(L to R) Cinema Retro contributing writer Todd Garbarini, editor-in-chief Lee Pfeiffer and Anthony Harvey at the Loews Jersey City.
By Lee Pfeiffer
Last Friday, I attended the special screening of The Lion in Winter at the Loews Theatre, the classic movie palace in Jersey City, New Jersey. Not only did I want to see the highly acclaimed film on the big screen for the first time, but the event also allowed me to meet with my old friend, Anthony Harvey who directed the 1968 classic. It had been a few years since I had seen Tony, who I first met when I was writing the Sony DVD documentary on the making of Dr. Strangelove. Tony had been Stanley Kubrick's editor on that film as well as Lolita and it was Kubrick himself who persuaded Tony to try his hand at directing. I was pleased to see Tony looking as fit as ever - though his modesty, in an industry dominated by towering egos, continues to amaze me. As the doors were opened, he said he suspected only a handful of people would turn up. He was shocked to find hundreds in attendance, and prior to the screening, Tony was accorded rock star treatment by classic movie buffs who asked him to autograph their programs. It should be noted that there are no longer any 35mm prints of this classic movie in good enough condition to make it through a projector. This one remaining archival print was made available to the Loews by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Prior to the film, Tony was interviewed at length by author and film historian Foster Hirsch, who is among the best when it comes to asking intelligent questions of his subject. Tony said that he had only one minor independent film to his credit (the little-seen Dutchman) when he was tapped to direct The Lion in Winter. He confessed that initially, it was a bit nerve-wracking to consider he would suddenly be in charge of such a big-budget movie, as well as directing acting royalty like Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn.However, he quickly realized that if he was to enjoy the respect of the cast and crew, he would have to be a decisive and strong figure on the set. His first challenge was to find suitable locations, a feat that would see the production filming in England, Ireland and France. Tony was resolved to accurately recreate the conditions of King Henry II's reign in the 12 century - and found the coldest, least hospitable castle imagineable. He improvised certain aspects of the filming by putting an abundance of animals in the midst of the set without forewarning the actors. Thus, cast members had to negotiate around running chickens and dogs. There was method to the madness as research showed this to be an accurate representation of the king's court of that era.
Tony also related that he encountered a touchy situation when he came to the conclusion that Katharine Hepburn was occasionally over-acting. How does a novice director tell a living legend how to play a performance? He opted for honesty and told her point-blank that she was over-the-top. To his relief, Hepburn laughed and agreed to tone down the dramatics. Tony related that he would go on to make several more films with Hepburn and that they would become friends for life. He also related that he abhors "showy" directors who use camera gimmicks in their films. He said he keeps the camera fairly stationary in order to not interfere with the performances. He was highly critical of today's shooting and editing styles, which often consist of fast-moving, blurry images almost impossible to discern. When Hirsch challenged Tony about the fact the he occasionally used the zoom lens in Lion in Winter,Tony elicited a big laugh from the audience by saying the technique was due to the fact that the film's director was an amateur and that "those scenes should all be cut out!" Tony also discussed the pleasure of directing Anthony Hopkins in his first screen performance. (The film also marked the movie debut of Timothy Dalton). He also related that he hired John Barry to compose the Oscar-winning score because Barry had done the music for Dutchman several years before gratis, despite the fact he was already an acclaimed film composer.
Tony recalled the evening of the Academy Awards in 1969 that found him nominated for Best Director and Kate Hepburn for Best Actress. He said he was so nervous about going on stage that he actually felt relieved when Sir Carol Reed won Best Director for Oliver! However, since Hepburn never attended an Oscar performance in a year in which she was nominated, she had asked Tony to accept on her behalf if she won. Sure enough, there was a tie that year and Hepburn shared the Oscar with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. Tony related a hilarious anecdote that found him clumsily stepping on Streisand's gown and revealing part of her backside on the podium - though neither she nor the audience was aware of it. Although he didn't tell the story during this interview, Tony once told me that when he delivered Hepburn's Oscar to her at her home in Connecticut, he found her painting her kitchen. She told Tony to store the award, which was wrapped in an abundance of paper, in the kitchen cupboard so it wouldn't be damaged. Many months later, he returned to visit her, and upon going into the cupboard found Oscar undisturbed and still wrapped in the paper!
In all, it was a memorable evening dedicated to a talented filmmaker - who never seems to understand why audiences make such a fuss about his work.
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Click here to order The Lion in Winter from Amazon.Click here to order John Barry's Oscar-winning soundtrack on CD for only $6.99.