Audacious Dames – Katharine Hepburn – The Lion in Winter
Spring 2015 brought the Amy Schumer sketch “Last F—kable Day” to the forefront of a movement exposing the sexism seemingly inherent in Hollywood hiring practices and project development. Following the ACLU’s May request for a federal and state investigation into such hiring practices, testimonies from actresses like Rose McGowan and Maggie Gyllenhaal began to emerge. It brings to mind the quote Goldie Hawn’s character makes in The First Wives Club about the three ages of actresses in Hollywood: “Babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” With forty being old and sixty being ancient for women (save for a few lucky actresses who seem to transcend the glass ceiling), there have been roles, in every genre, scattered throughout the last five or six decades that fight that stereotype by presenting mature women as sexual and commanding and sensitive and passionate. Whether their characters were role models or not, there is a lack of apology to their independent natures that binds them together.
In 1969, Katherine Hepburn won her third of four eventual Oscars for her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in the film The Lion in Winter, adapted by James Goldman from his play. She actually tied for the award with Barbra Streisand and her role as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, but only Barbra was present to go onstage in that iconic sheer pantsuit with dark pockets over the breasts. Held against Streisand’s electric performance as a vaudeville singer, Hepburn’s performance may have seemed old-guard and stuffy by comparison – that is, until you watch her on screen. Inhabiting the role of a scorned, aging wife so well, Hepburn not only throws off the stereotype of the dowdy old queen in a period picture, but challenges her own public persona as well by playing a mature character as adept at sexual games as political intrigue in her power play for the throne of England.
It is England, 1183, and King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) is facing his advancing years by deciding on an official heir – or avoiding this task altogether. His three sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry), all want the position, as does his mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow), for their unborn child. Henry decides to make things interesting by holding a big family reunion at Christmas and letting the whole lot tear each other to pieces, with the survivor gaining the crown.
With his nubile lover clutching at him adoringly, Henry is charging at the windmill of time in a increasingly difficult quest to avoid death by way of vanquishing younger and more able men, including his own sons, either physically or verbally. By contrast, his wife, Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), embraces her age and experience as her ultimate weapon of power against younger and more delicate objects of her husband’s affections. A true alpha female, Eleanor has been shut up in Salisbury Tower for a decade, left to decay while Henry tilled the soil of more fertile pastures. “I haven’t kept the Great Bitch in the keep for ten years out of passionate attachment,” Henry insists to Alais.
Good gracious, but when Eleanor enters the castle, it is hers to command. Hepburn summons all the might of her mid-Atlantic acerbity, casually dusted over with a British lilt, to elegantly devour her family members (and one possible usurper). Every scene is a masterful duel between the fire and ice of her personality, as she spits venom with a smile of peaches and cream. She immediately recognizes her latest opponent because it is a battle she has undertaken her entire life, and her strategy unfolds in a brilliant sequence of divide, embarrass, boast, scorn, and conquer.
One move Eleanor employs is her unabashed accounting of her sexual history, rendered with joyous, triumphant detail. Her exploits began far before her sons’ father, and had she given her previous husband sons instead of daughters, the heirs of Henry would not have existed: “such, my angels, is the role of sex in history.” Her desire for her husband is still evident and she shares it freely to the squirming anguish of her children, including one of the best descriptions of a lover in all of cinema: “He had a mind like Aristotle and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the Commandments on the spot.” It takes a strong man to be at ease around a woman whose tongue is so forthright in its abilities.