Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Lion in Winter (1968) — We three kings

You think your family is stressful over the holidays?

What if the annual Christmas reunion means that Pops lets Mum out of the dungeon where he's kept her — legally — for ten years? (Well, she did lead all those civil wars against him.) What about their three (surviving) sons — the eldest a soldier, the middle one plotting Machiavellian intrigue, the youngest a "walking pustule" — who arrive wondering when the old man is going to die and each willing to help him along? Which son will Dad force to marry his lovely mistress? And who's that crashing the party? Why, it's the eldest son's former lover, the King of France (whose pop once was married to Mum).

Pass the nog, but unsheath your dagger. In 1968's The Lion in Winter it's Christmas Eve and a family is gathering. Trouble is, it's A.D. 1183 and the family is the whole damn Plantagenet dynasty, the most influential dysfunctional gene pool since the Skywalkers. Heading the clan is virile but aging King Henry II of England (Peter O'Toole at his most robust and bearish) and his imprisoned wife, willful Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn, chewing the role with sharpened teeth).

Arriving for the holiday backstabbings are their three power-hungry princes: proud warrior Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins in his big-screen debut), the weaselly little drip John of later Magna Carta fame (Nigel Terry), and the sly middle brother Geoffrey (John Castle).

Snarks Henry, getting into the spirit of the occasion, "What shall we hang, the holly or each other?" 

Honestly, if you've been wondering where to find a good Noel Coward/Angevin Empire mashup, look no further.

Also along for the get-together is France's young King Philip (Timothy Dalton, all of 22 in his screen debut). His past "Brokeback" friendship with Richard further twists the tinsel.

And then there's Henry's long-time mistress — Philip's sister and the eventual wife of whichever son becomes Henry's successor — Alais (Jane Merrow).

Baby Jesus himself would have a hard time bringing peace to this yuletide household. Here's a family whose every deed and word is a chess move or a dagger stroke. Alliances political and sexual rise and fall amid skillful clashing and scheming for Henry's throne.

Meanwhile, what's at stake is merely the future of England and France, and therefore the Western world for the next several centuries.

But that's just life as usual for this catty, quotable bunch. As Henry puts it, "I've snapped and plotted all my life. There's no other way to be alive, king, and fifty all at once." A savage verbal cage-match fight features Eleanor tormenting Henry with the scenario of once having gotten all Medieval with his father; afterward, as they pant like two boxers (or lovers) between sweaty rounds, she quips dryly, "Well, what family doesn't have its ups and downs?"

At the center of this regal melee stand Henry and Eleanor, married 31 years. Their combination of ferocious mutual fondness and take-no-prisoners warfare — on battlefields and in bedrooms — make them one of cinema's great complicated relationships. Eleanor, like Henry a product of a long life among various royal houses (she was formerly married to the previous King Louis of France), clings to her past as one of history's most powerful women. "I even made poor Louis take me on Crusade," she reminisces. "I dressed my maids as Amazons and rode bare-breasted halfway to Damascus. Louis had a seizure and I damn near died of windburn, but the troops were dazzled."

Pretty Alais, whom Eleanor raised nearly as her own daughter, is out of her league among such experienced gamesmanship; even so, she's no babe in the woods here. "Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I'm the only pawn," she says. "I haven't got a thing to lose — that makes me dangerous."

Loosely (make that looooosely) based on historical events, The Lion in Winter was written by James Goldman, the brother of screenwriter and novelist William Goldman. He adapted his own Broadway play for the screen with few changes. Sometimes that fidelity to the stage original seems to weigh down the action, especially in the middle third. Swords clang, the dungeon door slams open and shut often enough for a bedroom farce, and the cast does tend to lean into the theatrical bombast as if Brooks Atkinson is in the back row.

Still, the lack of tacked-on, extraneous cinematized action set pieces is welcome. (The few new scenes, such as a tremendous beachside battle with horse-mounted men-at-arms, don't feel extraneous.) Shoot, viewing it conditioned by the past decade of screen "historicals," it comes as a surprise relief.

Nonetheless, director Anthony Harvey opened up Goldman's play into a spare-no-expense costume pageant set in authentic spaces far from any proscenium, and remained faithful to an energetic drama propelled by its explosive performances and meaty dialogue. Snarky lines fly like arrows at Agincourt, one barbed rejoinder can topple kingdoms, and cleverness is any formidable foe's weapon of choice. The Broadway play was billed as "a comedy in two acts." Okay, sure. While there are sharp laughs in The Lion in Winter . . .
John: "My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out!"
Richard: Let's strike a flint and see."

Henry: "The day those stout hearts band together is the day that pigs get wings."
Eleanor: "There'll be pork in the treetops come morning."
. . . at its heart this is a vicious medieval Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the personal really is the political and vice versa.

Hopkins was primarily a stage actor at the time, and it's interesting to see the future Hannibal Lecter so young and broody. Because Hopkins was appearing at the National Theatre in London, he needed Sir Lawrence Olivier's permission to take time off to shoot the film. Olivier agreed, provided that Hopkins shoot his scenes during the day, then fly back from Ireland, Wales, and France for his evening stage performances in As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.

Representing some of the critical dissent, Life magazine film critic Richard Schickel, who cared not a bit for the anachronistic modern-sounding dialogue placed into a 12th-century setting, staged a palace coup when the New York Film Critics Circle gave its Best Film Award to The Lion in Winter over John Cassavetes' Faces. Schickel and three others resigned in a huff, only to rejoin the following year.

Granted, Lion is mannered and talky and brassily "classy" by today's standards. But Goldman's pages, which wisely did not aspire to be faux-Shakespeare, took the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

Thirty-five years after her first Oscar (for Morning Glory in 1933) and a Hollywood figure of Mt. Rushmore proportions, it's not altogether alarming to find Hepburn here in full-on K*a*t*h*a*r*i*n*e H*e*p*b*u*r*n mode, almost her own camp impersonator. All the same, I soak up her every screen moment here through my pores, and — even allowing for the often questionable vagaries of the Academy Awards process — it's clear why she walked away with the third of her four Oscars. (She also took the BAFTA.) Her Eleanor is every bit Henry's equal in brainpower, military cunning and verbal combat — a powerful figure in Women's Lib 1968 and still one fine juicy role now. Hepburn also drew the best out of O'Toole, who became her devoted friend for life when she scolded him on the set for his self-destructive ways.

The Lion in Winter was up for the Best Picture Oscar, but it lost to, of all things, Oliver! (Talk about your off years. That was a tragic and blandly conservative win in the year that also delivered 2001: A Space Odyssey, Once Upon a Time in the West, Rosemary's Baby, The Producers, and others better reflecting moviedom's seismic pop evolution.)

John Barry, who gave us all that iconic James Bond music, handily took the Oscar and the BAFTA for his moody, ecclesiastical score.

Further Oscar nominations included O'Toole's full-throated performance as Henry (O'Toole's second film portrayal of Henry II after Becket four years earlier), Anthony Harvey's directing, and Best Costume Design.

Other virtues on display here — the location shooting in England, Wales, and Ireland; the scenic design recreating medieval England's dank, cold, and desperate barbarism — capture the perfect setting for this otherwise thoroughly modern First Family.

Trivia: Years ago I played John in a stage production of Goldman's play. My utterance of the line "You turd!" received excellent notices.

Just wanted a place to add this one.

Music: Simone, Simone on Simone
Near at hand: Set of six Pogo figures

Parts of this post originally appeared at DVD Journal.