THE LION IN WINTER —-watch Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn hurling venom at each other in this 1968 historical semi-fiction and you may wonder if James Goldman’s script, off his 1966 play, was not inspired so much by the success of 1964’s movie classic Becket, with O’Toole and Richard Burton, as from the 1962 play and 1966 film Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
True, Edward Albee’s ‘George & Martha’ were three sheets to the wind during their battle royale, and were still, despite college, mere commoners, whereas O’Toole’s ‘Henry II’ is King of bloody England, and Hepburn’s ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine’ his most un-passive Queen. As with ‘Woolf‘, cursed children figure, though here they’re alive, and there are three—all royal bastards (figurative), played with relish by Anthony Hopkins (film debut at 31), John Castle and Nigel Terry. With kids like these every holiday would be a headache.
There were power struggles between these historical personages. Henry did lock Eleanor away for sixteen years after she connived with the boys against him. Fact as basis, but the body of the tale is made up for dramatic fun, under direction by former editor (Dr. Strangelove) Anthony Harvey. By far the best and most successful of Harvey’s otherwise flat directorial career, it did snag him an Oscar nomination, one of seven for the production. It was shut out for Best Picture, Actor (O’Toole) and Costume Design, but won for Screenplay, John Barry’s aggressively thrusting score and Best Actress for Hepburn, her third (tying with new kid Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl).*
As it’s 98% talk, there is a surfeit lashing of smart, quotable, savagely funny dialogue. Everyone gets room to score, though I confess to wishing they’d cut down some of the shouting (O’Toole bellows lustily) and scheming (from everyone) just a bit; it gets a tad wearisome after a while, and goes nonstop harangue for 134 minutes. The acting and writing hold you, because, while interesting (much like poisonous spiders or snakes) none of the characters evoke much sympathy. Supporting actress Jane Merrow pales in comparison to the flamboyance of the others, coming off as somewhat bland.
Sets and art direction are properly messy; the castle interior looks like one actually would in 1183: cold, dirty, littered with straw and filled with mangy dogs.
Hepburn is splendid, fearlessly sans makeup at 61, a reminder of how shrewd she was as an actress, particularly of her age and period; when grande dames like Ginger Rogers or Joan Crawford troweled on paint and wigs to vainly suggest they were still 29, Hepburn had enough confidence and self-awareness to say “screw it-here I am”— and she looks even better for it. She could ‘play it big’ & theatrical and down-to-earth-raw simultaneously (can’t help but think of Cate Blanchett as her heir). A Queen of the Acting Art, indeed.
Brought in for a no-frills $4,000,000, it summoned $22,300,000, position #12 for 1968. With Timothy Dalton (debut, at 23), Nigel Stock and O.Z. Whitehead.
* The genre-loyal Academy got themselves twisted into a pretzel: Hollywood Legend Playing Royalty or New Judy Garlandish Sensation in a Musical?
- For the court record, Hepburn was a descendant of the Queen she played, both from Eleanor’s union with Henry and her previous marriage to Louis VII, King of France. Kate did put her own royal New England foot down on O’Toole and Hopkins for drinking all night and showing up on set hung over. O’Toole quipped “She is terrifying. It is sheer masochism working with her. She has been sent by some dark fate to nag and torment me.” Her reply: “Don’t be so silly. We are going to get on very well. You are Irish and you make me laugh. In any case, I am on to you and you to me.”