“There are times I almost think I am not sure of what I absolutely know,” sings King Mongkut of Siam, played by Yul Brynner, in the 1956 film musical The King and I. The King is watching his cherished, ancient traditions slip away, as English schoolteacher Anna Leonowens (Deborah Kerr) begins to sow the seeds of change among his wives and children. The King and I is certainly a product of the 1950s (it’s often been criticized for glorifying colonialism and exoticizing Eastern cultures), but the King’s sentiment is timeless — as are the film’s sumptuous visuals, Roger and Hammerstein’s instantly memorable songs, and Brynner’s iconic performance. Now, in celebration of its 60th anniversary, The King and I is dancing back into theaters. Audiences who missed Sunday’s screenings can still catch the film on Wednesday, part of Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Big Screen Classics Series. (Go to FathomEvents.com for tickets.) And if you’re wondering whether the film is worth seeing on the big screen, just ask Victoria Brynner.
Victoria, the daughter of the late Yul Brynner, tells Yahoo Movies she was blown away the first time she saw the restored film in theaters — which, surprisingly, was just a few years ago. “I had really never seen it on the big screen because we screened it at home,” Victoria, who was born in 1962, tells Yahoo Movies. “So I have these memories of my first time seeing it, sitting on my dad’s lap, when I was maybe five or six.”
Watch a trailer for the Fathom Events screening of ‘The King and I’ on Aug. 31:
The daughter of Brynner and Chilean model Doris Kleiner, Victoria had a uniquely glamorous childhood: Her godmother was Elizabeth Taylor, her mother’s best friend was Audrey Hepburn, and her father ran with a crowd that included Jean Cocteau and Pablo Picasso. Now the founder and president of Stardust Brands, a management group that makes connections between luxury brands and creative talent, Victoria continues to travel in star-studded circles. But of all her experiences, The King and I holds a special place in Victoria’s heart. “I could never get over the end of it. I was always sobbing,” she says, referencing the King’s heartbreaking final scene. “And then when he did it on Broadway, and he did it in London in the theater, I spent a lot of time seeing it over and over again… So I know every word, every lyric!”
Many of Victoria’s memories of her father center on the role of the King, which he played throughout his life: He won a Tony for originating the role on Broadway in 1951, then an Oscar for the 1956 film adaptation. A spate of other memorable film roles followed— the pharaoh in The Ten Commandments, a heroic gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven — but when Brynner began to age of out of his leading-man phase, he returned to the part that made him a star. After playing Mongkut in a short-lived 1972 CBS sitcom called Anna and the King (“It was a big success in Europe,” says Victoria), Brynner revived the role on Broadway in 1977 and won a second Tony. That was followed by a national tour; in total, he played the role over 4,000 times and continued until just a few months before his death from lung cancer in 1985.
“He was incredibly proud of the fact that he got an Academy Award, and it was a significant film in his life. The timing of it coming back to Broadway, and the fact that this very familiar character came back in his life — I think he really enjoyed it,” says Victoria. “[The revival] gave him such incredible success, and also a whole new audience, because the people who had seen it in the ’50s on Broadway, and who had loved the film, then brought their kids. And I’m hoping that’s a little bit of what’s going to happen with these screenings of the film, that it just exposes it to a whole other generation.”
In fact, Brynner’s legacy is alive and well onscreen; in addition to the brief revival of The King and I, two remakes of films he starred in — The Magnificent Seven and Westworld — will premiere this fall, as a feature film and an HBO series, respectively. “It seems to me like The Magnificent Seven is going to be fun,” Victoria says of the Antoine Fuqua-directed Western, in which Denzel Washington plays a character similar to the one Brynner originated in 1960. “I had the opportunity to speak to one of the producers on it. I think it’s very different, I think it’s current, I think it’s for today’s audiences … And Westworld was such an iconic ’70s film.”
Were Brynner around to witness this revival of his best-known roles, Victoria believes her father would be surprised, and probably flattered. “I mean, the actor’s ego, I don’t know,” she says with a laugh. “But I think he would like it!”
The photos are from ‘Yul Brynner: A Photographic Journey,’ a collection of his photography edited by Victoria Brynner. To see more, along with Victoria’s own photographs, visit her Instagram.