Orson Welles did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in A Man For All Seasons.
Wolsey was not just a yes man and was as chancellor of England whose power was only second to the King's. Why or how he got to this position as portrayed by Quayle is a complete mystery, but Welles makes it known in his one major scene. Welles has the impressive power of personality needed for a figure of Wolsey's status. He is just doing the King's work yet Welles brings the right subtle knowing in his performance. Wolsey is more than a yes man in Welles's performance as he tries to convince Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to go along with the King's whim Welles makes Wolsey a master of the double talk and within the talk Welles shows that Wolsey is wholly aware of the farce but will do his duty as the servant to the King as he should.
Welles in his single scene shows Wolsey to be a cunning man and in doing so suggests how he came to be a man of such great power. With Welles, which was so lacking in Quayle's performance, there is the power of personality needed for a man of Wolsey's status. Although obviously the film never gets into much of Wolsey's path or his rise to power Welles's is able to suggest the history of the man even though we never do see it. There is clearly far more to his Wolsey we don't see with Welles unlike Quayle who made Wolsey a very shallow and uninteresting figure. Welles's brief final moments of a depressed and dying Wolsey are quite effective showing the end of a much longer journey than we are privy to.
Orson Welles's does not give an all time great performance as Wolsey but it is a terrific example of what a great actor can do with a limited role. Cardinal Wolsey in the scheme of A Man For All Seasons really is not that important and very well could have been played in a forgettable fashion. The film would not have suffered much from it, but Welles bringing as much devotion to the part makes it a better more interesting film as whole. Welles in his three scenes, two of which are extremely short, gives a performance that would have been worthy of a leading turn as Wolsey. The historical Wolsey was clearly a very complicated man and Welles gives a performance that brings the depth needed to bring Wolsey to life.
Hurt takes an interesting approach as Rich who he plays as a pathetic man but a pathetic man who does not want to be one. Hurt's earnestness in the role is absolutely genuine and technically there doesn't seem to be anything evil about his pleads. Hurt is quite good because although it is obvious in his performance that Rich wants a quick way for advancement without really doing much of anything for it, he portrays it very honestly though in terms of the emotions of it. Hurt's shows the wishes of Rich although selfish and rather lazy in nature there isn't anything intentionally malicious in his behavior. Hurt portrays Rich as a man who does want to do some sort of right for More, and wants More to do see him as a man can do right even if Rich doesn't really know what that means.
There is one terrific scene with Hurt as the film progresses as Rich is still hanging around More, but has been tempted to be an informant by Cromwell. It is basically their falling out point where Richard tries one last time for More to give him a position while he threatens More he will start working for Cromwell otherwise. The way the More family actually talks about Rich after he leaves suggests Rich perhaps was meant to be more villainous at least in conception. The way Hurt plays it though makes for a much more powerful scene. In the scene Hurt is incredible in the desperation he expresses as Rich asks one more time. He is making a threat at the same time but only a weak pathetic one and Hurt is actually quite moving showing that what Rich would want most is not to go down the wrong path and have More's approval.
After that point Rich becomes Cromwell man although Hurt doesn't have that many lines he is great in portraying Rich's slow turn to becoming morally reprehensible. At first Hurt shows well the hesitations Richard feels to fully go over to Cromwell's way of thinking and completely forget his past with More. As time passes though Hurt portrays Rich as rather not having to bear witness to More anymore and there is one moment that is especially chilling by how much Hurt earns the change in heart which is when it is Rich who actually suggests to Cromwell that they torture More to get the confession they desire out of him. Hurt's movement from a man who could possibly be redeemed to the weasel informant who is close to being morally bankrupt.
John Hurt's very best scene though comes in Thomas More's trial and he is called in to be the man to give the evidenced needed to make it so More will be executed. Hurt is brilliant in the scene starting out with such pompousness as Rich has found himself in an even greater position because of his testimony. Hurt has Rich start out in his immoral way barely noticing More as he starts but as he gets the the point in which his testimony will condemn More he changes in his manner. Hurt conveys the feelings of respect in More, although repressed, are haunting him as he tries to finish his testimony which will sign Thomas's death warrant. Hurt shows Rich's faces the implications of the deed in his mind and Hurt is outstanding as he portrays Rich struggling hard to keep his face as an enemy of More.
A Man For All Seasons has many strong supporting turns from its illustrious cast but my favorite performance belongs to John Hurt in only his third appearance in a feature film. Where Orson Welles made the most of his role despite the extreme limitations put upon him due to his screen time, Hurt takes an approach to the role that gives a strong motivation to Richard Rich's betrayal and even allows a certain sympathy by showing the humanity in his treachery. Rich could have easily been portrayed just a one note whelp who seemed to be a bad man from the start. John Hurt instead shows the transformation of a man who could potentially be decent man to a pitiful informer. He gives a far more interesting portrait of a man's corruption by showing the failed attempt to resist it.