Wednesday, September 9, 2015

1968 (tie): Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter

In a performance that could not be more different from the one it tied with, Katharine Hepburn plays Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her husband, King Henry II, has her imprisoned in exile most of the time, but decides to let her come home for Christmas so that they can fight over which of their three surviving sons should inherit the throne.

I've seen this movie twice before, and this was the first time I managed to follow most of it. There's a lot of scheming and lying and shifting alliances, so it's hard to keep track of who's trying to do what when. All of the characters are kind of awful, so it's difficult to know whose side to be on. Personally, I usually find myself on Eleanor's side because, though she's just as despicable as everyone else, Hepburn makes her delightfully despicable.

She is absolutely perfect for the role. Her posture, her voice, her expression; everything about her demeanor completely embodies a bitter, exiled queen. Some credit should be given to the script, as it helps that she has such great lines, but her delivery makes them even better. She really relishes every word, especially when she's insulting people. Which brings me to her chemistry with Peter O'Toole, who was 25 years younger than her but still believable as her mostly-estranged husband, and who is the object of the majority of her insults. He's clearly supposed to be younger than her, but not by that much. She's supposed to be 61, which she was, and he's supposed to be 50, when he was really 36. The main reason I bring this up is while O'Toole also does an incredible job, occasionally he appears to be struggling to keep up with her, which you wouldn't expect given how much younger he was. Not too many people speed up with age, but Hepburn seems way more sprightly in this film than in her first Oscar winning performance, when she was 26. I cannot stress enough how well she fits this role. Maybe it was easier for her to channel bitterness and resentment so soon after Spencer Tracy's death, but I don't really think that had too much to do with it. Though I love that she's won so many Oscars, I feel like this was the first one she truly deserved. So it's funny that this is the one that was a tie.

My intent was to decide who should have won between Hepburn and Streisand, but it's a lot harder than I thought it would be. Their characters are so incredibly different - rags-to-riches love-struck Broadway star versus aging queen of 12th century England - and thus require such different acting skills that it's nearly impossible to compare their performances. This highlights the main problem with the Oscars only having one category for all leading roles, unlike the Golden Globes, which separate comedy/musical from drama. But at least for this one year two completely different types of performance were recognized at the Oscars, too. I am inclined to think that Hepburn probably would have won outright if she hadn't just won the previous year, since I think that probably discouraged some people from voting for her, but Streisand's performance was also quite impressive, especially given that it was her first movie. Both Hepburn and Streisand were perfectly cast this year. I guess if I had to pick a winner it would be Hepburn, but mostly just because I like her better in general.

With this, her third win in the category, Katharine Hepburn set a record that still, 46 ceremonies later, has not been matched by anyone else. She herself would go on to beat it by winning a fourth 13 years later, when she also broke the record for oldest recipient of this award. So stay tuned for that. But first comes Maggie Smith, speaking of people who become more sprightly with age, back when she was only 35 and had no idea that about 40 years later she would go on to steal pretty much every scene in one of the most highly acclaimed British TV shows ever.

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