other TV Henrys have included Australian-born Keith Michell in a popular, six-part BBC miniseries, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which aired in the UK in 1970 and on PBS in 1971. The series was later reworked, with some cast changes (Charlotte Rampling joined to play the doomed Anne Boleyn), as a 1972 film called Henry VIII and His Six Wives. Michell played the Tudor monarch twice more, in Elizabeth R, a 1971 TV miniseries about his daughter, Queen Elizabeth (played by Glenda Jackson), and in a 1996 TV miniseries version of The Prince and the Pauper.

Burly British actor Ray Winstone brought swagger and steely guile to the role of Henry in Henry VIII, a two-part TV series that aired in England in 2003 and on PBS in 2004. In it, Helena Bonham Carter struck sparks as Anne Boleyn and Emily Blunt was Catherine Howard.  The script was by Peter Morgan, who would soon take on a more contemporary monarch when he wrote The Queen.


Who is your favorite Henry VIII?


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By Leah Rozen