Charles Laughton won his Oscar from his first nomination for portraying King Henry VIII in The Private Life of Henry VIII.
Charles Laughton certainly has an advantage as Henry in that he looks the part perfectly, he is almost a dead ringer for the portrait of Henry VIII. Laughton certainly does not just use his likeness to suggest the larger than life presence that is Henry VIII. He just brings life to Henry as many actors have had a great deal of doing, such as say Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days, which interestingly ends where this film begins.
Charles Laughton has an incredible joy of performance which works perfectly for the part of Henry VIII. He makes Henry VIII love being Henry VIII which fits the part completely. Laughton shows that Henry loves having his power, the power do to basically whatever he wants, he makes no qualms about it, the sheer pomposity of the performance is just a joy to watch.
Laughton approach is terrific because he does not try to portray Henry as this cruel evil man, no instead, he just portrays him as a rather jovial fellow, who takes almost all situations with a certain ease, and dignity that only a King could have. Henry is really amoral jerk here, but boy does Laughton turn him into one likable amoral jerk.
Laughton manages to do this by showing the inherit humor behind this amorality of the character. Almost everything that Laughton does as Henry is a least a little funny in some way, and it still fits as a historical interpretation of Henry. He works out a comedic performance that naturally works with Henry as a character.
Laughton is able to find the irony through the character, with the character still being very firmly full of himself at the same time. Two stand out moments of this type I think is when he looks out the window waiting for his wife to be executed, the way he looks and taps the window, Laughton does it just like a little boy, also when he states how no one has any manners, well having absolutely none himself, Laughton perfectly nails the hypocritical tone that is perfect for Henry.
There are certainly plenty of these subtly humorous scenes, but there are as well just plainly funny scenes. Charles Laughton gives a delightfully funny performance as Henry able to combine the boyish attitude of the character perfectly with some more intelligent wit. I think his scene with Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) which is just a comedic gem in the way they fight like children over cards, but as well Laughton perfect reaction when she says storks are where babies come from.
This simply is an outstanding performance overall because Laughton creates an interesting portrait of Henry in the more dramatic aspects of his performance as well. Laughton portrays Henry's feeling to each wife differently, the fourth and the sixth of them very humorously with the scene with Anne Cleves as previously described, as well as his dead pan the best wife is the worst line for Katharine Parr which is very amusing.
In the more serious relationships though, Laughton first portrays his boredom with Boleyn, showing that Henry has simply had enough of her, and is eager to get past her for a son. With Jane Seymour Laughton portrays only a small pity for the wife, establishing that Henry only used her to get a son, and really had no more feelings for her.
Than with Catherine Howard Laughton suggests maybe a little love for her, and that is why his pain of her betrayal is greater. Laughton is brilliant in the development of the dynamic of each of these relationships becuase it is basically left for him to create this dynamic which Laughton accomplishes flawlessly.
Laughton gives an amazing performance here as Henry VIII, and shows exactly how one should portray as flamboyant monarch. Laughton is entertaining, funny, charming, likable, as well as subtle, and powerful. This is a brilliant performance from Laughton, and it fascinating how well he weaves the many aspects of his Henry VIII into one fully fledged, and memorable character.