Monday, February 02, 2009

The First Lady of Cinema

Since I don't have much else to talk about (yay Steelers, though!) I figured it was time to give equal due to the great dames of films. And I know it's a common and tempting thing to say "they don't make 'em like that anymore" when speaking about stars of a previous generation. But, when it comes to Katharine Hepburn, it's completely fair to say that they also didn't make 'em like that back then, either.

Her looks were definitely aristocratic, and her attitude balanced on a fine line between the privileged haughty and raging lefty. Her obvious intelligence and cultured education oozed out of her, but it was paired with a winning comedic timing and willingness to be knocked down a peg onscreen even while standing toe-to-toe with her male co-stars. She was a maverick of her day. She wore pants and often refused makeup, quarreled with the studios and blew off press engagements, and yet she also embraced her own stardom. How did this dame get away with her then-outrageous behavior? Well, two things.

One: She didn't get away with it. When the general public caught a whiff of her shenanigans in the mid-30's, she had a string of flops and came to be labeled "box-office poison." This drove her back to Broadway where she had to rebuild her career.

And, Two: As she said, she never realized that women were supposed to be inferior to men. So she took her knocks and flops and then very smartly picked The Philadelphia Story to star in on Broadway. It was a smash hit, and then the film version, in 1940, brought her right back to prime in Hollywood.

How could The Philadelphia Story miss? It's classic screwball comedy -- still incredibly successful in the winning remake High Society, sixteen years later. It reunited Hepburn and Cary Grant, along with mega-director George Cukor, even though their previous effort, Holiday didn't strike box-office gold, and the Hepburn-Grant pairing in Bringing Up Baby was one of her poisoned efforts. (Bringing Up Baby is, however, now considered a classic, and rightly so, as both stars shine in it.) But The Philadelphia Story also threw Jimmy Stewart into the mix. In a role requiring us to believe that our leading lady might actually choose someone other than Carry Grant in the end, Stewart's starry-eyed admiration and affable personality -- along with his milk-raised good looks -- did exactly the trick, and he ended up with his Oscar for it. As for Cary Grant, well, what can I say? He was Cary Grant in it, and that's always more than enough for his dashing highness to be supreme.

But the whole flick hinges on the Hepburn role in this film. As Tracy Lord, Hepburn has to walk a familiar tightrope -- taking abuse and condemnation for being a statue goddess, too uppity and demanding and perfectionist to ever have real love, and then falling from her high grace to become a human and -- again -- being scorned for that. It's really a rather classic feminist role -- she's either a prude or a slut here is the bottom line, and Hepburn pulls it all together and proves that she doesn't have to be one or the other, and, mostly, the hell with anyone who's judging her. Of course, it's all much more mannered than that with questions of class rippling through the growing chaos. And Hepburn is by turns cold and then warmly lovable, smart and silly. And she's never been better. To mention that she was Oscar nominated for this performance is a bit useless, as she was nominated for Oscars every time Jack Warner flushed a toilet.

In the '50s, Kate managed to make hay with "spinster" roles, such as in one of my inexplicable faves The African Queen and Summertime, where she wore the badges of "strength" and "independence" just as prominently and proudly as one would expect and yet still managed to find a mate by the end credits. But The Philadelphia Story was a harbinger of these trademarks to come and remains among the most irresistible, with Kate at her most stunningly strong and sexy.


Alice said...

She had me at "raging lefty!" Spot on review, as always.

Moon said...

Bringing up Baby has always been one of my favorite films - I hadn't realized it was originally a flop! You know how I feel about Jimmy Stewart - I admire Hepburn almost as I admire you!

Perfect review!

SusanD said...

Alice -- viva la lefties!

moon -- I knew I count on you to love "Baby." And Stewart -- well.

Anita - wadahoot said...

As an early-teen, I would watch the oldie movies every morning in the summer, and always looked forward to Kate. I could tell that she had that sly wit and when she looked at 'me' I knew we were sharing a secret that she was better than all the others around her!
Then as she aged, I was stunned by her frankness, good humor and chutzpah.
What a gal!