ESSENTIAL TELEMOVIES: The Woman He Loved (1988)

Technically, “The Woman He Loved” is not a miniseries by my definition because it was a one-night movie that only ran about two hours with commercials (100 minutes, but different VHS and DVD versions have different cuts).  But, because Jane Seymour is the defining actress of the genre being discussed, taking a detour to watch her prove again why she is the Queen of TV is allowed.  Plus, this is a plum role: The Duchess of Windsor.  Though “Edward and Mrs. Simpson” is hands-down the best televised version of this oft-filmed story, it was made specifically for the UK, so this is the closest we have to an American miniseries–okay, okay, it’s a joint US-UK production–in this period about the ultimate 20th Century love affair (well, for everyone except the Duke and Duchess).  All of the elements are here: great stars, has-been guest stars, a romance story, glamour and tears. 

Now, let’s be honest, Jane Seymour is way too ravishing a beauty to look anything like the Duchess of Windsor, who had style and flair, but not looks.  To be fair to the Duchess, the movie starts in 1972, with Edward having just died and Wallis Simpson now a widow, which means Jane in heavy make-up.  The opening scene is brief, but in giving us the intro to Jane as Wallis, it’s much easier to quickly dart back to the past where Jane is just marrying Ernest Simpson (Tom Wilkerson). 

Upon leaving the ceremony, their car is held up by the Prince of Wales driving through town, and Wallis leans far out the window to catch a glimpse of him.  Ernest isn’t such a bad catch for Wallis, born in Baltimore and already once divorced, as he is wealthy and doting.  Social climber that she is, Wallis announces her new home is “perfect for parties,” though Ernest is a more sedate type. 

At one of those parties, Wallis finds out that one of her guests is the current mistress of the Prince of Wales.  Wallis pretends she doesn’t get the fuss over the royals, but her guests get all patriotic about them. 

Wallis again sees The Prince of Wales (Anthony Andrews, so ideal in one of the UK’s best miniseries, “Brideshead Revisited”) at a military function but then puts her foot in her mouth sounding like a very obnoxious American talking about British manners.  Before she can get into too much trouble, Wallis has to return to the US at the behest Aunt Bessie (Olivia de Havilland, in her last film role to date, and having a grand time).  Wallis’ mother Alice (Julie Harris, one of the only actresses capable of doing a scene against Jane Seymour and come out winning) is dying.  Alice is a feisty Southern woman who finds Wallis’ new husband “strange,” but is also quite loving and touching when discussing how to deal with loneliness.  “It educates us to think,” she says of that horrible feeling.  With that interesting piece of advice, it’s goodbye to Julie Harris, who nabbed an Emmy nomination for her two minutes of screen time.

Back in London, Wallis and Ernest are invited to a weekend in the country with the Prince.  At first, Wallis is worried about it, but that seems only on the surface as Jane’s cunning performance has the undertone of a woman completely in control at all times.  The party gets off to a bad start because the Prince doesn’t arrive.  This gives Wallis time to tell Ernest how much of a hero was to her in her youth, a favorite diary entry and even the name of her guinea pig! 

Returning to 1972, Wallis is ruminating on her dead David (as he was called).  “They broke his heart,” she says, referring to the way the royals treated them both, particularly the Queen.  She gets more loving talking about how he died in her arms, but then returns to sarcasm to ask her friend if she remembers her proper bowing, “as you will need it where we’re going). 

That night in the country, Wallis and Ernest wait up for the Prince to arrive with his paramour Thelma (Lucy Gutteridge).  One thing we immediately find out is that Edward is a crushing bore.  Oh, he can talk about hunting just fine, but it’s dreary.  It’s Ernest who points out how good looking he is, but Wallis has clearly already noticed that, raising her eyebrows in such a way as to hint that she already has a plan.  Indeed she does, making sure to turn up just when Edward is about to pass by along, playing the dewy ingenue who wants to take a walk alone in the rain, something of course she knows Edward will volunteer to share with her. 

Wallis makes Edward laugh, which he admires greatly, and her act of adjusting to whatever the Prince thinks works like a charm on dimwitted Edward. 

Jane works the older Wallis-in-mourning expertly, playing a slightly frail old lady (she had another 14 years in her) who is to stay at Buckingham Palace after years of being ignored.

Back in the 30s, Thelma has to return to the US to testify in the case regarding Gloria Vanderbilt’s custody (Lucy Gutteridge played the sister of this current character in “Little Gloria Happy At Last”) and asks Wallis to watch over Edward.  Even Ernest notices how well she does her job.  And what a job it is, because once again, Edward, whom Wallis now suddenly calls David, is the personification of a sleeping draught.  Wallis, all wide-eyed, tells him that nothing he says is boring. 

He’s smitten, showing up at Wallis and Ernest’s house whenever he wants, and Ernest is smart enough to know when to leave the room.  Edward isn’t there for him.  Edward admits he is smitten, actually dropping his veneer of propriety to quietly say “I love you.” 

Thelma is furious and shows up at Wallis’ flat, but the twist is that Thelma thinks Edward has given up on her because of her brief affair with the Ali Khan.  Even less bright than Edward, Thelma invites Wallis and Ernest to come to the country with her and Edward to “help her cause.”  Watching Wallis in action that weekend (and Jane at her most sweetly devious), obviously has the Prince so wrapped around her soon-to-be-diamond-encrusted finger that even the light bulb above Thelma’s head goes off. 

At a dreary party, Wallis stares all wide-eyed at him and then thanks him for the overwhelming jewelry he’s given her.  “It’s just the beginning,” he says.  Wallis races home to tell Ernest they have been invited for another weekend with him, and Wallis stares ahead and feels she’s “behind the looking glass.”  “Wallis in Wonderland,” Ernest quips.  He has a meeting in New York and can’t attend, but Wallis knew that and refuses to miss the weekend just because of Ernest, who knows by now he’s lost.  “Come on Mr. Lou.  Seems you and I are in the same bed,” he says to the dog as he takes him out of the bedroom. 

Along for the seagoing merriment is Aunt Bessie, who wants to have a heart-to-heart with Wallis.  As she starts, Edward starts with the bagpipes.  “Does he take them everywhere?” she dryly asks.  Aunt Bessie tries to warn Wallis about “the dangerous waters” she’s gotten herself into.  The poor dear is concerned about the gossip, pulling out a newspaper clipping from home where Ernest is quoted as saying, “I’m sorry I’ve but one wife to give for my king.”  Aunt Bessie tells Wallis to go on shore with a parasol, but is told she’s old-fashioned.  Edward agrees with Aunt Bessie, making him officially the most boring man to ever enter into an infamous love affair.  Olivia de Havilland gives the camera exactly what she always did, those big concerned eyes and sweet protestations. 

We’re now well into the movie and Edward brings up the problem of their love and his being king.  “David, what are we going to do?” Wallis asks with actual concern  Timing is everything, so wouldn’t you know that the Queen sends Edward a note to rush back home as the King is ill. 

In the next scene, Wallis is having dinner with friends and gets a call from her beloved.  “Excuse me, darlings,” she says.  She’s officially become the social climbing snob she abhorred before she met the Prince, because it was that specific affectation she said she hated in an early scene.  Our Wallis is ready, and it’s a good thing too because she had to excuse herself to take the phone call that the King is dead. 

King Edward decides to watch his own Proclamation Ceremony “with my beloved,” despite a gaggle of other people in the room.  The new king can only think about Wallis on this most important of days.  In a sweet moment, they reach for each other’s hands.  Maybe she is in love after all. 

Ernest knows when he’s licked, but the problems for her other lover are just beginning.  At an official soiree, the women gossip mercilessly, the Prime Minister ignores her and even Charles Lindberg is pissy (thankfully, we leave out all pro-Nazi talk among these supposed sympathizers).  Edward proposes to Wallis at this party, in the most un-romantic of ways, but he just needs to figure out a way to remain king and marry her.  Edward tells the PM in no uncertain terms that he will marry Wallis.  The PM ain’t happy.  Edward’s next problem is Ernest.  Though he’s willing to give his wife a divorce, Ernest tries to reason with him that it’s impractical, but when the king says the throne comes second to Wallis, Ernest realizes how true this has become.  Edward then goes to Churchill (Robert Hardy, of course, because he always played Churchill), who is the most practical of all.  The divorce proceedings have to follow the law, so poor Ernest is made to be the adulterer so she can get off with reputation intact…for now.  “Down with the American whore,” a woman shouts at Wallis as she escapes into a car after court. 

“Love is for grocers, Sir, not for kings.  Should not your country come first?” the Prime Minister says nastily to his king.  Edward does not care.  He wants Wallis.  He says it frankly, that if he cannot be married, he will abdicate.  Wallis is listening at the door and goes to tell Aunt Bessie what happened.  Aunt Bessie is brutally honest with Wallis.  “You always have a plan,” she tartly oozes when Wallis says she loves David as he is and has no desire to be Queen.  Aunt Bessie doesn’t buy a word of it.  “Do you love David the man or David the king?”  “Both,” Wallis says.  Edward proposes a morganatic marriage, which means he can remain king, but she won’t be queen and their kids won’t inherit the throne (no offense, but I think they are way beyond worrying about kids).  But, in order to make this work, Parliament has to approve it, which is another issue.

You think the Prime Minister is gruff?  Try the Queen Mother (Phyllis Calvert), who tells him he has to give her up, to make sacrifices, since his duty is to the people.  Edward seems to think his made-up mind is proof of his strength, but why is it every scene is Edward asking someone else what to do?  Mom, Aunt Bessie, the Prime Minister, Churchill, a cockney flower seller outside Covent Garden (oh, wait, that’s a different story).

Parliament says no to the morganatic marriage and Edward gets even angrier, since he is expected to give up love, something no one else is ever asked to give up.  Even Wallis tells him not to give up the throne.  She would be happy to be his mistress in secret, but the press won’t have that.  Tears streaming down her pretty face, Wallis offers to leave the country, urging him not to give up the throne, but his mind is made up. 

Leave it to our slumming vet to deliver the movie’s best line.  Wallis apologizes to Aunt Bessie for putting her through this hell, and Aunt Bessie says, “there are always blessings in these things.”  “Like what?” Wallis asks.  Raising an eyebrow and taking a pause that shows years of experience, she gently coos, “you put Baltimore on the map.”  Bang! Olivia de Havilland has just stolen another movie!

Hated by a nation, Wallis is besieged by the press and is cracking under the pressure.  She begs Edward not to go through with his plans, to go through with the coronation and then worry about the rest later.  She threatens to leave the country, but he threatens to follow her.  He’s also already started the abdication process and will be leaving England that day, so it’s too late.

Then Prince Edward gives his famous radio address from Windsor Castle.  He informs the nation that he has abdicated in favor of his brother.  The Rogue’s Gallery of cast members all listen (Mom, the PM, Churchill, Aunt Bessie, Ernest, even Thelma).  The speech is notable for its sincerity, but also for the fact that he never mentions Wallis’ name.  “The other person” is as close as he gets.  Jane Seymour plays this scene magnificently.  All she has to do is listen, but it’s not just sadness she feels.  Worry is etched on her face.  He’s given up the life he was groomed for, for her and now they are tied to each other forever, no matter what.  If she wasn’t really in love with him, she has to put on quite a show for the rest of their lifetimes or fall in love quickly.  History disagrees on which course she really took.

The pair is finally married in 1937 in France.  Edward instructs the priest to inscribe her prayer book to “Her Royal Highness, because that’s what she’ll always be to me.”  He’s sincere.  But, then comes a really creepy moment.  Exiting the church, they talk about possibly walking instead of driving, but it’s going to rain.  “I thought you liked walking in the rain,” Edward innocently reminds her.  “I was lying,” says a woman who has schemed to perfection.  But, movies cannot end on such a potentially nasty note.  Wallis calls Aunt Bessie over to the car and purrs, “it’s David the man.” 

Back in 1972, Wallis kisses the coffin in front of the whole world and then walks out of the chapel alone, a lovely image, but one that is not historically accurate, of course.

It’s interesting to note here how much the movie, based on a book written soon after Edward’s death, seems to hint that Wallis was merely a social-climber who bagged the ultimate prize.  This is not a romanticized version of the story, though if you take out a few lines here or there, it could be.  It’s actually quite cagey in how it presents its denunciation.  Well, cagey and lucky, because its trump card is Jane Seymour, such a pro that she manages to play both gooey love and steely determination at the same time.  We’re left not really knowing the truth because her performance is grand enough to give us two points of view.  See, no one does it better!

Categories: Essential Telemovies

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