Oscar History

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Pablo Larraín (Jackie)
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« Interview: Lupita Nyong'o on 12 Years, Non-Stop and Her Future | Main | 11 Days Til Oscar. Bette Midler & Original Song »

A Year With Kate: Alice Adams (1935)

Episode 8 of 52 wherein Anne Marie screens all of Katharine Hepburn's films in chronological order

I’ve spent a long time looking at photos of Kate for this blog. It’s not just that she’s beautiful. She just radiates confidence from every perfectly-posed angle. Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine that she could be touched by failure or anxiety. If she’s not relatable, she’s admirable. I’ve certainly idolized her. Earlier I worshipped Kate as Jo March, the success who tomboys aspire to be. But if Jo March - or Kate - is who young girls want to be, Alice Adams is who they so often feel like they are. And as such, Alice Adams is a shock for Hepburn fans...

Alice has no self-confidence. No self-image. No self-awareness. The story of a poor girl trying desperately to rise above her station sounds like a golddigging melodrama. But it’s not money that Alice covets; it’s acceptance.  Kate embodies these insecurities in voice and physicality with painful realism.

The more histrionic Alice gets, the more vulnerabilities she lays bare. Nathaniel has already written about Kate’s chatter, so instead I’ll focus on those brief moments of quiet which speak just as loudly. Alice is too self-conscious to stay still. She constantly fidgets, attempting and failing to outrun her anxiety.

Her most active scene comes early, during a party. Alice has primped and prepared for the dance, but no suitors pursue her. Abandoned by her brother, Alice sits in the corner. She attempts to mask her humiliation through activity.  Director George Stevens keeps the camera trained on Alice, as her rehearsed actions come to an end and she’s left exposed.


First Alice powders her nose with theatrical grace that belies many moments practicing in front of a mirror. Any supposed ease disappears when she looks around to see she hasn’t been noticed. She stiffens with a forced smile, but panic is in her eyes.

Alice next performs across two chairs. She stretches out over both in an attempt to look as though her beau has just left. Again, it’s all false bubbling gaiety.

But Alice is still alone and unnoticed, a fact which is hammered home a moment later when three men rush by her. Though framed in medium shot, Hepburn still manages to portray subtle, painful heartbreak through her eyes and the disappearing line of her mouth.


Kate excels in these moments when Alice is forced to drop her mask and acknowledge her loneliness. Alice is only noticed when she tries to toss her dead violet bouquet - the symbol of her disappointment - and instead has it returned to her by the handsome Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray). She doesn’t realize that Russell is quite smitten with her, dead bouquet and all. Though Arthur pursues her, Alice continues to miss his obvious affection. After an intensely awkward dinner - the subject of Nathaniel’s post - Alice bids Arthur farewell, and only the magic of Hollywood keeps them together at the end.

Despite its ending, Alice Adams made me cringe in sympathy and sadness. It felt masochistic to watch a woman I idolized for her poise and defiance play a girl cowed and desperate for acceptance.  Every girl at a dance has felt like Alice. Will I be noticed? Will I fit in? Am I pretty/interesting/lovable enough? Somehow, I held onto the fantasy that Kate found a way to transcend all of that crap.

Undeniably, by 1935 Kate had become a talented actress. Alice is not flawless - Kate couldn’t quite sell “blue collar.” Still, Alice Adams is Kate’s best dramatic role at RKO, as Oscar-worthy as any of her later wins. Too bad the Academy was too smitten with a certain doe-eyed fireball to notice.

Previous Weeks: A Bill of DivorcementChristopher Strong, Morning Glory, Little Women, Spitfire, The Little Minister, Break of Hearts

Next: 2/24 Dangerous (1935): Part of the spinoff/competition Seasons of Bette.
         2/27 Sylvia Scarlett (1935): In which Katharine Hepburn looks better in a suit than Cary Grant. 

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Reader Comments (16)

It is my greatest wish to someday be described by someone, anyone, as a "doe-eyed fireball."

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

this is lovely and you're so right about it being a shock to Hepburn fans. I haven't ever been a fan fan (though i like some of her work) but this one really surprised me for its vulnerability.

February 19, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

This was the first film I saw as a capital-F Fan of Hepburn and not just someone who enjoyed when she showed up in movies I liked. A shock indeed, though a pleasant one. It's weirdly against-type in a way that work so damn well, though of her '35 roles, I do think Sylvia Scarlett is more fascinating to watch.

My feelings about Alice Adams in general are colored by how not sure I am that Fred MacMurray was the right choice for co-star, but it's certainly not the most unworthy "life in small town New England" picture.

February 19, 2014 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

This and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" are her best turns. For such a revered actress by Oscar, the Academy got it all wrong with her. They honored her for her least convincing performances—and even "The Lion in Winter," the best of her Oscar-winning turns, doesn't fall under her five best.

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

I am not a big fan of Kate. I did, however, admire her work in Alice Adams.
The constant chattering by Alice almost ruined the film but in the end Kate
Proves her worth & gives a nice performance....I remaining nevertheless firmly
In the Bette Davis Camp...

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMark

What intrigues me most about ALICE ADAMS is the way it parallels Kate's work in SUMMERTME. For an actress who so resonates leading lady quality it's odd that these are, arguably, the only two films where she's carrying the entire thing on her shoulders. (She's almost always doing work as part of a duo, rarely alone.) And, more curiously it's odd that neither Jane Hudson or Alice Adams (both most likely in my top 7 of hers) are roles with qualities you'd typically associate with Kate. The nervousness, the try-hardiness, the lack of gumption.

And, yet, Alice is my favourite Kate pre Tracy Lords. I feel for her more than other excellent turns like Linda Seton and Susan. You're so on point about the dynamic between Jo being the ideal and Alice being the reality, and Alice the character always seems on the verge of being ridiculous but then manages to be sincere and unsentimental throughout. A great deal of that is because Kate's fine work, but a significant part is on George Stevens (that crying scene story remains a gem), too, who is an unfortunately unheralded collaborator of Kate. Kate the star needed a role like Alice, and as much as I love Cukor, I don't think anyone but Stevens could have directed her to it as well as this.

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

I know this is about Kate, but can I just mention Hattie McDaniel's delightful and scene-stealing performance as the maid? Anyone who knows her as Mammie only will be surprised by her comedic talent.

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

Andrew K. said JANE HUDSON. ;-)
"I'm sending a letter to Daddy..."

February 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

This was the performance that really made me fall in love with Hepburn. I had seen a bunch of her films before this, but this was just so different from anything else I had seen her do that it really made me a believer. The scene you detail here is so lovely. In fact, I nearly always make t