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The Lion in winterThe Lion in Winter

(United Kingdom, 1968, 134 minutes, color, DVD)

Directed by Anthony Harvey

Katharine Hepburn
Peter O'Toole
Anthony Hopkins
Jane Merrow

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

The title of James Goldman's play, The Lion in Winter, was meant to refer to Henry II. But when the play was adapted for the screen in 1968, the designation better referred to Katherine Hepburn, its redoubtable star. She would have preferred the term "lion," rather than the conventional feminine diminutive "lioness," for by 1968, at age 60, her reputation as a fighter was secure. She had fought for everything: for votes for women as a girl, for victory on the playing fields as a sportswoman in her adolescence, for good acting parts on the stage and screen throughout her life, for liberal political causes in the 1940's, and finally, for the love of her only real partner in life, Spencer Tracy.

But "Spence" had died the year before, just after filming a scene in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? which included a declaration of love for Hepburn, who played his on-screen wife of many years. It remains one of the cinema's most honestly-felt speeches, and it brought heartbreak to those who knew it was no act. Now, it was Hepburn's time to go on alone, after years spent nursing and comforting the mercurial, alcoholic Tracy.

The first part she chose was perhaps the most emotionally demanding she ever committed herself to. The play is the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine, estranged wife of Henry II of England, who in 1183 is brought home from prison to celebrate another kind of imprisonment: a miserable Christmas with her husband and sons, all four locked in a struggle over the succession to the throne that each knows may precipitate the judicious killing of any of the losers. Which will prove stronger, the group's family ties, weakened by years of intrigue, or the murderous political realities of succession? Which will rule, hot blood or cold? During the course of the play, Eleanor sees that it is only she who commands both domains. She blossoms into an articulate, deadly monolith of motherlove, colliding with the children and then with Henry in a desperate, brilliant attempt to refashion her family at the moment of its dissolution. This is a clan in which love works like cancer, ravaging its host and making it unrecognizable before it kills.

"What was fascinating about the play," Hepburn told her friend A. Scott Berg many years later, "was its modernness. This wasn't about pomp and circumstance but about a family, a wife trying to protect her dignity and a mother protecting her children."

Her role was tough to the point of cruelty, a royal mother who understood her sons primarily in terms of state politics, and saw her husband as a competitor in those political struggles, never a companion. Hepburn had final say in who would direct the film. In the wake of her Oscar for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, her choice would have been limited only to directors currently living in the solar system. She chose -- Anthony Harvey? Harvey had directed Dutchman, the independent film based on Amiri Baraka's play about a violent racial confrontation in a New York subway car. Hepburn had found Dutchman "absolutely riveting. It grabbed you by the throat." That, she said, was "exactly the approach that our material needed. Not that glossy old MGM stuff, but cold people living in cold castles." In the wake of Tracy's death, Hepburn sheltered her sorrow in Yankee austerity, seeking out a film that expressed the very antithesis of sentimentality. The film's glowering skies and mildewing castles offered a powerful allegory for the equally frozen places in the heart of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The film was location shot in Fontvielle, an abbey town in the south of France. A young Anthony Hopkins, then working in his first feature film, remembered Hepburn as professional and passionate as a performer, and compassionate and giving as a person. Hepburn's director, Anthony Harvey, found Hepburn absolutely loyal to him in disputes with the front office. He repaid that loyalty with a friendship that lasted the rest of Hepburn's life. Peter O'Toole, a legendary drinker, was his usual wild and ungovernable self -- except around Hepburn, whose respect for his performing style and patience with his personal style lacked all irony. This film story about the end of allegiance ironically inspired in all who worked with Hepburn a fondness that would last until the end.

Hepburn would win her third Oscar for the part, her second in a row. And the film would commence, not her winter, but an Indian summer of film and television acting that would take her into her ninth decade. Hepburn was an ambitious and sometimes selfish woman -- we require all great artists to be, in some measure -- but these qualities never existed in her in the pathological form they took in Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Lion in Winter is one of Hepburn's greatest turns, the scheming, underhanded queen a deeply unsympathetic character who somehow manages to enlist our hope in her behalf. As the film concludes, Harvey's masterful last shot invites us to reconsider this heartless-seeming character, and to respect her skill in the same instant as we come, against our will, to admire the completely personal way she has expressed her love for her children. If, as was often claimed by her detractors, Hepburn was only "playing herself," then it was a self of extraordinary variety. In this rich portrayal of love hurtling toward its own destruction, Hepburn, childless in her own life, gives us a vision of maternal love that is exactly as paradoxical as Hepburn herself.

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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