The King’s Screen: Henry VIII

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Charles Laughton feasts on Wendy Barrie in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’

No one ever has or ever will match the hedonism of Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), especially in the classic scene where he lustily bites into chicken legs and tosses them on the floor with babyish insouciance. This is still one of the most detailed pieces of acting of all time; in every scene of the episodic film, Laughton reveals a new side of Henry, from the sexual tyrant to the disappointed lover to the hen-pecked, exquisite old man, stealing his pleasures on the sly. Watching Laughton here is enough to restore anyone’s faith in the staying power of dirty, merry olde England.

Richard Burton turned in a pedestrian performance as Henry in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), yet scored an Oscar nomination anyway. And it’s unlikely that Jonathan Rhys Meyers will ever win an award for his portrayal of the monarch on The Tudors, the bodice-ripping Showtime series. But his seemingly coke-addled Henry is definitely a guilty pleasure for those who know it’s good to be the king.

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