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O'Toole, Burton in witty 'Becket' put 'big' in big screen

The Baltimore Sun

No movie around boasts richer peformances or wittier dialogue or a more turbulent and touching core relationship than the 1964 costume drama Becket - and you'll never see it in better circumstances than at the Senator Theatre, where a restored print opens today.

Starring Peter O'Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket, his rebellious Archbishop of Canterbury, this movie version of Jean Anouilh's play has always possessed as much vitality as marquee value. It was a popular success as well as a smash with the mainstream press. It netted $5 million in rentals ($37 million when you adjust for today's ticket prices) and grossed almost twice that, outearning surefire commercial fare like the Doris Day-Rock Hudson vehicle Send Me No Flowers (which netted a mere $4.1 million).

Garnering 12 Oscar nominations and one win, for Edward Anhalt's faithful expansion of Anouilh's text, it harks back to the time when an oldtime Hollywood producer like Hal B. Wallis (Casablanca!) wouldn't cede prestige-laden works to foreign or specialty companies. Wallis always said that O'Toole - fresh from Lawrence of Arabia - was his first choice for Henry, who elevates his virtuoso tactician and beloved crony Becket to archbishop, simply to have a friend in the church. And Burton was master casting for Becket, who begins to defend the church's integrity, courting and winning banishment, then martyrdom. Together, Burton and O'Toole turn their jousting into a dance of death - and life - and even after-life.

Becket drifted into neglect because it was the sort of film important reviewers took for granted and scholars rarely deemed worthy of research.

Although splendidly shot by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001: A Space Odyssey), it's built on solid writing and inspired acting, lacking the directorial panache of a David Lean spectacular or roguishness of an epic by John Huston. So the premier critics of its day granted it only grudging respect. The most appreciative of them, Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic, wrote, "Becket is an inevitably fascinating figure, this roistering chancellor who found in God the love he'd been seeking unsuccessfully in beds and bottles."

Acknowledging the juicy acting, he damned play and movie with faint praise: "Anouilh does not come near to encompassing the theme, but he is deft enough to make his version of it dramatically viable."

This film fell victim to prejudices for highbrow art such as T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and against "middlebrow entertainment." And that in-between realm was where craftsmen like Anouilh would pilfer tales from myth and history to heighten personal dramas and light up the issues of their day. "I am not a serious man," Anouilh confessed. "I wrote Becket by chance." But the integrity of Anouilh's showmanship and the glitter of his rhetoric gave the actors room to play and make this movie an enduring pleasure. Despite the 148-minute running time, the action is swift, the dialogue always terse and witty.

Anouilh's refusal to push dogma or philosophy still opens up dynamic ambiguities. You can argue over the antagonists' stands in a way that you can't during contemporary dramatic hits like A Few Good Men. Burton paints an admirable portrait of awakened soulfulness and destiny. But Becket's conflict with Henry reaches flashpoint when he excommunicates one of Henry's allies for killing a raping, murdering priest in flight from the king's justice. After decades of controversy over church protection of rogue clerics, contemporary audiences may value Becket's integrity over Henry's pragmatism and still believe that priests must face secular law.

Boldly ignoring history, Anouilh portrays Becket as a member of the conquered Saxon race, forced to "improvise" his honor from day to day in the service of his Norman King - until he finds "the honor of God." Actually, pace Kauffmann, the profligate Becket foreswore the very idea of love (or any higher cause) rather than locate it "in beds and bottles." Anouilh's "dramatic license approaches licentiousness," Kauff- mann aptly quipped, noting that Henry was superbly educated, not a Norman lout, and that Becket was 15 years his senior. But playing loose with facts allows Anouilh to concoct a booby-trapped friendship and then a charismatic debate between a Kierkegaardian hero, Becket, who comes to religion after a vast inner struggle, and a worldly hero, Henry, who sees Becket's disapproval of his wishes as a fatal betrayal.

O'Toole and Burton are so sublime, they demonstrate that actors can be a movie's true auteurs. What they do as Henry and Becket is more like a duet than a duel.

After Becket converts to religiosity, we get only one side of his dialogue with God. But when Burton is at his best (as he is here), he can, in the words of English critic John Coleman, "make every syllable an honest transaction between the audience and himself." He doesn't overdo the verbal pyrotechnics and he's rarely stolid: He gives the impression of energy held in check. When Becket carouses early on with Henry, Burton does wonderful things with an air of connoisseurship and a hollow laugh; at times he's like an outside observer of his own wastrel life.

O'Toole, on the other hand, lets everything hang out in prodigious display. He manages to convey what Henry never quite acknowledges in the script, even when his mother calls his bond to Becket "unnatural": that his character's attachment to Becket is, in part, homosexual. O'Toole's Henry, as his mother knows, is an unformed adult in the death-grip of a man-crush. His love for Becket is proprietary; he wants to possess all his buddy's traits, including his valor and virility. It's a shameful position for a monarch, but a splendid one for an actor. Hanif Kuerishi, who wrote O'Toole's most recent triumph, Venus, has noted that O'Toole's "streak of the feminine" only makes him more lyrical, dashing and attractive.

The scenes of Henry excoriating his wife (Pamela Brown) and mother (Martita Hunt) are double-edged-hilarious because he finds them hideous and grasping, and they think him pathetic. But O'Toole's Henry doesn't fear to appear ludicrous. He has the strength of a self-made king; only Becket touches his Achilles' heart. More than the assassins' swords of the climax, it's Henry's desperate cries of love for his ex-friend that cut you to the quick.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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