A Christmas card from Chinon

August 5, 2005 at 4:56 PM (Acting, Aging, family)

The fictional representation of Henry and Eleanor of England, James Goldman’s play and film “The Lion in Winter,” resonates for me when some of my disabling conditions keep me inside. It’s battling with wits, when wits are all you’ve got.

Katherine Hepburn read a great deal about Eleanor before the role.
In a film she made about her life, she characterized the film as being about, “Politics, treachery, love, ambition and a test of skill.”
she delivers choice lines, perhaps channeling some grief over her loss of her longtime companion Spencer Tracy (the year before this film was made) into a fine, sharp bitterness.

Peter O”Toole’s  King Henry, full of bombast and not much else, punishes Eleanor for making civil war upon him several times by locking her in a tower, and dusting her off for Christmas celebrations, allowing her less than a week of freedom before locking her up again.

“I’ve not kept the bitch locked up in the tower for fifteen years out of passionate attachment”

This is a very English movie. Why no English actress for the Queen? I’d like to think it’s because no one would have inhabited Goldman’s Eleanor the way Katharine Hepburn did. I know there’s an excellent newer version with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, but I’ve not seen that on purpose. I’m loyal to Katherine’s version. The only real flaw? A truly lousy score.

And I believe that Goldman’s prose is just as valuable to the film as Hepburn’s acting finesse. Great actors can occasionaly make gold out of a bad script but when they’re given something as quick and shamelessly fun as this, it makes it all the more fun.

“How dear of you to let me out of jail,” the Queen notes with venom after traveling downriver seated on a royally outfitted barge.

Handsome Phillipe of France arrives to stir the pot, in the person of a young Timothy Dalton (swoon) .

Squabbling continues between the parents and the three very different sons

“What shall we hang? The holly or each other?,” they say,prompting the Queen’s riposte :

“I don’t much like our children.”

At her age, she seems at first to be genuinely indifferent to Henry’s bedhopping.

“Henry’s bed is Henry’s province: he can people it with sheep for all I care, which on occasion he has done.”

Eleanor champions Richard for the succession to the throne; Henry will have John. He wishes, though he knows it’s unlikely that Eleanor will not spend the entirety of her few days of freedom sparring with him.

“I care because you care so much”

Henry asks for some peace, and Eleanor tells him the kind of peace she’d like for him…

“How about eternal peace, now there’s a thought?”
“Henry did you ever love me?”
“Good. That will make this pleasanter.”

Richard, in the person of a young Anthony Hopkins, goes to visit Mother, even though he fears her plotting.

John the inept clod of the three sons, interrupts them. “Hush dear, Mother’s fighting,” she says.

She reminisces about her early days with Henry and the audience gets a clue that she’s not as indifferent to his actions as she pretends.

“A mind like Aristotle’s and a form like mortal sin, we shattered the commandments on the spot.”

In this medieval game of Survivor, alliances are quickly formed and Eleanor herself wonders if she’s scheduled for elimination as sons prepare to fight their father.

“Am I to be perforated?”

Henry is blowing more hot air by the minute, but Eleanor continues her advocacy of Richard’s cause.

“I’m like the earth old man, there isn’t any way around me.”

She is driven to play on ancient jealousies as Henry threatens to marry Alice, his latest mistress.

“Do you ever wonder if I slept with your father?”
King Henry:  “Is it rich despising me? Is it worth it?”
Eleanor: “It’s what I live for.”

Henry is driven to lock up his sons at knifepoint.

“It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians: we all have knives,” assures Eleanor. This bit of talking to the camera is jarring, but a great line nonetheless.

Henry follows through on his plan to lock up his sons, but cannot kill them. He blames Eleanor for his own inability to take a second wife and wait for her sons to succeed him.

Henry: “I’m vilifiying you, for God’s sake pay attention!”
Eleanor: “How did we ever get to this Christmas?”
Henry: “I could listen to you lie for hours.”
Henry: “The pleasure I still get from goading you.”

They spar about who “made” their sons
Eleanor :”I adored you,” “I still do.”
“There will be no annulment,” after he spent ten minutes flattering her.
Henry : “How will you lose me.”
Eleanor “I could peel you like a pear and God himself will call it justice.”

After nearly killing his sons Henry is confronted with a collapsed Eleanor admitting that love and confinement are too much for her. He is amazed that the still imprisoned Eleanor can still smile.
“It’s the way I register despair,” as she smiles.


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