Posted in First Take

[1968.4] The Lion In Winter

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1968 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

51fbqfvec2lIt is utterly impossible to predict chemistry in film. The chaos of combination can drive filmmakers mad piecing together disparate parts – acting, writing, directing, promoting, etc. – into cohesive art. Sometimes a casting director has instructions from her writers to land a specific actor for a role; the role, in fact, was written for this particular person. Other times, the team must interpret intent and cast to the best of its ability. The order with which the team comes together (and breaks) is fluid and unpredictable; the same team, had it been assembled in a different logistic, would function as a totally different unit, as levels of seniority and a shifting power dynamic supersede the film’s goal – to be made. The more complex the team, the more brittle it is, and the more susceptible it is to external forces (mostly money).

What is more remarkable than a film that captures zeitgeist, is one that is made at all. No obvious evidence exists that the filmmakers had trouble putting The Lion In Winter together. In fact the chemistry seems primordial of sorts, as if the pieces just fit prim and proper. The subject matter – a slippery tale of deception and inertia in 12th century terms – provides no clues necessarily, either. In a way, The Lion In Winter shows three generations of the human condition spread across millennia and geometrically accelerating across time: we, as a species have changed only in the clothes we wear and the war we wreak. The struggle for acceptance and ascendance has not changed from AD 1183 through to 1968 to a modern viewing. The Lion In Winter‘s team caught a lucky break, matching marvelous dialogue with sublime acting. The actors seemingly slowed humanity for a blip to reflect on its role as a defender of chaos. 

The blip produced a moment of sparkling chemistry. Casting a now infamous Anthony Hopkins in his first role against Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn could have proved fatal, had Hopkins not been up to the task. A modern audience hardly recognizes young Hopkins as a slithery Richard the Lionhearted and even less would believe it to be his first role. Stately O’Toole as Henry II – perhaps best known for his role as T.E. Lawrence (or, as fate should intervene as (also) Henry II in Becket) – and Hepburn (pick one) provide the necessary heft to carry the film commercially and canonically. The screenplay had been adapted from a highly successful West End stage performance, and directed by a relatively obscure, but clearly respected Anthony Harvey. Yet if it had rained for a day on location in Wales or in Ireland, the whites of Hepburn’s teeth as she sailed away might have been a little more muted against the feverish skies and the chemistry she shared with O’Toole might have looked more to produce less.

Film, as we have seen, and more so recently, is fickle and demanding to grasp without smothering its premise. As digital gradually, then rapidly, replaced film as the go-to technology for its versatility and cost, the corresponding avalanche of possible errors mounted exponentially. Consider that physical film forced a director and her team to choose parameters carefully, while digital allows directors to decide any number of factors ex post facto. Post-production can correct errors and over-correct excellent shots for fear of second-guessing (chemistry’s vaunted enemy); post-production (combined with lazy scripts, probably) has decreased the overall quality of film, while churning out profit from sheer quantity. Capitalism thrives on lazy inertia while chemistry dies. Had The Lion In Winter been made for the first time in 2016, one can be almost certain it would have been shot in the cold and with actual lions.

Not much more to say about Oliver!, except that it, too, would have found its way onto Disney almost too quickly. The Lion In Winter should have taken home 1968’s top honor, if not for bottling chemistry, than for showing the best and worst parts of humanity, from some of humanity’s best.

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