Thursday, 10 December 2009

Shades of Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn holds the records for the most Best Actress nominations. Twelve. That’s subject to change depending on whatever happens at the next Oscar ceremony [and years to come]; but for the moment she’s the record holder. She’s won four and lost eight. When I gave my list of my favourite nominated Best Actress performances I failed to mention any of Kate’s. I knew I’d do this post sooner or later, and I’d probably have had her on too much. There is such a thing as overkill. So here are my thoughts on Kate’s twelve nominations. In ascending order. Of course I could probably pepper this with all her performances that weren’t nominated – but there is such a thing as restraint.
#12 – The Rainmaker as Lizzie Curry
If one were to look at Kate’s 12 Oscar appearances, this would easily be the least talked about. And I suppose with reason, it’s not the best Kate performance. But that’s more because of the film and the role. Kate plays Liz Curry, a spinster who experiences an awakening of sorts when a conman posing as a rainmaker comes to town. It’s based on a play of the same name which later turned into a musical [110 in the Shade]. Kate is never quite at home playing the lowly farm girl, but she has a nice chemistry with Burt Lancaster which doesn’t seem as forced as one would expect. The second half of the story though is exceptionally well done and those moments where Lizzie finds herself are wonderful played. The entire film is a bit too stagy for its own good, and the story is probably a little too creaky age. But it’s sweet in its own way. Kate didn’t have a chance of winning this, but the performance despite some incongruity was sweetly done and at the end of the day a fair to middling Kate is better than no Kate at all.
#11 – Morning Glory as Eva Lovelace

If any film is a victim of its time it’s Morning Glory. Granted I’ve only seen this once, and that was before infatuation turned into obsession; this is not Kate at her best. I can’t fault Fritz for giving it a rather scathing review, although I don’t think it’s bad as he: but then again how could I? :) It’s as theatrical a role as ever, and in it’s ridiculousness it’s a trifle endearing. It’s a slight film and I haven’t seen any of the contenders. I do prefer her Jo March of the same year, but I can’t hate the performance, though I don’t love it. It has it’s moments.
#10 – Woman of the Year as Tess Harding

I’m actually surprised this is so low. But that just goes to show how great she is. It’s the first Kate and Spence film and for that reason alone it’s a gem. Kate plays Kate and Spence plays Spence and the two meet in one of their many battles of the sexes. This film too is probably a bit too creaky, although it reminds me of The Taming of the Shrew which I’m always wont to assume is more of an irreverent ending than a realistic one. It’s not the best Hepburn Tracy pairing but it’s a formidable one, and as with all their films together – you can’t really trade either for one of their contemporaries. It’s not that their good actors [which they are of course] but clichéd as it is, their chemistry was profound.
#9 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as Christina Drayton

Kate had this ridiculous belief that her neck was too long and ugly so she’d insist on having the costume designer make those ridiculous scarves to hide it. After falling into that canal during the filming of Summertime she finally was seeing the effects of that eye infection more than ever, Spencer’s imminent death didn’t help too much. That explains the crying. But with the crying, and the scarves I’ve never really been able to dislike this performance. I won’t make a defence of it. There’s nothing too defend. I guess you like it, or you don’t. I think it’s sweet. I like the way that Christina is always the shrewd mother and businesswoman except when it comes to her husband, and I love that telling off of Patricia that’s deftly played, I love the demure laughter as Spencer orders her Oregon Boysenberry and above all else I love that she can manage to make her scenes with Katherine Houghton even if that girl seems hell-bent on destroying every scene she’s in.
#8 – Long Day’s Journey Into Night as Mary Tyrone
I never could fall in love with this film. It veered between tedious and genius. What was certain though is that each of the four main cast members was exceptional in it. It’s a pity that only Kate could be nominated. What’s difficult about this performance is that it depends on each cast member to work, and it works because they’re all so good. Kate is miscast as Mary; but it’s a glorious error in miscasting. We can never really believe that Kate could be such a broken woman, but it’s that very error in our supposition that makes it all work. And that ridiculously tragic ending works the more for it. I’ll always single out Dean Stockwell – for some of Kate’s best moments in the film are opposite. The film is bizarre at times, but the acting never is.
# 7 – Suddenly Last Summer as Mrs. Venable
I think Kate referred to this as her least favourite experience as an actress. She hated the conditions she was working under and she hated the role. It does throw you a little, but she makes a good villain. For, Mrs. Venable is a villain – through and through. It’s not a particularly subtle film – what with the cannibalism and all; and the performance shouldn’t be particularly subtle either. I wonder how audiences reacted to Kate back then, and I wonder how they’d react to Kate today. The performance is a sight to behold, but the nomination is definitely deserved. It’s a chilling performance, in more ways than one.
#6 – On Golden Pond as Ethel Thayer

Ethel Thayer is one feisty old lady. It’s Kate’s last nomination and her last win and it’s a nice, calm performance. That would normally mean that’s not Oscar worthy and to be honest in 1981, year of good performances, I’m torn between Diane Keaton, Marsha Mason and Kate the Great, but I digress. Kate’s Ethel doesn’t have any big moments, in fact Kate’s Ethel we can construe plays second fiddle to Norman for the entire film but she’s still the lead – definitely the lead. She’s constantly hovering over Norman and the audience, though not in an annoying way. This is because Ethel and Norman Thayer are above everything a couple and it’s that love – old but sturdy – that Kate [and Fonda] are able to convince us of. It’s the honesty with which she cajoles her daughter, or the fierceness that she mothers her surrogate song and it’s the sweetness that she utters all her lines. They’re nowhere near as fierce as those Eleanor or Rose would say, but she’s no less quotable for being the perfect wife and urging her husband on.
#5 – The African Queen as Rose Sayer

I’ll always say. I’d prefer if Marlon trumped Bogart and Hepburn trumped Leigh in 1951. But in the end they all have Oscars – some more than others. Kate was an actor who never really underwent stark physical transformation to prove a point, but she does in The African Queen. Look at The African Queen and then look at Pat & Mike which was shot afterward. It may not be as startling as Liz Taylor’s descent into Martha, but it’s startling enough. Kate’s quasi British affectation is so well played and unjustifiably reviled. Personally, I find it hilarious. The African Queen itself is hilarious. It’s a bit too silly for its own good, but in a film with two characters for the most part, it’s forgiven. Kate manages to make Rose’s development realistic and even though I presume those moments of wild abandon in the water were not her acting as much as her enjoying the nature she so love I still find her performance in The African Queen as underrated and excellent.
#4 – Alice Adams as Alice Adams
I know so much behind this performance that I feel as if I was there. There’s that moment Alice goes to her bedroom after a horrible night and cries at the window as the rain falls. Of course Kate wanted to throw herself on the bed in a petulant rage, but Stevens’ accurately felt slow tears would be more effective. They argued and I suppose those tears we do see are more tears of anger than ‘actorly’ sadness. Only Kate. Alice Adams is the story of a girl from a less than distinguished family who hopes to move up in life. It’s a typical story, but a sweet one. Alice Adams is not as likened to Kate as people would believe, she wasn’t a defeatist. But this performance is something to behold. But it’s probably a good thing she didn’t win that deserved Oscar for it, because then we might not have had The Philadelphia Story.
#3 – The Philadelphia Story as Tracy Lords
And this is one of Kate’s best. When I think of Kate’s acting, I think of Tracy Lords. The role was written specifically for her, so she has that on her side. As much as I love Bringing Up Baby, I never liked Kate as the unbridled comedic heroine and in The Philadelphia Story she’s comedic without making a comedy of herself. It’s a nice, juicy role and her performance lives up to it. The play’s treatment of her character is yellow with age, but she manages to sell them and that silent opening scene is flawlessly performed by her [and Grant]. It’s as good as they come.
#2 – Summertime as Jane Hudson

My appreciation of this performance [and film] grew and grew until it became a favourite. People love Kate in superlatives, but as far as her good work goes this always seems to slip through the cracks. Kate plays a spinster who goes to Italy for a vacation and has her first [and probably last] summer fling. She becomes involved with an Italian shop owner, but the romance can only be short-lived because she can’t stay there forever. This is an especially subtle performance and it’s a side of Kate that’s rarely seen. Violet is not as assertive as Eleanor nor as maternal as Christina. She’s a sad creature actually and the opulence of Italy and the romance of the city only heighten the tragedy of her pathetic situation. David Lean never really lets up on that for as romantic as the film may get he [and Kate] are both aware that this is more than just a romance.
#1 – The Lion in Winter as Eleanor of Aquitaine

I wonder, do you ever wonder, if I slept with your father. On its own that line is incredibly stupid, but Kate makes it work. It’s not that the film lags when she’s off-screen. It doesn’t actually. But Kate is priceless to The Lion in Winter. It probably helps her cause that Jane Merrow [like Katherine Houghton before] is completely bland in her role, but it’s more than that. It’s the silliness of the banter with her and O’Toole, but her alacrity in keeping up when it turns dangerous. The truth [or deception?] as she begs her oldest son to love her, that guilt as she realises that Geoffrey is as much as product of hers as her husband. It’s the amazing fact that she makes Rosamund’s teeth into something worthy of remembrance and it’s the simple fact that for all the duplicity of this woman we never EVER finish the film thinking that we dislike Eleanor. How can we?
So comment away. Rank them, what's your favourite...least favourite? Are you writing on any for the blogathon?


Alex in Movieland said...

oops, I've only seen 7 of the 12 :P (not that I needed a list to remind me that. I know the nominations by heart of course). Your #1 seems to be the right choice.


"I’d prefer if Marlon trumped Bogart and Hepburn trumped Leigh in 1951." the second part = blasphemy :)

She doesn't really hold the 12 record. She's SHARING it. :D cause 15-3=12=Meryl.

joe burns said...

I still have a lot A LOT of films to see.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

alex what are the five you didn't see?

joe don't we all?

Alex in Movieland said...

Morning Glory, Alice Adams, Woman of the Year, Summertime and The Rainmaker.

I know you're a fan of Summertime, but even though I HAVE been to Venice (it's there where it takes place right?) I don't have a real urgent need to see it.

i'm probably a bit curious about Woman of the Year, a film i know very little about, except that it's some kind of a comedy