Best Actor: Charles Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII)
Other Notable Performances: Warner Baxter (42nd Street), Lionel Barrymore (Dinner at Eight), James Cagney (Footlight Parade).
This one is a no-brainer. No other actor in 1933 matched the depth and complexity of Charles Laughton’s portrayal of King Henry VIII. When I chose this picture as the second best of 1933, Sam Juliano from Wonders in the Dark said that some people find Laughton’s performance “stilted and dated.” (A point, I should add, he rightly disagrees with.) I don’t see that at all. As I said in my review of the picture, Laughton was able to mold a complete character out of a figure in that has been demonized by history. He is a real person, supposedly wielding absolute power, but wholly constrained in his personal life by that power. Laughton’s Henry bulldozes his way through relationships, but when he loves he loves completely. We never feel he is entirely selfish or arrogant; there are redeeming qualities to Henry’s personality. Of course he is selfish and arrogant; after all, he is the king of England. But Laughton is able to temper those qualities with an overbearing conflict between his desire to be loved and his duty to the throne. We watch him use swagger and bluster to carve out some kind of happiness from a life that is by necessity designed to be lonely. Yes, he uses women, but what are his options? How else can he build a real relationship when the majority of people in his life see their relationship with him as a means to an end? According to the movie his true love Katherine Howard betrayed him, further disillusioning him about the limited possibility for him to be happy. Laughton plays Henry as a proud, but essentially amiable man prone to volatility. That he is able to balance these different aspects of the character easily makes this the best performance of 1933.
Next up: Best Female Performance of 1933.