Robert Shaw received his only Oscar nomination for portraying King Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons.
Henry was previously portrayed by Charles Laughton, and later by Richard Burton who both were nominated in the lead category for their performances as the English King. Although Burton and Shaw both portray Henry at the same time in his life, when he took over the church to marry Anne Boleyn, his portrayal has more in common with Laughton's work than Burton's excessively over the top and sometimes unconvincing performance in Anne of the Thousand Days. Shaw like Laughton focuses on the sort of the spoiled brat personality one can develop over having been given anything he has ever wanted in life as well as being able to do anything he has ever wanted to do.
Unlike Laughton though Shaw is supporting and only has three scenes in which he appears one very very briefly from far away, but his second scene certainly is his most important. The moment comes as Henry unexpectedly comes to visit his new chancellor Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to see if More has changed his mind over Henry's decision to marry Anne Boleyn. Shaw knows how to portray Henry and from his first moment coming in through the shine of the sun you know that this man is King. Shaw has an undeniable presence on screen which he exploits perfectly as Henry. There is no question this man is charge his voice his broad manner, Shaw makes Henry a man of absolute sway.
Shaw has a childlike enthusiasm in the role which absolutely represents his portrayal of Henry. He is always childish which Shaw turns into a believable trait of Henry that suggests his history as always a man of wealth and power. Shaw always shows Henry always showing his power pretty much just for fun at times, of course he can act loud, even obnoxious whenever he wants. Shaw shows that Henry is always aware of the fact that he can act this way and no one can say anything about it. Shaw has a constant fun loving quality that is perfect for the immaturity in Henry. Interestingly though Shaw successfully always brings an undercurrent of threatening instability in Henry.
Shaw is terrific in his scene with Scofield as the two men talk over the pressing issue of the marriage and the troubles with church. Shaw is great as he constantly tries to stay friendly as Henry in the scene. He always has a certain smile and warmth toward Thomas that shows that they certainly are friends, but Shaw has just the right degree of uncertainty in his performance to show that Henry knows his friend might not be on his side for once. Shaw is particularly great when he goes on the attack, but it is fast and almost unexpected as his look goes from the of friendship to hatred just from the mentioning of the former chancellor who Henry feels betrayed him. It is a careful simple threat to Thomas which he darts in the middle of the conversation between the warmth, Shaw pulls this off flawlessly.
After this Shaw has one more scene at the wedding with he and Anne Boleyn. Again Shaw is superb in showing the lust in Henry's eyes he has for his eyes. There is passion, and an obvious expectations of much pleasure for himself in just this short moment, which Shaw pulls of brilliantly. Frankly Shaw shows more depth for this relationship with Anne in his single scene than Richard Burton did in the whole of Anne of the Thousand Days. At the end of the scene though he is interrupted as he thinks he sees Thomas. A short moment but an effective one showing that really Henry really did believe Thomas was a friend, and desperately wanted his friend to see things his way.
Shaw is truly quite great in this basically two scene performance. He completely realizes Henry VIII as a character in the film. In his two scenes he seizes control and shows the power of Henry creating the proper impact on the film he needs to. In his few moments he flawlessly creates the antagonist of the film who is almost always working his will off screen and through other men. I actually with there had been more of his Henry VIII. After watching his performance here I actually wish Shaw had gotten a film where he had been the lead as Henry VIII because of what he does with the character despite his extremely limited time. In any case this is a terrific supporting turn that more than fulfills his duties as King Henry.