THE LION IN WINTER: Ultimate Family Dysfunction

Family units — good, bad and ugly — have been popping up on screen every day at this year’s family-themed film festival. But is there any more dysfunctional movie family than the Plantagenets depicted in THE LION IN WINTER (1968)?  King Henry II gathers his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (whom he has kept imprisoned for ten years), and their sons Richard, Geoffrey and John, at Christmas-time in 1183. Also on hand: Henry’s mistress, Alais. But this is no cheery holiday gathering. Henry wants to determine who his successor will be after his death, and the result is that these people scheme, plot, attack, double-cross and outwit one another from one scene to the next, in every single scene, throughout this entire, supremely entertaining 134-minute movie. It’s two solid hours of psychological warfare within a powerful family, and it held the TCM festival audience in rapt attention today.

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Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole

A superb cast ratchets up the intensity to delicious levels. To see Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn to play off each other as Henry and Eleanor is to watch two of the all-time greats relishing their craft and giving their all. (Hepburn won an Oscar for this, and O’Toole was nominated.) They move from moments of tenderness to rage often within the same scene, yet make the transitions flow smoothly. The rhythm of the piece (which is based on a play) really emanates from the dialogue, which moves through a series of rising crescendos. Yet the movie, as directed by Anthony Harvey, for the most part has enough of a cinematic feel to keep it from becoming unpleasantly stagebound. Harvey also uses prodigious numbers of close-ups to give the verbal intensity visual impact. (He also uses a few too many zooms, which were overly in vogue during this era.)

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Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole

O’Toole had played Henry II on screen before, in 1964′s Becket, set about a dozen years before THE LION IN WINTER. He was Oscar-nominated for playing the same character in both films, a real rarity. He was also the person most responsible for bringing this film to fruition with the creative talents involved. It was O’Toole who approached Hepburn to play Eleanor, even though she had been in a virtual retirement since Spencer Tracy had died six months earlier.  But she loved the script and signed on immediately, with approval over the hiring of everyone else. O’Toole took her to see a little film called The Dutchman because he liked its director, Anthony Harvey. Hepburn agreed to be directed by him.

And it was O’Toole who brought young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton on board, running scenes with them in their tests and presenting the footage to Hepburn for her approval, also granted. Hopkins would play son Richard, and Dalton (in his screen debut) played the French King, Philip II, who does his own share of scheming and threatening.

Anthony Harvey later recalled he had a ball directing such a distinguished cast:  “It was Peter’s project, but my film. No one contested direction and since they were the old hands, I had the greatest joy in each of them in turn defending my decisions.” Of Hepburn, Harvey said, “working with her is like going to Paris at age 17 and finding everything is the way you thought it would be.”

O’Toole enjoyed playing the older King Henry II, four years after his experience with Becket: “It was marvelous, because they were somehow extensions of each other. The sense of loss of Becket filled everything I did in that [film], everything. The reason I was practical, bluffing, the reason I was political — they were all things that I was taught by Becket in the [earlier] play. So when I blundered in THE LION IN WINTER, it was because Becket wasn’t there. I was bereaved. I hope that the lack of Thomas Becket in that [film] was apparent.”

Of playing Eleanor, Hepburn said, “Eleanor must have been tough as nails to have lived to be 82 years old and full of beans. Both she and Henry were probably big-time operators who played for whole countries. I like big-time operators.” Hepburn probably also liked getting many of the film’s best lines, such as: “Well, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

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Peter O’Toole

O’Toole and Hepburn sparred off screen, too. Hepburn was horrified when O’Toole was late coming to the set, and she let him know it in no uncertain terms. From then on, he called her “Nag” and she called him “Pig,” and they abused each other in a lighthearted way. But they developed a deep respect and love for each other, and one can’t help but again draw parallels to Henry and Eleanor, who at the end of the film, despite all their scheming and battling, profess a deep admiration for one another. Henry and Eleanor remain family on screen, and O’Toole and Hepburn became family off screen.

Before the screening, Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski gave an informative introduction. When he mentioned that he had supervised (with Grover Crisp) the restoration of THE LION IN WINTER, he drew a huge round of applause and was taken aback. “Film restorationists don’t feel like rock stars,” he said, “but [here], I get that feeling!”  As he should — restorers and preservationists are family to TCM fans, too.