On Genevieve Bujold as Anne Boleyn

Casting Genevieve Bujold was Hal Wallis’s smartest decision in making Anne of the Thousand Days, and he did so without benefit of a screen-test or even a personal interview, simply on the basis of viewing her in the French-Canadian film Isabel (1968, and directed by then-husband Paul Almond).

“The minute she appeared on the screen, Wallis wrote in his autobiography Starmaker, “I was riveted. I saw a tiny, seeming fragile woman made of steel—willful, passionate, intense. She was exactly the actress I wanted to play Anne.”

In 1964, when Wallis first acquired the rights to the play, The New York Times had announced that he was negotiating with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to play the roles of Anne and Henry. But unless Wallis is lying in his autobiography, he never actually considered Taylor for the role. He recalls a lunch he had with her in 1967, in which “Elizabeth hung on my every word. I was surprised by her attention, as there was no part in the picture for her. Over an elaborate desert she took a deep breath and said, ‘Hal, I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. I have to play Anne Boleyn!’ My fork stopped halfway to my mouth. Anne Boleyn? Elizabeth was plump and middle-aged; Anne was a slip of a girl. The fate of the picture hung in the balance. I could scarcely bring myself to look at Richard.” Burton, however, “handled it beautifully. He put his hand on hers, looked her directly in the eye, and said, ‘Sorry, luv. You’re too long in the tooth.’” Any hard feelings were handled by a huge fee for Burton ($1,250,000 plus) and cameos for Liz (as a masked dancer at a ball) as well as Burton’s daughter Kate, and Taylor’s daughter Liza.

But Bujold was cast not simply because she was slim and young. In an interview with me, she surprised me by crediting Wallis with the instincts and interpretation that culminated in her own memorable Anne. They led Wallis, first, to “see something” in a virtually unknown actress, and Bujold is convinced that what he saw—and it matches Wallis’s own account–was his already formed, and quite unconventional, idea of Anne as neither hapless victim nor scheming villainess, but Henry’s equal in spirit, intellect, and will. “He recognized something that was already a part of me,” she told me, and whatever was missing he then supplied, in the form of coaches to help her get the accent exactly right, and his own “great guidance.”

For Genevieve, to be picked to play Anne was a complete surprise. But her own history had prepared her well to play a young woman breaking through the confinements of convention. She had grown up in a devout French-Canadian Catholic household, and spent her first twelve school years in a convent; in an online biography, she is quoted as saying that at the time she felt “as if I were in a long, dark tunnel, trying to convince myself that if I could ever get out, there was light ahead.” But something about her deep religious training made its way into her attitude toward acting. When asked in 2007 how she prepared for her roles, she answered, “You pray for grace. If you’ve done your homework and, most of all, are open to receive, you go forward…Preparation for me is sacred.” But going forward with her own life required rebellion, as well; she finally “got out’ of the tunnel by being caught reading a forbidden book. Liberated to pursue her own designs for her life, she enrolled in Montreal’s free Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique; while on tour in Paris with the company, she was discovered by director Alain Resnais, who cast her in the acclaimed La Guerre est Finie.

When Wallis called, she had already been in several well-received films, but, as she told me, “was still something of an unwritten page. At the time I was married to Paul Almond, living in the East end of Montreal, and enjoying my life. But I definitely had ambition. When that call came I was shocked. Pleasantly so, of course.” But playing Anne, she found, “felt extremely natural to me,” in no small part because Wallis encouraged all those qualities that he had seen in Genevieve that already matched his picture of Anne. “You can’t put something into a character,” she said, “that you haven’t got within you. Every little thing in life is fed into the character…A word, a thought. I had read something on Anne Boleyn that Hal gave me and I could look at her with joy and energy; Anne brought a smile to my face.” I asked her what elicited that smile. “Independence. A healthy sense of justice. And she knew herself and was well with herself. She obviously had such profound integrity in that respect. She was willing to lose her head to go to the end of her movement.”

“Going to the end of ones movement” is an acting (and dance) metaphor—don’t short-circuit the emotion, the bodily expression, the commitments of the personality you are playing, allow them to fully unfold—that has deep meaning for Genevieve. She had learned its importance years before, from Resnais. “Always go to the end of your movement, he told me. And that, still, is in me, will always be with me.” That’s what we see in her portrayal of Anne, especially in that final speech, and it’s why “My Elizabeth shall be queen! And my blood will have been well spent!!” is rousing rather than hokey. Even at a recent festival of Burton’s films, held by the British Film Institute, “the audience made it quite clear with whom their sympathy lies. In the Tower scene they called out “Go, Anne, go, you tell him!”

Anne of the Thousand Days was my first introduction, since the boring, sexless Tudor history I’d read in high school, to the story of Henry and Anne. I had no idea what was invented and what was historically documented, but it made no difference. I loved fiery, rebellious Anne. I loved the way she bossed Richard Burton’s Henry around like a surly, 20th-century teenager. I loved the fact that Genevieve Bujold’s hair was messy as she delivered that speech to Henry, loved her intensity, loved her less-than-perfectly symmetrical beauty, loved the fact that someone that small could pack such a wallop. Even today, viewers feel much the same way—including Bujold’s own grandaughter, who saw the movie in 2007 and, in Genevieve’s words, was “riveted.” Unlike me when I first saw the movie, today’s viewers have had several other Annes to compare. Still, many of them—both male and female–cast their vote for Bujold: “Everything I imagine Anne really was”; “How I always picture Anne—as a strong woman not a sniveling girl”; “The gold standard of Annes”; “When I imagine Anne, it is her that I see”; “The definitive Anne Boleyn for me”; “Pitch-perfect”; “So powerful that she turned a big, touch guy like myself into a wimpering fool”; “A remarkable actress. I will never forget the scene where she and Henry go riding from Hever…Purely from her body language, she radiates suppressed hatred towards Henry—just by sitting on a horse! And who can forget her in the blue gown, with jewels in her hair, looking devastatingly beautiful and in total command of herself and the situation.”

Most movies of the late nine-sixties have not worn exceptionally well, particularly with today’s generation of viewers, for whom many of the rebellions of the times seem dated and silly. My students snoozed through Easy Rider. With Anne of the Thousand Days, the passing years and changing culture have had the opposite effect; my students adored it. “Maybe it was predictable and almost too beautiful for the time period,” writes one contemporary blogger, “but the heart of the film is the way in which the complex historical figures are portrayed in a human way. More historically accurate than most films of its kind, Anne of the Thousand Days gave audiences a view into the turbulent world of England on the eve of its reformation as well as a hint at the greatness that was to come from the union of of Henry and Anne.” A view into a period of English history, yes. But most of all, an Anne that seems to become “truer” as the generations have become less patient with passive heroines and perhaps a bit tired by the cutesy, man-focused femininity of many current female stars.

Before I said good-by to Genevieve in our interview, I asked her who she would pick to play Anne today. She admitted that she hadn’t seen either Natalie Portman or Natalie Dormer; she lives fairly reclusive life in Malibu, and rarely sees movies or watches television. “But is there anyone who you think would do the part justice?” She was silent for awhile, then asked me if she could be honest. Of course, I said. “Maybe it’s selfish, but…the way I feel….” Genevieve had been so warm and generous throughout the interview, praising all her mentors and influences in her life, she was clearly a bit uncomfortable with what she wanted to say. So, I pressed a bit more, and she responded, with an intensity that recalled her performance and made me smile with delight.

“No-one,” Genevieve replied, “Anne is mine.”