The laughing king

The Lion in Winter (dir. Anthony Harvey, 1968) ends with great, exuberant laughter, as it should.  Underneath all of its period-film trappings, the film is a boisterous comic saga with dialogue that feels closer to Albee than Shakespeare.  (One of Pauline Kael’s complaints was that she felt the comic primitivism of the play had been too trussed-up, too handsomely mounted, in its translation to the screen.)  The savage humor of James Goldman’s script feels unexpected in a film about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; the dialect is off-puttingly modern, and the dramatic confrontations are staged with a particular degree of exaggeration that at times almost feels Absurdist.  Whatever one’s complaints about this approach, it’s vastly preferable to the alternative: the kind of grim, humorless period piece where the cast and the production team have taken everything much too seriously.  There’s wonderful relish in these performances.  Katharine Hepburn, of course, was nearly always good—even in films that weren’t.  But it’s Peter O’Toole who most impressed me here, because films like Lawrence of Arabia (1963) played up his golden-boy good looks, his elegance and his fey sexuality.  Here, by contrast, he gets to play rough; his Henry is a big, lusty bear of a king.  He’s only truly happy when he’s sparring with an equal opponent, and so the scenes with Hepburn twist wonderfully and subtly from fight scenes into love scenes and back again.  Hepburn, of course, had perfected this dynamic from her days as a screwball heroine, in films like The Philadelphia Story and Holiday, and in her wonderful comedies with Spencer Tracy.  She could play tragedy, too, and now she’s probably best remembered as a kind of imperious grand dame, but she was a top-notch comedienne.  One of the joys of The Lion in Winter is her recognition that this, too, is a kind of screwball romance.

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