The Lion in Winter

“What shall we hang, the holly or each other?”

That quip from Henry II in The Lion in Winter could serve as an epigraph for the meeting of the New York Film Critics Circle in 1968. Anthony Harvey’s film version of an unsuccessful play about Henry’s un-cozy family reunion had tied, on the seventh ballot for Best Picture, with John Cassavetes’ Faces. According to Tom O’Neil’s book Movie Awards, each film had 11 votes, with one lost soul casting a vote for Oliver!. A second-thoughts check of the Circle’s elaborate bylaws revealed that Oliver! should have been gone! from the last ballot. One more vote, and the Lion had it, 13 to 11.

Whereupon Richard Schickel, then of Life magazine, lost his temper with a force worthy of the Plantagenets themselves. “Deadwood” was how he reportedly characterized Lion voters. Words were exchanged. Pencils were clutched. Tears were shed, or close to it. Schickel resigned, along with three like-minded Cassavetes fans, including Renata Adler and Vincent Canby of The New York Times. The breakaway party moved to a conference room where they continued to vote, pending clarification of the rules regarding indignant resignations. They rejoined the following year.

Now of course, it was as clear in 1968 as it is now that Faces is by far the more daring and original work of art. The Lion in Winter, however, recovered from Schickel’s disdain to perform well at the box office, win three Oscars, and become a holiday favorite, a prime entry in the ever-popular “Dysfunctional Families” category. People, or deadwood if you prefer, stubbornly continue to love it, and I am one of them.

The Lion in Winter

For connoisseurs of ferocious acting, there are few bigger feasts. Here’s Peter O’Toole, in his prime, playing Henry II for the second time and proving no actor of the 1960s could swagger better: “I’ve snapped and plotted all my life. There’s no other way to be alive, king, and 50 all at once.” Foiling him at every turn is Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. She travels to court on a barge like a freckled Cleopatra and greets Henry: “I keep informed. I follow all your slaughters from a distance.” Together they brawl through the castle to the strains of John Barry’s impressively lugubrious score, fighting over what all families fight about, sooner or later: inheritance, both tangible and not.

Henry has convened his court at Chinon Castle in the year of our Lord 1183, and invited his sons—sniveling teenager John (Nigel Terry), neglected and resentful middleman Geoffrey (John Castle), and chilly paragon Richard the Lionheart (a young and green Anthony Hopkins)—for a Christmas get-together. The Yuletide present that Henry is dangling? The chance to become his heir, and rule England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and a nice fat piece of France. Already present at Chinon is Alais (Jane Merrow), who is technically betrothed to Richard, but who during more than a decade of wedding prep has become Henry’s mistress.

Into this back-stabbing, entirely unfilial group sweeps Eleanor, Henry’s estranged queen, imprisoned for a decade for plotting to overthrow him and generally being a pain in the neck. And because no holiday is complete without an outsider to act as catalyst, here comes young King Philip of France, played by gorgeous 22-year-old Timothy Dalton in his screen debut. Philip wants either the return of his half-sister Alais’s dowry—a large tract of land—or Alais herself. Henry doesn’t want to give up either.

The Lion in Winter

Director Harvey leaves the claustrophobic castle from time to time—for a picnic, for a joust, to look at a battle on a beach—but mostly he prefers to let the actors be the interest. It’s a superb role for Hepburn, then 61 (O’Toole, playing the 50-year-old king, was 36). Despite her striking beauty, Hepburn well knew the reality of Hollywood aging. Eleanor, older than Henry, still loves him (that’s plain from Hepburn’s playing) but bitterly resents his power, not just to imprison her, but to take young lovers and have other children. “My, what a lovely girl,” she says to her mirror, like the Queen in Snow White; “how could her king have left her?” She looks at Alais as though contemplating which way the wrinkles will eventually attack. Eleanor boasts of her old conquests (she taunts Henry throughout the movie with the idea that she slept with his father) and follows with brutal reminders that seduction is no longer so easy. “I marvel at you after all these years. Still like a democratic drawbridge, going down for everybody,” says Henry. “At my age there’s not much traffic anymore,” is the cool response.

O’Toole sports a thick, dark beard and an athletic physique; only the magical eyes are recognizable from T.E. Lawrence. “I’m the oldest man I know! I have 10 years on the pope!” he exclaims, but Henry is the most virile man in the picture. O’Toole as Henry lopes through rooms, swings his royal legs over the arms of chairs, intimidates male foes simply by standing up. In a savagely funny scene in Philip’s bedroom, where first John and Geoffrey, then Richard enter, plot, then hide behind tapestries, Henry taunts the French king: “I know exactly what you will do, and exactly what you won’t, and I’ve told you exactly nothing. To these aged eyes, boy, that’s what winning looks like!” The sole person who can challenge Henry’s power is Eleanor. “Give me a little peace,” he snaps. “A little? Why so modest? How about eternal peace? Now there’s a thought,” is the silky reply. He can imprison her, but there are no locks or bars that can be put on her tongue: “I could have conquered Europe—all of it—but I had women in my life.”

Screenwriter James Goldman, working from his own play, hasn’t the slightest interest in simulating period dialogue. Instead Goldman endows these royals with modern rapier wits (well, all except dimwitted John, played so broadly by Terry he wouldn’t be out of place in a Blackadder episode). Complaints about anachronism, about historical accuracy (alas, no such Christmas court ever took place in the way it does here) are true enough but beside the point. We’re meant to contemplate what holiday get-togethers might be, if families had the power to imprison, banish, or behead one another. After all, as The Lion in Winter reminds us, nothing says Christmas like a power struggle.

Farran Smith Nehme writes about classic film on her blog, Self-Styled Siren, and recently published her first novel, Missing Reels. She is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.