In which two ingénues are introduced...
A girlish debutante in a white gown floats down the stairs and into her waiting beau's arms. Gracefully, they glide around the dance floor sharing quips and quiet smiles. Thus is the world introduced to Katharine Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement in 1932. It's a pretty enough entrance, but somehow inauspicious for Kate the Great. It is just so entirely Movie Ingénue Ordinary. The girl floating down the stairs could just as easily be Jeanette McDonald or Joan Bennett. Considering who Katharine Hepburn was and who she became, one would expect her to come striding into the room like a Greek goddess. Katharine Hepburn would make many more striking and characteristic entrances later, so for now we'll settle for this beautiful-if-ephemeral debut of the ingénue, and proceed with my own introduction.
My name is Anne Marie, and Katharine Hepburn is my idol. The first movie I ever saw her in was The Philadelphia Story. Kate was powerful and witty. She wore pants and still looked glamorous. To an awkward tomboy in middle school, she was everything. This idolatry only intensified as I grew. But recently, while perusing IMDb, I discovered two shocking things:
- I have only seen a third of Katharine Hepburn's movies
- There are exactly 52 of them.
This presents me with an exciting opportunity: "A Year with Kate"...
Enthralled with Katharine Hepburn the Myth, I've never really studied Katharine Hepburn the Actress. So, I'm going to watch one Hepburn movie per week and report back here. I hope you will join me. We're going to go chronologically through her career, from 1932 to 1994.
For this endeavor, I've already begun to build my own monument: MOUNT HEPBURN (pictured left). So far Mount Hepburn is small. It only covers the first 15 years. I've also saved some films on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and DVR. As Mount Hepburn grows and my Netflix queue shrinks in 2014, I hope to gain a better understanding of the actress I love. I'll finally perfect my Katharine Hepburn impression. Maybe I'll convince a few non-believers. And if this blog ever gets optioned for a movie a la Julie & Julia, I'll probably learn a Major Life Lesson as well.
We start this fantastic journey with A Bill Of Divorcement, Kate's first picture. RKO and director George Cukor took a monumental chance on the untried actress, and it made the film. (Cukor's name will pop up a lot here.) The plot is high melodrama--Kate plays a young girl whose insane father (John Barrymore) escapes from the institution in time to ruin the wedding of his ex-wife (Billie Burke).
It's not that Hepburn is particularly bad. She's no worse than her co-stars. (Sorry, John!) What Kate is--and what she remains--is unique. She walks stiffly, her voice is nasally, and she pronounces every vowel like her mouth is full of marbles. She's so skinny that if she turns sideways you can hardly see her. All of this awkwardness boils down to one problem: she is acutely aware of the camera at all times. But the camera is aware of her as well. Though Kate hasn't learned yet how to move or speak in front of a camera, when she's still, she's striking. In fact, Kate's the most attention-grabbing thing in the movie by far. Next to her even the legendary Billie Burke doesn't stand a chance.
For all of my griping in retrospect, at the time A Bill Of Divorcement was a smash. I've tried and tried to figure out why, and the best I can come up with is that it's just so different. She is so different. Unfortunately, "different" is a burden Kate is going to bear for a while. Being different gets you noticed, but how do you sustain it? It's a question Kate will struggle with for her entire career at RKO.
1 down, 51 to go! I hope you'll play along. (Next week is Christopher Strong: In which Katharine Hepburn plays another British lady, and her acting gets better even if her accent doesn't.)