Sunday, August 16, 2015

The New Medusa: Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine


It's time for the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. Everyone who is participating is showing that women are more than helpless, needy, frightened, and objects. Women are vibrant, intelligent, and many times the better sex.

After a very lazy two-month hiatus from my fledgling blog, I'm covering someone who probably comes to mind most often when thinking of a strong woman: Katharine Hepburn, and her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter.

First of all, let me admit something: I'm not a fan of Katharine Hepburn (hey, where are you going?!). It's not that I find her to be a poor actress, I'm simply a bigger fan of other actresses. That being said, her performance in The Lion in Winter is the strongest female performance I have ever seen, and rivals only F. Murray Abraham's Salieri as the greatest performance ever put on film.

Who Was Eleanor of Aquitaine? (the short version)

The wife of two kings, the mother of three more kings and two queens. Eleanor was a highly educated woman for her time, intelligent, beautiful, and cunning. She was viewed as such a threat after her revolt against her own husband, Henry II, that she was imprisoned for 16 years. She outlived Henry and all but two of her children. With all of the listed qualities, it's no wonder she was portrayed by Katharine Hepburn. It's hard to see Eleanor as anyone other than Hepburn, so these two women will always be inextricably linked in my mind.

"Did the Channel part for you?"

When we first see Eleanor, she has been imprisoned for approximately 10 years. In that time, she has not gone to waste. We see her sitting and painting or pursuing some other artistic avenue; I'd like to think using the education she received under her father's (William X) reign as Duke of Aquitaine to her full advantage. Her mind has not been dulled by her incarceration, and you can see the wheels turn when she is summoned to France for the Christmas Court. She then confirms that her confinement has been used for other uses: "I scheme a lot, I know; I plot and plan. That's how a queen in prison spends her time", she says, setting us up for the intrigue to follow.

Henry II (Peter O'Toole) describes Eleanor early on as "the new Medusa". What does this mean? Mythologically speaking, Medusa was a hideous bitch who could turn men to stone simply by making eye contact. However, Ovid describes her as being beautiful, at least at some point. At 61, there is still a lingering beauty peeking through from Hepburn's younger years, but "bitch" isn't an appropriate description. She's a woman who is not afraid to use any weapon in her arsenal. Medusa? Perhaps not in looks, but her words and actions could certainly turn lesser men to figurative stone.

Upon her arrival at Chinon, she immediately shows her keen wit with this response to Henry's question about the channel parting: "It went flat when I told it to; I didn't think to ask for more." A humorous and light exchange, to be sure, but also with an underlying wariness on Henry's part, while a confident-yet-prudent tack on Eleanor's part.

What is very clear about Eleanor is that she is a woman of passion. She can be very kind, as when she sees her husband's mistress, Alais (Jane Merrow), after being freed and offering a hug: "Fragile I am not; affection is a pressure I can bear." Yet she can express incredibly disgusting things, as when speaking to Henry about their children: "Henry...I have a confession. I don't much like our children", or "Had I been sterile, darling, I'd be happier today" while speaking to her son Richard (Anthony Hopkins, in his first film role).

The best part about Eleanor's sentiments throughout the film is that none of them seem contrived or dishonest...even when she contradicts herself. There is not a word uttered, or action made, that isn't thought out with a specific result in mind. If her expected result doesn't come, she has another plan ready to go. Her plans are like shark's teeth--one breaks off while trying to bite, but another is there to take its place, ready for the next attack.

Eleanor gains steam as the film moves along, becoming emboldened by her current "freedom" which allows her to scheme with, and against, her children, Henry, France's Philip (a so-very-young Timothy Dalton), and anyone else that will help her attain what she wants.

"I'm like the Earth, old man; there isn't any way around me."

No matter what move Henry makes to circumvent Eleanor's actions, she has a counter-move at the ready.

She lies about having an affair with Thomas Becket (yes, one 't' will do just fine, thank you). And even though Henry knows it's a lie, she clearly gets under his skin, until he hits her back with the prospect of her freedom. All she has to do is give up her beloved John, not to Richard (her favorite to sit on the throne), who was promised Alais and the Aquitaine, thus solidifying his place on the throne and Eleanor's release. She shows some cracks in her foundation at this point, revealing the pain of ten years' imprisonment. But, as with many creatures backed into a corner, Eleanor fights back with the ferocity of the survival instinct. She agrees to give up the Aquitaine on one condition of her own: Henry needs to marry Alais off to Richard immediately, believing that Henry would do anything to keep the Aquitaine for his favorite, John, even give up his beloved mistress. When Richard understands the ruse, he refuses to give up his birthright, and we are back at a stalemate.

"Forget the dragon in the doorway"

With Eleanor the one standing in the doorway, the above advice is given by Henry to Alais after her aborted wedding to Richard. It is poor advice that Henry will come to regret after he explains to Eleanor that he wants an annulment from Rome so that Alais can become his new wife and provide a surely-legitimate heir. Eleanor lives up to the dragon moniker and once again gets one over on Henry: first, by reminding him of his 50 years and the variables that come with trying to sire a king (girls, infant death, etc.), then the dragon strikes with fangs, teeth, and fire--
Eleanor: You can't think Richard's going to wait for your grotesque to grow.
Henry:    You wouldn't let him do a thing like that!
Eleanor:  Let him? I'd push him through the nursery door!
Henry:    You are not that cruel.
Eleanor:  Don't fret; we'll wait until you're dead to do it.
And to end a rant about the cruelty done to her, "I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice."

She has the bastard on the ropes! Not only does Henry fear what Eleanor could do to a yet-to-be-born child, but he also knows he can't depart for Rome and keep his kingdom. If he leaves, Eleanor surely will peel him, and his kingdom, like a pear.

"...we all have knives."

Although this isn't at the end of the film, it is perhaps the most telling of all sequences. Eleanor recognizes their barbarity, accepts her part in it, but doesn't really relinquish the knife that is her cunning. After all, it is at the end of this scene that she sends Geoffrey (John Castle) to betray John, who is plotting against Henry with Philip. Admonishing her children to love one another and then encouraging one to betray the other and their father is duplicitous to say the least!


There are moments throughout the film when Eleanor breaks down, sheds tears, expresses her desire to be released, shows both deep love and contempt for Henry, and even wishes for her own death. Yet none of her emotions betray her anti-damsel status. The one glaring fact that proves Eleanor is no damsel? Henry feels it is necessary to keep her imprisoned in far-away England. That's not how you treat some stereotypical damsel who needs the help and guidance of a man. It's how you handle a foe who is at the very least your equal, if not your superior. It's certainly how you treat an anti-damsel who is a threat to the existence of you and your legacy...or legitimacy.


  1. Thank you so much for joining in with this fabulous review of both Hepburn's performance and the look at the real Eleanor. Double anti-damsel there!

  2. Eleanor of Aquitaine was a great part for Katharine Hepburn. Most modern roles didn't have enough scope to truly use her talents. Eleanor was in distress at times, but she took care of herself.