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A Year with Kate: Love Affair (1994)

Episode 51 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn gives her blessing to Annette Bening and my inner actressexual weeps with joy.

A man and a woman bump into each other on a transatlantic flight. He’s charmed. She’s unimpressed. They both wear impeccably tailored suits. She banters. He flirts. A freak accident lands them on a Russian cruise ship. Their banter gives way to conversation. Their flirtation leads to longing looks and rose-tinted kisses. They both fall in love. But they’re engaged to other people.

If the opening to Love Affair sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s not a Tracy/Hepburn comedy, nor a Bogie/Bacall noir. In fact, it’s a remake of a remake, told first in 1939 (Love Affair starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer), then in 1957 (An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr), and later canonized in Nora Ephron’s 1989 film Sleepless in Seattle. The third version of Love Affair keeps the story intact: Terry McKay (Annette Bening) and Mike Gambril (Warren Beatty) start an affair on a cruise and promise to meet in three months at the top of the Empire State Building.

Surprisingly, the 1994 film is an even more old fashioned than its progenitors. The first two movies hold the whiff of scandal, but in his remake, Warren Beatty set out to make a simple romantic film with his new wife, Annette Bening. He even cast Katharine Hepburn, Hollywood legend, as the wisdom-spouting aunt. And while Kate only has one scene, her influence is felt throughout the film, because this is a film that is all about its stars.

In his review of Love Affair, Roger Ebert wrote:

When Warren Beatty tells Annette Bening, "You know, I've never been faithful to anyone in my whole life," you have the strangest feeling these words might have passed between them on an earlier occasion.

Warren Beatty, formerly the world’s most notorious bachelor, had been married to Annette Bening for two years when Love Affair debuted. This explains their charged dynamic, but also colors their characters’ interactions in the film. Though their courtship was well-publicized (and mocked, and celebrated), Bening and Beatty were intensely private. Audiences could view the film as a sort of voyeuristic peek into the famously happy couple’s life. But more important than their personal lives was how the film played on their star qualities: Beatty's philandering, and Bening's class. 

Let’s go back to that opening meet-cute. When Mike (Beatty) drops his wallet, it lands by a pair of brown Oxfords. A hand reaches down. The camera pans up a well-tailored brown pinstripe suit to reveal Terry. She gives Mike his wallet and an uninterested glance.

And the entire time I watched this scene, I couldn’t help thinking of another, similar meet-cute that took place half a century before in Woman of the Year.

As introductions go, the heel-to-head once-over used to be fairly common for female characters, especially love interests. The differences between these two scenes are telling - Kate’s stocking adjustment is more overtly for sex appeal, whereas Bening is partially obscured by dim light and is definitely not being “shown off” in the same sense.  Still, the comparison highlights just how similar and different these two stars are. Both are strong women. Both are presented as desirable, despite (because of?) the well-tailored menswear and innate sophistication. And these introductions hew closely to their public personas as well. Annette Bening is the no-muss, no-fuss kind of beautiful. She'll show up in pants and glasses on the red carpet and look like a million bucks. Her beauty comes from maturity - she didn’t hit fame until age 30 - and brains. Sound like anyone we know?

I think it’s important that Beatty cast Katharine Hepburn to play his aunt. Granted, Deborah Kerr had retired a decade previous. But when Bening and Beatty travel over seas and mountains of a deserted island to meet Katharine Hepburn, it feels almost like a pilgrimage to an idol. Kate sits in her house, playing piano, shooing away ducks, and offering bits of sage advice as Annette sits at her side, first awkwardly and then enraptured. It’s the same role Kate has been playing for 10 years, but she’s more important here as a symbol of Old Hollywood than as Mike’s dotty aunt. Through her advice, her hugs, and her gift to Bening, 86-year old Kate is handing off the torch.

We’ve talked extensively for the last few weeks about Katharine Hepburn’s legacy. We’ve focused on the actress individually - her awards, roles, interviews, and books. However, this is her greatest legacy. She blazed a trail for more independent, powerful women to make movies, make headlines, and make changes. It’s a fight we’re still fighting, to be honest. This is the film - her last bigscreen movie, though she’d appear one more time on TV - where we see what sixty years of being independent, unusual, and downright stubborn can do for others. But now, finally, Kate is saying goodbye.

Previous Week: This Can't Be Love (1994) - In which Katharine Hepburn starred in a movie with Jason Bateman, which will make every game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon you play significantly easier.

Next Week: One Christmas (1994) - In which we say a fond farewell to Kate.



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Reader Comments (25)

I like your connection between Kate's legacy and Annette's character. It's certainly the best thing about this misbegotten remake which is a succession of pretty pictures and a whole lot of gauze across the lens.

Kate's fine considering how frail she is but the picture is inert otherwise.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

"By now, finally, Kate is saying good-bye." I got a little choked up! I can't believe this series is almost over.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

This narcoleptic film limps along until it reaches the shrine to Katherine, and we bear witness. Its only reason for existence is to provide this heartwarming big-screen farewell to a great feminist, actress and celebrity. That is enough.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I JUST WANTED TO POP IN BRIEFLY TO SHOUT I LOVE THE BENING. But literally the only thing i remember about this picture is Katharine Hepburn.

December 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Gawd, I really hated this movie. I so wanted it to be good but just like the remake of The Women (also starring Bening), I cursed the screen and shut off the TV in disgust at the end.

Joel6 and Brookesboy--I know you're both big classic movie fans and I really appreciate your comments and opinions, but didn't you think this remake was pure sacrilege? I couldn't even stand Katharine Hepburn in it. Ugh. The original Love Affair is one my favorites from the golden era.

Anne Marie--you rock! This series has been fantastic. Many congratulations on staying with it.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Hepburn's appearence made me sad bit like Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

What a lovely write-up. I can't vouch for this film -- it's been ages since I've seen it, and I barely remembered it even then -- but I can say that the trailer (and, incidentally, k.d. lang's beautiful, though oddly unrelated, 'Love Affair' song) is A+. Simple and elegant, and chock full of gorgeous faces (Bening, Carey Lowell, Pierce Brosnan, etc.). Worth revisiting...for 2-3 mins.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Pam, I totally agree. The original Love Affair is one of the great romantic comedies from that remarkable era. Both Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer are at the peak of their audience-seducing powers. We know opposites attract, but their unique, clashing personas are used in very specific ways to spectacular effect. I believe this Bening-Beatty remake was admirably intended to be an ode that pays tribute to the glamour and style of Old Hollywood. But what it really achieves sadly is reminding us of how they used to do it--and usually better.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Anne Marie-This has been such an amazing, wonderful journey through these columns. I will probably say something similar next week, but honestly, not only has this series been a really beautiful look into the careers of one of my favorite actors, but it's made me consider the careers of so many different actors and how the great ones adapt to eras while still staying true to themselves. This is a really special, lovely series. I both cannot wait for and am so sad for the end next week.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Mareko, Pam, joel6 et all - 2-3 minutes is all you really need to spend on LOVE AFFAIR.AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER and the original LOVE AFFAIR are much better. I still can't stand that ending, though. All Terry needs to do is pick up a phone, and the entire third act conflict disappears. Surely I can't be the only one who gets frustrated by that?

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I know that Warren Beatty's taste in women is, well, broad to say the least.

But when he settles down, he really scores. Christie, Keaton, Madonna, la Bening? I feel like after he's gone we'll learn that he was secretly a gay actressexual.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W.

I'm with Mareko on this, a talented cast, great k.d.lang song, I wanted this to be much better. I felt that Hepburn was passing the torch onto another generation. It felt like she was closing the circle in a very Hollywood way. But I do prefer "Affair to Remember" as a film.

Great series Anne Marie - time to do your Xmas shopping and put your feet up for awhile. Thanks so much.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

LadyEdith - Thanks, but I'm not done yet! We've still got one movie to go!

I'll also be posting an epilogue on New Year's Eve, sharing a Top 10 (or so) list, and hopefully announcing some good news...

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

That good news, Anne Marie?

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Lady Edith. I too love the Deborah Kerr.....Cary Grant version (before Sleepless in Seattle). And the color was beautiful.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Anne Marie, PLEASE tell us you'll be doing another one of these series, except with another great revered actress!?!? Pretty please!!

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

Pam-Yes this thing is a lump of coal. I watched it exactly once and only because Kate was in it.

Neither the original Love Affair nor An Affair to Remember are films that I would put on a favorites list but they are miles ahead of this turgid slog. They both have their charms notably the chemistry between Dunne and Boyer and Kerr and Grant and in both cases McCarey's fluid direction. Despite the fact that they are married in real life Warren and Annette definitely don't share any on-screen spark, in a picture like this that's fatal. And the gauze on the lens! Oh God the gauze on the lens!! Warren's close-ups have more obscured focus than an Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds commercial!

The pacing is off as well. Despite this being shorter than An Affair to Remember (which has its faults-that kids chorus is the stuff of nightmares!!) it has all the zest of molasses creeping down a hill.

This isn't meant to be mean but as far as Kate is concerned she should never have been cast in her part. I can't fault her for wanting to stay active and Beatty pursued her relentlessly to take the role but she wasn't suitable, she's stunt casting. The Grandmother is a definite type of person and serves a very specific function in this story, one that both Maria Ouspenskaya and Cathleen Nesbitt ably exhibited through a calm serenity. Kate was never a serene presence and adding in her frail condition she's simply wrong. Also she doesn't connect with either one of the starring pair. It's bad enough with Beatty but that's a huge problem with Annette's character storywise since the lack of that bond minimizes and more or less negates the gift giving towards the conclusion.

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Nat Who's Next???

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

I haven't seen it since the theatrical release, and I'm pretty sure I saw this before the other versions, but I did like it for the score and the pretty pretty pretty moving pictures. And Miss Kate, of course.

In sheer coincidence, I finally saw the original on Monday, thanks to TCM. That Irene Dunne really had such an expressive face.

I would also like to see this continue with another star. Lauren Bacall? Joan Crawford? And what did ever happen with Bette Davis?

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Ah Joel6. I loved the kid's chorus. It's so Going My Way -ish. (Another Leo McCarey classic)

December 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

I read "Kate Remembered" as a kid and one of the few things I remember is Warren Beatty having to practically pull her teeth for her to say the "fuck a duck" line or whatever it was and the only did three takes of it. I thought this would be the last entry, so I will be pleasantly surprised by what 52 will be!

I think you meant to put "When Harry Met Sally..." for the 1989 Nora Ephron film, not "Sleepless in Seattle" ;)

December 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjakey

Many Warren Beatty movies post-Bonnie and Clyde have gauzy, hazy, sleepy, draggy, ponderous, over-produced, over-directed, plodding, tedious qualities that....zzzzzzzz...What were we talking about?

December 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterrick gould

EVERYONE -- we cannot reasonably expect Anne Marie to jump right into another mammoth project so we're giving her a wee break in January but she will be back with something a little less I OWN ANNE MARIE'S LIFE - BACK OFF!.

But we will continue "A Year With..." albeit in a slightly different direction. Hope you like it.

as for "Seasons of Bette"... I have no excuse for what happened to it other than I overplan? Which is surely what i'll do again this year. LOL.

December 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R


That's great news that A Year With... will be continuing! I've loved the series so much. Even though Kate Hepburn isn't one of my absolute favorite vintage stars I am a fan and it's been fascinating taking this walk through her career, both the rough and the smooth.

Big thanks to both you and Anne Marie for coming up with the idea and making it happen.

December 19, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Good day! I'm not sure if someone is still looking at posts on this blog, but I was hoping to know the location of the Aunt, Katherine Hepburn's house. It's probably much further than I could travel at this stage, but who knows? ;) Kind regards, Adrienne

April 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne

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