Episode 36 of 52: In which if there’s only one Katharine Hepburn film you see, make it this one.
When you take Screenwriting 101, your first lesson is the Three Act Story Structure. Act 1: Introduction. Act 2: Conflict. Act 3: Climax (and hopefully Resolution). If I were to so arrange the lives of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it would roughly look as follows: Act 1: Eleanor and Henry II fall in love. Act 2: Eleanor and Henry fall out of love and into battle. Act 3: The Lion in Winter.
James Goldman’s script starts in media res, with Eleanor of Aquitaine (our own Kate) and Henry II (Peter O’Toole) already at the end of two civil wars and any pretense of civility. Knives are out as everyone prepares to fight at the Christmas court at Chinon. Joining them are their three angry sons--Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry)--and the newly minted King of France (Timothy Dalton). (That's right, Hannibal Lector shares a movie with James Bond.) What follows is the messy climax of decades of personal grievances fought on the international stage. In short, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Eleanor, Queen of England, former Queen of France, and Duchess of Aquitaine, is pure Katharine Hepburn: a perfect synthesis of part and persona. It’s Kate the Great at her greatest, channeling three decades of star power, 15 years of classical training, and one year of intense grief into a powerful performance that radiates rage and sex in a way the Hayes Code and her image had never allowed previously. Kate uses her beautifully mastered voice to chew on James Goldman’s dialogue and spit it out with focused intensity. But behind that perfect control seethes a barely contained fury, which bursts forth in beautiful surges of speech.
Oscars have been won on great monologues like that alone, but Kate also shares explosive chemistry with her co-star, Peter O’Toole. Kate's past leading men had spurred her forward or softened her up, but O’Toole (who was already her friend and admirer) was utterly unique in his relationship to Kate. Watching them together onscreen is like watching the fuse burn down on a stick of dynamite; you wait in suspense, knowing it’s going to end violently, but you can’t look away.
Their tension is the result of opposite forces at play simultaneously. Insults are how they flirt; their body language is at constant right angles to their dialogue. Director Anthony Harvey often stages scenes so that Eleanor ends up kneeling in front of Henry, a gesture of romantic supplication Kate had performed with Spencer Tracy so often. But what comes out of her mouth is anything but submissive.
"Will you boil me or stretch me... or am I to be perforated? ...I'm like the earth, old man. There isn't any way around me."
Eventually one barb goes too far and they go from flirt-fighting to actually fighting. Everybody gets sloppy as the night wears on, and their motivations become about lashing out and causing pain. This truly violent relationship is the fulcrum around which the film turns; Eleanor and Henry twist daggers into old wounds and wage wars with whispers, willing to tear down empires if it means getting the upper hand. Everyone else is just collateral damage. Unfortunately, (ironically) the film’s own third act fails to resolve into anything meaningful, instead sputtering out like a spent firecracker.
The Lion in Winter is, of course, the film for which Katharine Hepburn won her unprecedented third Academy Award in 1969. She tied with newcomer Barbra Streisand, a moment in Oscars history in praise and defense of which I wrote extensively last year. You can check out that two parter if these 600 words don’t suffice. However, since this is Kate’s film through and through, it’s only fitting that she gets the last word. Below, in chronological order, are a few of my favorite Eleanor lines from The Lion in Winter, a movie I quote above all others.
E: "What would you have me do? Give out? Give up? Give in?"
H: "Give me a little peace."
E: "A little? Why so modest? Why not eternal peace? Now there's a thought."
"I even made poor Louis take me on crusade. How's that for blasphemy? I dressed my maids as amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louls had a seizure, and I damn near died of windburn... but the troops were dazzled."
"I could peel you like a pear and God Himself would call it justice."
What's your favorite quote? Do you think a double win was earned? Comment below!
Previous Week: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967) - In which Katharine Hepburn wins her second Oscar and loses Spencer Tracy.
Next Week: The Madwoman of Chaillot (1970) - In which Katharine Hepburn plays another aristocrat in an odd little movie that makes no sense.