Eleanor: I adored you. I still do.
Henry II: Of all the lies you’ve told, that is the most terrible.
Eleanor: I know. That’s why I’ve saved it up until now.
—LION IN WINTER, 1968
These lines from 1968’s THE LION IN WINTER, delivered by two of the greatest actors of all time, at the height of their powers, Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole… is a small sampling of why this remains arguably one of the best films of all time… and without argument, one of my favorite films. Here closing in on the 50th anniversary of this film, I thought the time was right to revisit it.
Written by James Goldman, the older Brother of legendary writer William Goldman, THE LION IN WINTER would be James Goldman’s first produced work, and incontrovertibly his best.
James would never match the scope or longevity or popularity or prolific nature of his Brother’s career and output. William’s BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN, MARATHON MAN, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, MAGIC, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS all films deserving of their acclaim, and films any lover of cinema should watch often and repeatedly, and in comparison James Goldman only lasting mark, would be the first thing he ever did… THE LION IN WINTER.
I call it a draw.
That’s how brilliant a script, and brilliant a film, that single film, THE LION IN WINTER, would be, and is. A theatrical sensation, that would go on to birth a film, even greater than the play.
It is an example of all the stars aligning, to create this marvel of a movie.
In 1969 the film would garner three Academy Awards, and sweep the Golden Globes nabbing the 4 most coveted awards. All in all it would win awards for Actress, screenplay, score, actor, director, and picture. It was a filmic juggernaut, and here in 2016, looking at the almost 50 years of best picture films awarded since, I’m hard pressed to think of a single one that is as good as TLIW, and none come to mind, that better it.
But perhaps there is a cost for such perfection, some alchemic cost, that would have to be paid in the careers of the makers of the film.
A great script, arguably it is the best script ever written in the English language, by a first time screenwriter, James Goldman, who would do only a few other feature screenplays after it, and none nearing the impact and import of TLIW. The script was so great he earned an Academy Award for it, for what amounted to his first time at bat. A staggering achievement. Which makes his virtual disappearance from the scene… curious. Did he say everything he had in him to say? it’s possible, it happens. Or for some reason was work simply not offered to him, post TLIW.
A young, brash new director (and largely untested, making the jump from acclaimed editor, to the Director’s chair), Anthony Harvey, itching to push the width and breadth of cinema. He did a MASTERFUL job on this film, was nominated for an Academy Award for it, in what was only his 2nd film as director. But like James Goldman would be unable to leverage that Academy Award spotlight, into future opportunities.
He would go on to do only a handful of features after this, and none of them would posses the scope or brilliance or lasting accolades as THE LION IN WINTER. It would overshadow the rest of his career. Which sometimes is the price of creating something truly great.
That said cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, editor John Bloom, and composer John Barry , as well as the principal actors would all go on to have stellar careers. Though without argument from me, you want to see the best performances of Peter OToole, Katherine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Timothy Dalton or Jane Merrow (exquisite as Alais) you’ll find them in this film.
They rise to the language. We all do.
If you haven’t seen THE LION IN WINTER, you haven’t seen cinema, as it can be… when all the gods are kind. And if you have seen it, it is a film that rewards, and like a missed relative, engenders revisits.
See it via DVD here (with wonderful and essential Director’s commentary):
And hopefully there will be a Blu-Ray Disc on the horizon in the next year or two, to commemorate the upcoming 50th anniversary!
Director, a cast of veterans and young hungry unknowns who ALL would end up doing the best work of their lives, in this film, score, editing…. all aligning to produce one of the best films of all time.
It is essential viewing.
There is seldom a day in the years since first seeing that movie, probably 15 or 20 years ago, that some line from that film doesn’t pass through my head. Like the best of all writing, it indelibly marks us and shapes us, and leaves its impression on us.
It has done so with me.
Prince Richard: [the sons – in the dungeon – think they hear Henry approach] He’s here. He’ll get no satisfaction out of me. He isn’t going to see me beg.
Prince Geoffrey: My you chivalric fool… as if the way one fell down mattered.
Prince Richard: When the fall is all there is, it matters.
—THE LION IN WINTER, a script that would make even Shakespeare envious.