The Lion in Winter premiered on Broadway in 1966, and has been revived multiple times on Broadway and in the West End. Two years after its premiere, a film based on the play (written again by James Goldman) was produced starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. The movie received several Academy Award nominations, with Katherine Hepburn winning for Best Actress for her portrayal as Eleanor in a tie with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl—the only time there has ever been a tie in the Best Actress race.
The roles of Henry and Eleanor are highly coveted and considered to be two of the great modern male and female lead roles. Eleanor is an especially beloved role, and many actresses who have played her have won awards for their performances. In addition to Katherine Hepburn, Rosemary Harris won a Tony in 1966, Glenn Close won a Golden Globe in 2003, and Stockard Channing was nominated for a Tony for the revival in 1999.
The play is based on the real lives of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their sons. While they never hosted the lavish Christmas feast which is the basis of the play, their family dysfunction is one of legend. Eleanor of Aquitaine did indeed plot with her three sons--Richard, Geoffrey, and John—to overthrow her husband Henry in 1173. As punishment, she was kept prisoner until Henry’s death in 1189. After Henry’s death, Richard inherited the throne, followed by John. Richard would later be known as Richard the Lionheart, and he was indeed rumored to be gay, as the play depicts. Richard and John would later become key players in the Robin Hood legend.
Playwright James Goldman does leave a historical note for the play, stating that,
“The facts we have, while clear enough as to the outcome of relationships—such things as who kills whom and when—say little if anything about the quality and content of those relationships. The people in this play, their characters and passions, while consistent with the facts we have, are fictions.”