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!

share on: facebook

In Memoriam: Katharine Hepburn

There is a dreadful kind of sameness in the biographies of actors; one gets the impression that, for most of them, the greatest role they play is the person they eventually become, or that they only become interesting after exposure to a lot of famous people and exotic locales. The stars most beloved by the Pop Culture Institute, though, are the ones for whom the stage and screen roles they undertake - however good they are - are secondary to the lives they lead, both before and after they become famous.

PhotobucketBefore she was famous, Katharine Hepburn (born on this day in 1907) was the product of a very forward thinking family indeed - to call them liberal is to ignore the fact that many liberals are as uptight as conservatives, but simply with the opposite world view. As a child, Hepburn confronted issues such as birth control and venereal disease as a matter of dinner table conversation; she invariably credited this frankness to making her the outspoken person she became.

While Hepburn became famous the moment she opened her mouth on screen, in the 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement, it seemed to take the public awhile to warm up to her when she was off screen. She was one of the first women in America to wear pants, for instance, which was a scandal on par with Britney Spears not wearing panties seventy years later. Fortunately her extraordinary beauty and unique voice opened more doors than her outrageous bohemianism closed; by the time society caught up to her she was already an icon, and she seems to have become even more famous now, seven years after her death and fifteen years after her last film role, than she was in life.

Of course, the reason Hepburn became so famous is that she couldn't have cared less for fame; when Hollywood stopped sending her scripts, or only sent her shitty scripts, she decamped to New York and went on the stage, or made films in London, or simply spent time in the country. The reason the scandalous behaviour in which she dabbled never seemed to ruin her is that she did what she did without shame, which is the best way to bleed the luridity out of anything.

The newest biography of Katharine Hepburn is William J. Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, published in 2006. Mann's exhaustive re-examination of her life and career seeks to explain the divergence between the actual woman and the various personas she either adopted or had projected onto her.
share on: facebook

Pop History Moment: The Coronation of George VI

On this day in 1937 George VI was crowned King of England alongside his queen; the day had originally been chosen for the coronation of his older brother, Edward VIII, and wasn't changed following his abdication in December 1936, leaving them little time to learn the complex ritual. Still, it went off without a hitch; the service was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang, whose opinion (clerical and otherwise) of Mrs. Simpson was seen as a major reason for the last-minute change of sovereign.

Millions lined the route in a persistent drizzle to cheer as the Gold State Coach passed by - specially illuminated within to give everyone on the sidelines a good view of the passengers. In the midst of a worldwide Depression, and with war clouds forming on the horizon, the coronation gave everyone a much-needed spot of celebration, and the crowds responded with ardour.
share on: facebook

POPnews - May 12th

[Bianca was already four months pregnant with the baby who would grow up to become Jade Sheena Jezebel Jagger when she married Mick at the town hall in Saint-Tropez; she was later quoted as saying 'My marriage ended on the day of my wedding' but is all smiles in this photo despite a tussle with photographers and police delayed the ceremony for ninety minutes, threatening the whole event. The couple separated in 1977 after she discovered his adultery with Jerry Hall; their divorce became final in 1979.]

1191 - England's King Richard I married Berengaria of Navarre in the Chapel of St. George at Limassol in Cyprus while en route to the Third Crusade. Like his kingdom, Richard also neglected his Queen - preferring to make war, not love - although a scurrilous rumour floating around for the past eight centuries has it that His Majesty would've preferred to have married (or at least spent the wedding night with) her brother Sancho VII, the King of Navarre.

1328 - Antipope Nicholas V - a spurious claimant to the papacy who was largely the puppet of the excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV the Bavarian - was consecrated at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome by the James Albertini, the Bishop of Venice; within a year the former Pietro Rainalducci would also be excommunicated by Pope John XXII, although upon confession he was absolved of his sins (like magic!) and forced to live out his days in elegant captivity in France, at Avignon's Palais des Papes.

1551 - The National University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru - the oldest university in the Americas - was chartered by Spain's King Charles I.

Photobucket1588 - During the French Wars of Religion France's King Henri III fled Paris after Henri, duc de Guise entered the city; theirs was a squabble over the succession, and in this they were perfectly matched - both of them being equally feckless and violent. Within two years their respective compatriots would see them both assassinated but alas, the best sovereign for the job - one Marguerite de Valois (shown, at right, circa 1572) - wasn't eligible due to the Salic Law; she had to settle for being Queen Consort to Henri IV, uniting the otherwise barren Valois line with that of the more vigourous Bourbon which superseded it. Their story (well, hers, anyway - along with that of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre) was later dramatized in the 1845 novel La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas, père as well as in the most recent of its three film adaptations, 1994's Queen Margot.

1780 - Near the end of the American Revolution, Charleston was taken by British forces under Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot following the Siege of Charleston.

1870 - The Manitoba Act was given Royal Assent, allowing for Manitoba to become a province of Canada on July 15.

1885 - During the North-West Rebellion the four-day Battle of Batoche in Saskatchewan - pitting the rebellious Métis against the Canadian government's North West Mounted Police - came to an end with a decisive rebel defeat.

1926 - A nine-day General Strike in the United Kingdom - called in sympathy for coal miners by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and due in part to the recommendations of the Royal Commission chaired by Sir Herbert Samuel that miners' wages be reduced from 10-25% - ended, thanks in no small part to a passel of lies told by the Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin and the duplicity of the TUC itself.

1932 - Ten weeks after his abduction, the infant son of Charles Lindbergh was found dead by a truck driver named William Allen in a roadside ditch near the Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey.

1941 - Konrad Zuse demonstrated the Z3 - the world's first working programmable, fully automatic, Turing-complete computer - to the Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt in Berlin; it was used by the Nazis to perform statistical analyses of wing flutter in aircraft design. Though the original was destroyed during an Allied air raid in 1944, a replica was later built and is currently on display at the Deutsches Museum in München.

1955 - The last portion of the IRT's Third Avenue Elevated subway line serving Manhattan - from Chatham Square to East 149th Street in the Bronx - closed.

1962 - Douglas MacArthur delivered his famous Duty, Honor, Country valedictory speech at West Point.

1965 - The Soviet spacecraft Luna 5 crash-landed in the Sea of Clouds on the Moon as part of a project to study the lunar soft landing.

1971 - Mick Jagger married Bianca Perez Morena de Macias in Saint-Tropez.

1975 - During the Mayagüez Incident the Cambodian navy seized the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez in international waters; considered the final battle of the Vietnam War (despite its tenuous connection to it) the names of the 18 Marines killed in the action nonetheless appear at the very end of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

1981 - Francis Hughes starved to death during the second hunger strike at the HM Prison Maze in Ulster just one week after his compatriot Bobby Sands did the same; it was all part of a campaign for Special Category Status to be re-granted to IRA prisoners. In all, ten prisoners died before the British government relented.

1982 - During a procession outside the shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Fátima, Portugal, security guards overpowered Juan Fernandez Krohn before he could assassinate Pope John Paul II with a bayonet. Krohn, an ultraconservative Spanish priest opposed to the Vatican II reforms, decided that the Pope must be killed for being - get this! - 'an agent of Moscow'.

1994 - Head of Britain's Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition John Smith died at London's St. Bartholomew's Hospital after two serious heart attacks; he was succeeded by Tony Blair.

1999 - David Steel became the first Presiding Officer of the modern Scottish Parliament.
share on: facebook