Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Best Of The Best: Katharine Hepburn

Even at her worst (although I'm not sure there is such a thing) Katharine Hepburn's film roles are all eminently watchable; at their best they transcend the limitations of film, and become paragons of story-telling, regardless of medium. Acting with her whole being, she somehow manages to avoid the pitfalls that define her contemporaries by never being as obviously mannered as her impersonators would have you believe she is. Here, then, are nine of her best, representing one-fifth of her total output on the silver screen, and they are five-star performances all. To paraphrase something one of Spencer Tracy's characters said about one of her characters in one of the many films they made together: 'There ain't much of her, but what's there is cherce*!'

Little Women (1933) - Although the film itself (an early effort by George Cukor) feels a bit creaky today, I'm relatively certain that Louisa May Alcott's source material is at least partly to blame, at least as much as the still-primitive technology being used to capture Miss Hepburn's legendary youthful effervescence. As tomboy Jo March, Hepburn is a bundle of energy opposite the very suave Paul Lukas, and she outclasses her girly-girl sisters in every way.

Sylvia Scarlett (1935) - A critical and box office failure at the time of its release, the film is today considered one of the finest of her oeuvre, a film which is studied now rather than merely watched. Cukor's direction is far more accomplished here, and there's a particularly perverse pleasure in watching her, disguised as a boy, being seduced by Cary Grant.

PhotobucketStage Door (1937) - Another of Hepburn's famous flops, this is one of those films that seems to get more popular with each passing year; I know from experience that it definitely gets better with repeated viewings - so much so that I'm reluctant to watch it as much as I'd like, for fear that it might make my head explode from its sheer fabulosity. The stellar cast - including would-be swain Adolphe Menjou, rival Ginger Rogers, and victim Andrea Leeds to name just three** - give it their all (which is a lot to give) and it just happens to contain one of the most famous lines of dialogue in her whole career: 'The calla lilies are in bloom again.'

The Philadelphia Story (1940) - Having been branded 'Box Office Poison' by an association of motion picture exhibitors (all men, it should be noted) Hepburn did what she would often do in the future - that is, she quit Hollywood for Broadway, found herself the ideal vehicle, and rode it all the way back to Hollywood, to great acclaim. Torn between James Stewart and Cary Grant (the lucky bitch) her Tracy Lord is every bit as aristocratic as Grace Kelly's (in its 1956 musical adaptation High Society) without ever being frigid in the least. The cast is young and beautiful, the dialogue sparkling and brisk, the entire experience a delight...

The African Queen (1951) - Kate and Bogey have the ideal chemistry to pull off this chalk-and-cheese romance, and their banter contrasts nicely with the struggle the two of them find themselves having with the Congo River. Although the scenes of the two of them in the water were filmed in a tank in England, the rest was shot on location in Africa, which demonstrates the fine line between madness and genius on the part of director John Huston.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) - Not even Tennessee Williams at his creepiest can dampen the virtuosity of mid-career Hepburn (as Violet Venable) coming to terms with the murder of her son Sebastian, who remains unseen throughout yet is the main character. Her chilling stillness and brittle elegance makes an ideal counterpoint to the growing hysterics and lush femininity of Elizabeth Taylor. The film is also notable for being the first one Montgomery Clift worked on following the car crash that could have taken his life, but just ruined his looks instead. Hollywood lore has it that once she'd confirmed her role was completed Hepburn spat in the faces of producer Sam Spiegel and/or director Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) - Hepburn's foray into race relations may be the finest film ever made on the subject; it's literally white guilt porn as she and Spencer Tracy come to terms with the fact that their daughter (played by Hepburn's real-life niece Katharine Houghton) is dating Sidney Poitier. Although Poitier's career was built on playing plaster saints, this one is both the saintliest and most plastery. So while great pains are made to show that neither parent is upset at their daughter marrying a black man, dealing with the reactions of others provides much of the film's conflict (and its best moments as well).

The Lion in Winter (1968) - As Eleanor of Aquitaine - the reviled/revered Queen of Henry II, mother of Richard the Lionhearted, and his hapless successor King John - Hepburn balances pathos and politics, history and humour with her usual aplomb, all the while sparring with Peter O'Toole, who lives up to the last syllable of his name in this one. The film marks the onscreen debut of Anthony Hopkins, whose scenes with a scrumptious Timothy Dalton (also in his debut) as France's King Philip II are the most shocking in the film - and indeed some of the most shocking ever filmed up to that date.

On Golden Pond (1981) - Late career Kate not only managed to reinvent herself, she did so in a way that gave rich fodder to impressionists such as Martin Short. Playing a feisty old lady opposite Henry Fonda, the film (as much as her role in it) did much to dispel the rumour that while life may begin at forty, it's far from over at 70. Offscreen their costar Jane Fonda credited the film with effecting a kind of reconciliation between father and daughter before his death the following year, mirroring their onscreen relationship.

* Cherce = choice; from the 1952 film Pat and Mike.
** Also
Lucille Ball
, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Constance Collier, and Gail Patrick... All this plus Andrea Leeds too!

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