Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter is a one of a kind movie epic—an intimate, histrionic portrait of a royal family of disloyal corkscrews in the age of 12th Century Plantagenet rule that’s heavily soaked in contemporary Psychosex 101 glee. On stage, James Goldman’s play is a rollicking feast of Benedict Arnolds—a sort of third rate Shakespeare gone berserk on modern idiom, a put-on, if not a put-down, of Lillian Hellman and Edward Albee in historical drag. We’re not required to believe a minute of it; we’re there to enjoy the foxy machinations and up-to-the-minute wise ass cracks. Coming at a time when the popularity of roadshows was in decline, the movie version played to win the lunatic game of epic movie making in a way that troubled some but was loved by many more. Throwing this mod squad of dysfunctional conspirators—Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, their sons Richard the Lionhearted, Geoffrey and John, Henry’s mistress Alais and her brother France’s King Philip—into the snakepit of Chinon at Xmas, 1183, director Harvey does prodigious balancing by giving us the rapacious shenanigans of the succession to Henry’s throne wrapped in “with it” bravura and converting factual history into a brawling pop marriage of love and death wish. The elements that support the Goldman script reek with lofty prestige—Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor, Peter O’Toole once more as Henry. And pomposity: John Barry’s score starts the roadshow work up right at the start with a blast of pseudo Latin as Greek tragedy. You wonder: lions or exorcism? After a short series of character introductions, we get what establishes the movie’s winking tone: Hepburn’s Eleanor arriving by boat to Chinon, accompanied by a chorus singing “Eleanora Regina.” Though entirely fitting for Hepburn, the weight of solemnity is so pretentious it becomes fart art. What’s remarkable is that history is valued: excluding the three daughters Eleanor bore for Henry, the facts presented as backstabbing intrigues are reasonably accurate and the gossipy rumors plausible. Still, we’re a little unnerved by the pop argot: we’re getting sex chat and neurotic prattle as foaming-at-the-mouth revelations that come out of the let-it-all-hang-out 60s. When Goldman started writing his play, he had in mind yet another tale of Robin Hood (eventually made into a shambles called Robin and Marian) but as he dug deeper into his research, he discovered that Henry and Eleanor, who had been regularly under house arrest by her husband for her plots against him, were examples of tragicomedy. As the play confirms, he tipped the scales to dramatic farce, which was no accident. Neither was it inadvertent that Harvey got away with as much as he did—equalizing Goldman’s excesses by not only plopping them in Barbara Tuchman-approved settings but also by having a cast verbalizing the raunch with gusto. When Hepburn goes to the max with “screwtinized”—or, hearing that O’Toole wants a divorce in order to have new male offspring, she brays “What kind of spindly, ricket-ridden, milky, wizened, dimmed-eyed, gamy-handed, limpy line of things will you beget?”—it’s all more than zest, it’s redemption. Hepburn isn’t an actress of range and depth; she is, as Dorothy Parker claimed, a trickster who can dupe audiences by using airs suggesting range and depth when parading out her A to B wiles and ruses. Some critics carped that Hepburn’s using our feelings for her as Eleanor, one of them describing it as “self-exploitation and it’s horrible.” (That reviewer’s at least 13 years too late with the scolding, because in Summertime, Hepburn’s overtly soliciting.) Granted, part of her ingratiation is a use of the audience’s affections for her; we’re willing to see her let her hair come down and reflect with caustic mournfulness her lost beauty and attractions. If this were strictly for herself then it would be whoring, but the remembrances of glories past are for temporarily defeated Eleanor. Something wonderful happens: we begin to think about her more than who that actress is. Confiding to beloved Richard the Lionhearted her early victories in the sack, Eleanor boasts that when she and Henry—with a “form like mortal sin”—first spotted each other, “We shattered the commandments on the spot.” That’s an admission Hepburn could never have gotten away with before this picture, because on the sex appeal meter, she’s zilch. But as Eleanor obsessed with lust-filled memories, the comportment is positively potent; her loins still carry the heated memories of conquests. (Eleanor’s sex life was not myth: her list of lovers could have included, as Goldman teases, Henry’s own father. Says O’Toole to Hepburn: “Still a democratic drawbridge—going down for everybody.”) O’Toole’s Henry is about a decade older than the version he played in 1964’s Becket. Though it’s the winterized costumes and not any additional meat on the bones, he looks thicker now, burlier, and he sounds more vigorous, gruff and stalwart. And if we never for a second think he could be married to Pamela Brown’s uptight, nasty Eleanor in Becket, he’s a marvel of a match against Hepburn. In both, O’Toole plays on the supposed betrayals of others: his performances are less history than portraits of kingly bluffs and weaknesses wrought from his formidable gift of emotions internalized. Anthony Hopkins’s Richard the Lionhearted is butchly gay—massacring his enemies as a means to strengthen his masculinity while having the nerve to call his own mother “Medea to the teeth”; Tony Dalton in severe Ming the Merciless beard is vainglorious as King Philip; Nigel Terry plays John with mocking semi-retardation, a wonderful slobbiness and a slobbermouthed honesty (he spits at Mommie, “You bag of bile!”); the near-Rubensesque Jane Merrow, looking like a very healthy Carrie Fisher as singer Lani Hall, is Alais (pronounced here as Alice); and John Castle portrays Geoffrey as a sneaky ambiguous schemer. (Historian Giraldus refuted hearsay that Henry’s beloved mistress Rosamond was Geof’s mother—claiming they were so near of age they could be sister and brother.) Approaching its 50th anniversary, The Lion in Winter still manages to blow away with cheeky nihilism the cobwebs of antique reverence that weave around the mythos of ménage and power to reaffirm its status as a classic blitz. Oscars to Hepburn as best actress, Barry for musical score, Goldman for screenplay. Filmed in Panavision.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.