It was the night of April 14th, 1969. The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was packed with stars for the 41st Academy Awards. When it came time to award the Oscar for Best Actress, presenter Ingrid Bergman stuttered with shock as she announced that two women had tied. Her surprise was understandable; there had been no tie in the acting branch for over thirty years. Barbra Streisand, only 26 years old, tripped over her sparkling sailor suit as she approached the podium to accept her Oscar for Funny Girl. Katharine Hepburn was characteristically absent for her historic third win, so the director of The Lion In Winter accepted on her behalf. This joint win was more than just a peculiar footnote in Oscar history. This was a rare case of the Academy getting it exactly right twice with one award.
As has been extensively documented here at The Film Experience, the Academy is often maddeningly predictable in its awards-giving. However, at its best an Oscar can be a celebration of an explosive newcomer on the cusp of an incredible career (e.g. Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind) or a salute to a seasoned veteran for a risky performance at her artistic peak (e.g. Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire). In 1969, both happened: Katharine Hepburn won for the second time in a row for a virtuosic, against-type performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter, and Barbra Streisand won for her instantly-iconic turn as Fanny Brice in her very first film, Funny Girl. While these two women can share that Oscar win, they certainly cannot be confined together to a single blog post. If you'll forgive my fangirl squeals of excitement, I'll start with Hepburn.
Like many of TFE's favorite actresses, Hepburn took bigger artistic risks as she got older. The meat of her career at MGM was spent playing variations on her first comeback role, Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story. Tracy Lord (who became Amanda Bonner, Rose Sayer, and Lizzie Curry) was an iron-willed, independent, and intelligent woman. But the restraint that defined the Hepburn persona was nowhere to be seen in her downright decadent performance as the acid-tongued Queen Eleanor in The Lion in Winter.
Could you imagine Tracy Lord delivering a line like this?
The Lion In Winter takes place over one Christmas as Henry II of England (the unforgettable Peter O'Toole, illogically forgotten by the Academy) meets with the King of France and deliberates over which of his three sons will be his heir. Eleanor is Henry's wife, Queen of England and former Queen of France. She should be the most powerful woman in the world, but she has been locked in a tower for waging too many civil wars against him. Eleanor traveled the world, rode barebreasted halfway to Damascus, and bore the king several princes, but now has only her plots to keep her company. To borrow another quote from The Lion In Winter, Eleanor is "Medea to the teeth;" sometimes passionate, sometimes pitiable, always dangerous.
Katharine Hepburn later admitted that Spencer Tracy's death the year before heavily influenced her performance. The raw pain and loss she felt bleeds through the cracks in Eleanor's facade, aided by Jame Goldman's stirring script. As Eleanor, Hepburn bellows and rages at her sons with Lear-like fury. She whips herself into a mania she's never before unleashed onscreen. More powerful still are the moments of quiet cruelty. Hepburn uses words like scalpels. Take for instance this exchange between Eleanor and Henry as the night drags on and tempers wear thin:
[Eleanor of Aquitaine gets bonus points for being insanely quotable. Hardly a week goes by where I don't threaten to peel someone like a pear or growl that I am not moved to tears. Watch the film if you're ever in need of some quality insults.]
It's an operatic performance and the highlight of Hepburn's later career. The Lion In Winter was the pinnacle of a series of riskier roles that Hepburn took on in the 1960s. During this prolific streak, she'd play incestuous mothers and drug addicts, madwomen and wailing widows. But she'd never be messier, madder, or more magnificent than she was as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
I haven't forgotten Babs! To Be Continued in PART TWO!