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Wednesday
Oct232013

Kate, Barbra, and Oscar Part 1: The Queen

As a bit of context for the impending Supporting Smackdown (get your votes in), we'll be celebrating 1968 daily at Noon for the rest of the month. Here's Anne Marie on a favorite Oscar moment.

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!

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Reader Comments (27)

Couldn't agree more. One of the all time great Actress wins, and I'm happy with the second win for Babs too. I always thought this was Peter O'Toole's best performance as well. Every one of their battles is brilliant.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I know it's an unpopular opinion, but Hepburn should have won this alone. She just wipes the floor with Streisand.

And it's the best O'Toole performance EVER. Incredible.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

this is one of my favorite movies and i'm so happy other people have found it and enjoy it. Her performance is truly wonderful. But everthiing about the movie is great. The first time I watched it, I was only focused on Kate. 2nd time I was blown away by Peter O'Toole ( He was like 20 years too young for the part but you wouldn't know that watching the movie!) 3rd time I just absorbed the great lines and screenplay. There is so much in this movie to love!

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentertom

"This was a rare case of the Academy getting it exactly right twice in one award."
All I can say that is... you got it wrong :P. The only woman who should have shared the Oscar with Hepburn was not even nominated. Streisand, as charming as she is in Funny Girl, is no match to Hepburn and Mia Farrow.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAgent69

I always feel bad for the other nominees in a tie. You can't even mutter "I was probably second" in these situations. Though considering the other other nominees were Joanne Woodward, Vanessa Redgrave, and Patricia Neal, it's not like any of them went without a lot of attention from AMPAS-one of those rare years where everyone ended up a winner eventually.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Katharine Hepburn is probably my favorite actress ever so I can't really quibble with her win here. But I don't think The Lion In Winter is all that. Pretty good faux Shakespeare I guess.

And Barbra's performance is simply amazing. A complete movie takeover debut. Talk about charisma!

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

This essay perfectly captures the magical quality of Hepburn's tour-de-force. I have never been a huge fan of Kate (I know, blasphemy!), but I love this performance and I am totally behind this Oscar victory. The tie with Barbra is a perfect alignment of the stars, one newly born, the other not yet ready to burn out.

I only wish the deserved and my beloved Ms. Bancroft had won the year before for The Graduate. Sigh.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Great piece! I do love Lion in the Winter and Hepburn's performance in it. Talk about quotability! Every line is beautiful (in many ways) and the characters are complex and not just vessels for the writer to seem witty.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

I'm with Dave. "Lion in Winter" has a clunky, overwrought script. Kate is good tho too old and nowhere near the heights of her brilliant performance in "Long Day's Journey Into Night." (Plus she had just had one of Oscar's all-time most underserving wins the year before in "Guess Who is Coming to Dinner.") Streisand gave one of the best debut performances ever, the stuff the Oscars are supposed to be all about. That said, Mia Farrow being overlooked for "Rosemary's Baby" was a crime!!

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScottGS

I am not a Hepburn fan, especially in her later years.... the tearing up and trembling lips were a little much .. nothing to do with her Parkinson's... BUT THe Lion in Winter is a masterpiece of acting .. the trouble is Streisand was astonishing in her fist movie role... cannot really compare the two!!

By the way, it was the last time there could be ties in the acting categories ( or maybe all categories ).

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

It's a majestic performance. That tie was a blessing.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Keep in mind, friends, that the above clip is from the second reel. There are bigger scenes still to play. I LOVE this movie. The script is wonderful. so many ecstatic zingers. The way she says "sign before my heart goes c-rack," an entire performance worth of humor, irony, anger, coyness, pathos and more in one utterly unique line reading and in the middle of a longer speech. Breathtaking stuff.

Better to come: when she has emotionally disemboweled henry, and o'toole staggers from the room like man trying to catch hold of his internal organs as they spill from his unexpectedly cleaved gut, she cap the scene with a sigh, a shrug and "what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

This is my favorite showing by kate the great. My second favorite is Desk Set. There's a lot of Bunny Watson in Eleanor.

I like o'toole very much here, but Stuntman is his everest.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterverbocityeric

Great piece, Nathaniel!

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHannibal Lester

Rick, I think you're mistaken-- just this past year there was another tie, albeit only the 6th in Oscar history. The sound editors for both Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty won statues that night.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

This is a lovely send-up to a spectacular performance, Anne Marie. It's one of my favourite turns and it's such a fine use of Kate's comedic AND dramatic gifts. What a lucky moment that this was a tie (and that Vanessa, who is so fantastic eventually got an Oscar too). Every line of her rolls off the town, as Nick Davis says: Give Hepburn this many vowels to enunciate with and she'll have a field day.

Scott: Kate is just over 60 here and the original play calls for an actress of 61, why do you say she's too old?

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

The only one of her winning performances that I think were deserving of the prize. Her work in Long Day's Journey Into Night was deserving of Oscar and dug even deeper under the surface but Eleanor is a piece of work for the ages. The titanic performance from Barbra was equally deserving though so it was great that both were acknowledged. It was a year of quality work, not a single nominee was a filler nomination. Happily all the other ladies had or eventually won the award.

The look on Ingrid Bergman's face when she opened the envelope is priceless and she looked exquisite that year at the podium.

October 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

About the tie: Hepburn should've won alone. Her most deserved Oscar (also she's not bad by any means in "Guess who's coming to dinner", but that's a supporting role).

About Streisand: I can't see what's so special about this performance or her performances in general, her being Oscarless would no be a problem for me.

What's wrong with Mia Farrow?: Should've been the actual winner that year. Why the snubs for "Rosemary's baby", "Hannah and her sisters" and "The purple Rose of Cairo" (should've replaced Streep in her only undeserved nomination... or Cher or Norma Aleandro would've been good in that slot too)? Does the Academy hate her or something?

Katharine's best: in this, "Bringing up baby", "The African queen" (well, she was against Vivien Leigh for "A streetcar name Desire" and that's her best performance) and "Long day's journey into night" (again against someone in her best performance, Bette Davis for "Whatever happened to Baby Jane?") and "On Golden Pond" (once more, Keaton in "Reds"). I do think she deserves to be an Oscar winner, but I'm definitely not on board with her having 4.

Something more about Hepburn: What's with that "Click, click, click" comment on Streep? You've got to be effing kidding me saying that, when you play a variation of the same character for at least some good 50 years (is the same with Nicholson, but at least I've enjoyed much more his movies).

The tie that should've happened: I still can't decide who's better between Davis in "All about Eve" and Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard". Streep and Lange it's a second choice. Sarandon and Davis the third. "Silence of the lambs" is really up there to me, a personal favorite, but Jodie Foster's not that special in this (it's more about Clarice being a great character). "Thelma and Louise" is just OK (I didn't even like it), but the chemistry is off the charts (raise your hands for true friendship, everybody!!!). Those 2 performances made the movie.

On Peter O'Toole: definitely should've won for "TLIW". Everytime I comeback to reality and remember that there is no a single statue for this man, not for this, "Lawrence of Arabia", "Man of La Mancha", "The ruling class", "The stunt man", "My favorite year" nor "Venus", it hurts right on the feels.

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

I think it's Katharine's last Oscar that really rubs me the wrong way. Marsha Mason deserved that damn statue. I do have to say that 1968 was a great year for actressing. All of the nominees were fantastic, which rarely happens, and even with that, there were three egregious snubs: Julie Andrews for Star!, Julie Christie for Petulia, and Mia Farrow for Rosemary's Baby.

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

@Margaret
I said ties in the acting categories.....

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

Well, I'm not a fan of K.Hepburn (and that has nothing to do with me being a Meryl-fan-everyone's free to speak their mind, no?), but her role is one of those that was practically made for Oscars. Any acxtress would have won with that role imo.
Glenn Close played it also excellent in the TV remake of the film in 2004 I guess? Nevertheless, she was great.
Maybe Hepburn just threw a little more herself into it. Not meant to be an evil comment.
I really think it's one of the best BA wins ever.

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Hey Andrew K, yikes I hadn't realized the character was that old in the play! Shut me up. I just always feel like she looks distractingly older than Peter O'Toole. Was she supposed to be? I'm clearly not familiar with the play -- just the film which I've seen a few times, always hoping to love it as much as everyone else does.

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterScottGS

Hannibal -- thanks but this piece is by Anne Marie who is awesome which is why i added her to the site.

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

ScottGS: History lesson! Eleanor of Aquitaine was actually 11 years older than Henry, making her 61 at the time of the play. (He's supposed to be 50, but O'Toole was actually in his 30s.) Eleanor actually outlived Henry by 15 years. She was actually closer to his father's age. Hence the accusation that she slept with his father. Man, medieval politics were crazy.

October 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I know this race wasn't a true tie--they were split by one vote and the Academy decided to call it even. Was it ever released who got the extra one?

October 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

TB: Are you sure you have your facts right? It has been my understanding that the Hepburn - Streisand tie was the only true tie in the acting categories. The Wallace Beery - Fredric March contest was separated by one vote (in March's favour) but under the rules of the day it was declared a tie.

October 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe (uk)

I agreed its a marvellous tie! although I thot Woodward gave the best performance in Rachel Rachel that yr. Both she & Newman (as director) had won the New York Film Critics & Golden Globes respectively, & while she was nom for an oscar, Newman was passed over. Woodward was so aggrieved by her husb's snub that she threatened to boycott the event; and that I guess cost her some of the votes that eventually went to Hepburn or Streisand...

Imagine the tie could've been Hepburn & Woodward instead

September 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

The tie is between two of the all time greatest performances, theirs performences were not doubt deserve Oscars!

June 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJohnwill

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