Katharine Hepburn sure knows how to make a grand entrance. In SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959) she descends into her hothouse lair by elevator, like a spider lowering herself into her web. In her Oscar-winning performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in THE LION IN WINTER (1968), she enters as a medieval queen should—on a barge floating down the River Vienne. And John Barry’s Oscar-winning music rows her onscreen in imperial splendor.
King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has summoned exiled queen from prison to host King Philip of France (Timothy Dalton) at Christmas court and help the aging Henry select his successor. Eleanor’s arrival begins with a capella women’s choir intoning, “Eleanore/Reginae Anglorum/Salus et vita” (“To Eleanor/Queen of the English/Health and life”). A five-note ascending motif in the oboes and echoing strings accompanies Eleanor’s peaceful journey down the river. The key of the motif turns minor as Henry rushes to meet her.
The chorus (now with male voices) and the full orchestra welcome Eleanor to Chinon, but the suspended tones in the simple trumpet counter-melody clue us in that all is not as it seems. The cue ends as a stately brass fanfare brings Eleanor’s barge to shore.
With her upper-class New England accent, sporting royal red and what appears to be her body weight in fur, Hepburn looks and sounds every bit the regal deity. The music, ethereal and angelic with subtle tension underneath, foreshadows the blistering war of words to come.