The Lion in Winter
As famous as The Lion in Winter has become from its film version and frequent revivals of the play, it was originally a Broadway flop. James Goldman's fanciful treatment of the lives and intrigues of the Plantagenets and the plotting to choose a successor to Henry II opened in March 1966 with Robert Preston as the king and Rosemary Harris (most recently seen as Aunt May in Spider-Man, 2002) as his estranged wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Although Harris' performance made her a star and brought her a Tony Award, the production received mixed reviews and closed in less than three months at a substantial loss. It was hardly the first flop in Broadway history. But unlike other stage failures, it had a life after that initial production.
With the recent success of A Man for All Seasons (1966), an epic film about historical England adapted from a much more successful play, producers were looking for similar material that could offer a combination of prestige and box-office performance. The Lion in Winter seemed made for the movies. Not only did the arrival of Henry and his family members for a Christmas court at Chinon offer opportunities for pageantry on a grand scale, but the film featured several juicy roles and the kind of literate, witty, quite catty dialogue rarely seen since All About Eve (1950) almost 20 years earlier. So Martin Poll, a pioneer in bringing film production to New York City, picked up the rights and secured financing from Joseph E. Levine's Avco-Embassy Pictures, an independent distributor best known for importing foreign classics and low-budget exploitation films (like Hercules (1957) starring Steve Reeves) to the U.S.
O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn were naturals for the leads: O'Toole for his previous success playing the young Henry II in Becket; Hepburn because she was descended from Eleanor, tracing her lineage back to children from the monarch's marriages to both Henry and the king of France. In addition, Hepburn had played a role in boosting O'Toole's career when she urged producer Sam Spiegel to cast him in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But for all her respect for him as an actor, she was not about to put up with his by-then legendary drunken shenanigans. According to Barbara Leaming's biography of Katharine Hepburn (Crown Publishers, Inc.), when the film company arrived in Ireland for three weeks of rehearsals for the film, the actress laid down the law: "You're known to be late! I intend for you to be on time. I hear you stay out at night. You'd better be rested in the morning if you're going to work with me!"
Hepburn and O'Toole set the pace for the film's younger players, one of the strongest collections of film beginners to appear together. Making their film debuts were Nigel Terry, who would go on to play King Arthur in John Boorman's Excalibur (1981), and future James Bond Timothy Dalton. Richard, Henry and Eleanor's warrior son who turns out to be a closeted homosexual, was the first major film role for Anthony Hopkins, who would go on to win stardom and an Oscar® as the infamous Hannibal Lecter.
Surprisingly, The Lion in Winter opened to mixed reviews. While many critics applauded its re-creation of the middle ages, the witty dialogue and the star's impressive performances, some others thought the picture had reduced major historical events to the level of soap opera. When it won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Picture, four critics quit the group in protest. The picture's success at the box office soon wiped out the memory of any dissension. It would go on to win seven Oscar® nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Anthony Harvey), Best Actor and Best Actress. On Oscar® night, it captured the awards for its score, screenplay and, in a surprise tie with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Hepburn's performance. Today The Lion in Winter enjoys a continued popularity in revival screenings, television airings and video rentals. The stage version has been performed successfully around the globe, most recently in a Broadway revival starring Laurence Fishburne and Stockard Channing. Plans were recently announced for a new television version, set to air in 2003, starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close.
Producer: Martin Poll
Director: Anthony Harvey
Screenplay: James Goldman, based on his Play
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Peter Murton, Peter James
Music: John Barry
Principal Cast: Peter O'Toole (Henry II), Katharine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine), Jane Merrow (Princess Alais), John Castle (Prince Geoffrey), Timothy Dalton (King Philip), Anthony Hopkins (Prince Richard the Lion-hearted), Nigel Terry (Prince John), Nigel Stock (William Marshall).
C-135m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller