Thursday, January 28, 2010

Two Lions In Winter.

In 1968, a movie was made of the James Goldman stage play The Lion In Winter. Goldman adapted his play to the screen and it garnered great reviews. It was sold as a two person tour de force, with Peter O'Toole as the English king Henry II and Katherine Hepburn as his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine squabbling over nearly everything, but most importantly over who will be the next king. Discounting two small roles of a bishop and the captain of the guard, there are seven roles in the play, the king and queen, their three sons, the young king of France and a French princess who should be betrothed to the next king but is currently Henry's mistress. In the 1968 film, the younger roles were given to "up and coming" British stage actors, and many in the young cast went on to remarkably big careers. Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lion Hearted and Timothy Dalton as the French king Philip go on to be honest to goodness movie stars, and Nigel Terry who plays John later stars in Excalibur as Arthur. The other two actors, John Castle and Jane Merrow, go on to become TV actors, and you may recognize their faces from other parts they have played.

In 2003, Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr., who have produced about a jillion made for TV movies over the past two decades, decided to remake The Lion In Winter with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close as Henry and Eleanor. Best known actors in the younger roles are Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as young King Philip of France and Rafe Spall, son of the actor Timothy Spall, as the awful, spotty prince John.

While the screenplay is almost exactly the same as the original, the new version adds a single scene in the beginning, a prologue from ten years before that answers two important questions. Why is Eleanor in jail? Why does powerful and clever Henry favor the weak and dull John over powerful Richard and clever Geoffrey?

The play never pretended to be historically accurate. The shifting alliances over succession did take place, but over the space of several years and not a single Christmas holiday. The biggest casting "mismatch" is Glenn Close stepping into the role in which Kate Hepburn won an Oscar, but instead, the baggage both actresses bring actually works to Ms. Close's advantage. Hepburn was used to playing strong female characters overcoming adversity, and the audience might naturally be rooting for her. Close often plays strong female villains, and it was easier to read the dark side of Eleanor's nature in her performance.

Another thing I found interesting was comparing the ages of the actors. The real Eleanor was ten years older than Henry, and in 1183, she would have been 60 and he would have been 50. Katherine Hepburn was 61 when she played the part and Glenn Close was 56. On the other hand, Peter O'Toole was a boozy 36 years old playing 50, while Patrick Stewart was a fit 63. In the original, the script played up that she was older than he was, in the remake, not so much.

While casting Hepburn and O'Toole made the age relationship between Eleanor and Henry clear, it made for a bit of a Ben and Adam Cartwright problem when it came to Henry's sons. Hopkins was 31 when he played Richard, who would have been 26 in 1183. Even as randy a bugger as Peter O'Toole would have been hard pressed to father a child at the age of five. In the new version, there is no question that the older cast members are old enough to be the parents of the younger cast.

If you like historical dramas with clever dialog, either version of The Lion In Winter is an entertaining choice. If you watch both, it's interesting to see differences in acting styles in 35 years. For me, the original is still a small cut above, but the new version has a different feeling because of the prologue and strong performances, especially from Glenn Close and Rafe Spall.

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