Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Lion in Winter (movie review)

For the last five months our friend Richard has been trying to get us to dinner so he could show off his new home theater. We finally made it there last week. He has a closet full of DVD’s some blue ray, some standard, and some featuring Nicholas Cage in a helicopter and Edward Norton in a hockey goalie’s mask as the King of Jerusalem. My wife’s not a big fan of explosions and she loves old movies. After debating the virtues of Denzel Washington in the Hurricane and some foreign movie, we somehow decided on Lion in Winter, a costume drama from 1968.

We didn’t choose it to be mean to Richard, but he did seem a little disappointed when the whole Dolby thing wasn’t happening. There was no subwoofer, no channel directing anything to the ceiling or the sides. The picture was quite good. Richard has a projection system and a ten foot wide image. It was actually somewhat better than some art house screens I’ve seen. It’s certainly better than the picture we had when I participated in a movie showing venture in 1978. We’d rent the movies from Audio Brandon and similar companies, the schools’ auditorium had a projector, and we put up a fifteen to twenty foot screen with a small rip in it.

If you don’t happen to know Lion in Winter, it’s a movie based on a Broadway play by James Goldman who served as the screenwriter for the film. It’s best remembered for featuring Katherine Hepburn (then 61) and Peter O’toole (then 36) as the Middle Ages version of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. The historical Eleanor of Aquitaine was 11 years older than Henry 2 (Plantagenet). Anthony Hopkins played Richard the Lionhearted. Timothy Dalton (later better known as James Bond) was Phillip 2, king of France. The movie essentially mixes court intrigue with the story of a beyond dysfunctional royal family (way beyond Charles and Diana) at a fictional Christmas Court in Chinon, France in the year 1183 after the rebellion and death of Henry’s presumptive heir, Henry 3. Hepburn gets one of the better lines in the script. “It’s 1183, we are the barbarians.”

The short version is that Lion in Winter contains enough moral transgression to fill several seasons of Jerry Springer. Henry keeps one of his sons’ fiancés as his own mistress. Richard (the one in the movie, not the guy with the home theater)is gay and arguably a pederast. Jeffrey was reincarnated as Kenneth Lay, the driving force behind Enron. Henry has a knife fight with his own sons.

Lion was part of a run of costume dramas that combined bits of European history, spectacular dialogue, and philosophical digressions well beyond anything in current Hollywood. The run included Beckett, Man for All Seasons, and Anne of a Thousand Days. When I was thirteen, this was my idea of a good movie. Now that I’m way older, it’s clear to me that I barely understood if I understood at all most of the themes in these movies. For one, it was one of the first times I ever thought about homosexuality. Honestly, even in middle age (as opposed to the Middle Ages), it was very hard to keep up with the various references and complex plot points in Lion in Winter. It’s clear to me that movie audiences in the sixties and seventies had much better attention spans, that these movies were targeted for a very adult audience, and it was okay to expect audiences to know a little bit about history.

At first glance, the only thing sixties about Lion in Winter is the fact that the men had long hair and everyone in the movie seems to be literally and figuratively boundary challenged. On closer examination it’s very much a product of its time. If the catch phrase for one form of sixties politics was “Question Authority”, Lion in Winter is about how deeply flawed those sources of authority were in the first place. Henry and Phillip are engaged in endless petty wars and the shadow of Vietnam and the women's movement is much more prominent when you see the movie forty years outside its time.

Another fascinating aspect is that the effects and scenes are done without the benefit of CGI or other digitized special effects. I have no idea how elaborate the real set was, but the battle scenes and fight scenes are very muted. Instead the art directors work with things like dozens of well-placed canines, roaring fires, and tinted lenses to give the movie the feel of not so comfortable life in a royal castle. It’s quite convincing and reminds you that physical set design will soon be something of a lost art or at least a very different one in movies.

Other than that, the movie depends on talking and acting and what acting it is! O’toole is outsized, larger than life, and seems to take huge swashbuckling risks with every gesture. Hepburn plays her role as part monarch and part vulnerable older woman. You sense the immensity of her failures with her family at an emotional level, yet she’s so layered as an actress that you still see that she loves her sons and somehow, against all instincts, longs for Henry as the only man in the known world who can match her brains, drive, and passion (in a weird way, even though she capped her career with Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, this is Hepburn's real final and definitive statement on the Hepburn-Tracy repartee). The sheer bravura of O’toole's scenes with Hepburn is a special effect that has nothing to do with technology. Our host mentioned at one point that he’d tried a few times to make it through Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (Richard the Lionhearted has a small bit in this Crusades epic as well). It reminds me that CGI can bring a time and a look to a film, but it takes serious actors and real writers to bring a scene to life.

Just as amazing, Hepburn at 61 and 25 years older was able to make the lingering sexual attraction with O’toole palpable. It helps that Hepburn was a strikingly attractive woman, but we’re not that removed from a time when we judged our actors and actresses by what they were able to project from the inside not just the outside. I’m not sure there are a pair of current-day actors who could pull this off. Angelina Jolie has some actual movie star quality and real intesity, but I’ve never seen her manage nearly as many “dimensions” to a character as Hepburn makes possible here. Daniel Day Lewis can project an outsized character, but I’m not sure that he invests his portrayals with the same level of humanity burning inside that O’toole manages. Then there’s the whole chemistry bit that brings to mind Norma Desmond’s line from Sunset Boulevard, “I am big…The pictures got smaller.” If you’ve seen Steve Buscemi and Sienna Miller in “Interview”, Hollywood’s current idea of two person bravura acting, you’ll catch my drift.

Even more amazing, their’s might not have been the best performance in the movie. Nigel Terry, who plays John 2 as kind of a premonition of George W. Bush, delivers one of these almost completely ego free recreations of John as hapless, foolish, feeble, yet somehow cunning. Apparently, he fell into character roles and more or less disappeared.

So exactly how many times did we wind up saying, “Wow, they don’t make them like that anymore?”

It’s somewhere up there with the number of clever almost undecipherable insults strewn through the script of Lion in Winter.

The technology behind our friend Richard’s new home theater was genuinely amazing. The picture was sharp and huge. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to having the movie theater experience in someone’s house. This includes the private theater at Skywalker Ranch from twelve years ago that was state of the art then and Saul Zaentz’s private screening room in the Fantasy Building back when he was making Amadeus and the Mosquito Coast. I can’t imagine how advanced the technology for this sort of thing has gotten.

This is the weird thing. We wound up watching a forty year old movie that reminded us almost painfully of just how much our culture is actually going backwards in the midst of all this technological progress. Maybe they don’t make them like they used to, but we’ve got to get back to an era where people actually made big movies instead of big effects.

fwiw, There's a modern remake with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close (no boiled rabbits or starships), that I'll have to check out just to see if I was just sort of wowed by the 1968 version and if the same sort of acting/dramatic energy is still possible. Maybe they do make them that way anymore and they just don't hype it....



At 2/22/2008 12:10:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Edward Norton in a hockey mask? Okay, that's it. Next time you come over we are screening Jason Robards in Long Day's Journey Into Night!

Now, what did I do with my copy of Black Hawk Down?


At 2/22/2008 09:37:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Does Jason Robards wear a hockey mask in that one? Isn't Katherine Hepburn the mother in that version?

I think blue ray versions of Black Hawk Down are so realistic that after a certain number of days, they explode spectacularly somewhere in your living room and Bruce Willis leads a commando unit into your backyard.

Thanks for having us over the other night.

At 2/23/2008 08:54:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

This is on my list of favourite films and I regretted not having seen the stage version a few years back with Stockard Channing and Laurence Fishburne just to see how spectacular they'd be or how spectacularly they might fail.

Great points on the emotional intensity and the special effects created by acting and without CGI.

See if you can get me an invite for all explosion night, I love that stuff too!

At 2/23/2008 10:46:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

You're on for all Explosion night. I'm going to talk Richard into screening the latest version of Casino Royale with Daniel Craig as the first blonde Bond.

At 2/25/2008 05:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I remember "Lion in Winter." (Meeemories, oh sweet meeemories --nah, you don't want to hear me try out for American Idol, LOL!)

You should have given Edward Norton in the hockey mask a try. He is not listed on the credits of that movie, but IMHO he was the best thing in it. I told my son, "I really liked the guy who played the leper king," and somehow my son knew it was Edward Norton and I did NOT believe him. So I googled the movie (Now, WHAT was the name of it? "Kingdom of Heaven" or something like that?) and what do you know, it really WAS Edward Norton. The part where he rides to one of his wayward knight's castles and gives him a whacking with a switch was absolutely the most gripping part of the movie, for me . . .

At 2/25/2008 05:50:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I've actually sesen Kingdom of Heaven and did like it. I just think it's interesting to compare the dramatic power of Lion in Winter to Kingdom of Heaven.

One was largely a demonstration of what you could do historically with CGI with a little bit of Saladin was a pretty good guy and the Crusaders were making like George Bush. The other was actually much more interesting as a movie.


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