Episode 34 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn enters the golden age of her career.
This late in A Year With Kate, I really didn’t think I could be surprised anymore. After 8 months watching 34 movies spread over 3 decades of Katharine Hepburn’s life, I believed that I had a pretty firm grasp on who Kate the Great was and how she performed. I espoused the popular wisdom that Kate was best when she played women similar to herself: strong women, smart women; women rarely beaten and never broken. None of these could prepare me for Mary Tyrone, the morphine addict in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Katharine Hepburn, for the first and possibly last time in her career, played a completely crushed woman, and it’s unlike anything else she ever put to film.
Before you rush out to rent a copy, a warning: Long Day’s Journey Into Night isn’t fun. Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play is equal parts art and exorcism. He changed names, but otherwise told the story of his family: his alcoholic brother “Jamie” (Jason Robards Jr.); his stingy father “James,” who’d once been a great actor (Ralph Richardson); his morphine-addicted mother “Mary” (Katharine Hepburn); and even “Edmund” (Dean Stockwell), his young, depressed doppelganger who is diagnosed with consumption. Director Sidney Lumet kept O’Neill’s posthumously-published Pulitzer Prize-winner mostly intact. Instead, Lumet focused on bringing it to the screen with visual sophistication through long takes and abrupt extreme closeups. Later adaptations of plays, including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, would owe a lot to this film stylistically.
This is the kind of role I’d never expect Katharine Hepburn to be able to play. Mary Tyrone is childish before she succumbs to her addiction and downright infantile after. With no discernible thread of rationality holding Mary’s thoughts together in her haze, each emotion she shares is real but disconnected to the one before it, which requires Kate to switch from memory to accusation to denial to forgetfulness multiple times in a scene. True, the Kate-isms and the Bryn Mawr accent are there, but how to discuss the rest of this performance?
The biggest shock is how willing Kate is to sacrifice her vanity to play Mary. The high collars get lower, she submits herself to unflattering closeups. She even mines her own disorder. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night, perhaps because she could no longer hide her essential tremor--the headshakes often confused for Parkinson’s Disease--Kate incorporates it into Mary’s many physical tics. The more passionate and scared Mary gets, the more her hands flutter and her head shakes. It better humanizes a character who is increasingly losing touch with humanity.
This is also a film that casts Kate’s comedic drunk acting in a new light. When playing drunk previously, not only was Kate charming and sparkly and totally sloshed, she was also more honest, emotional, and closer to her “true self.” But there’s nothing “true” about Mary Tyrone when she abuses morphine. Kate uses her sloshed standbys--unfocused eyes, looseness, and lilting speech--to show Mary slowly regress from shaking, nervous wreck to boneless, petulant woman-child, dragging her wedding dress behind her like a toddler with her blanket. In one jaw-dropping scene, Mary gets high while reminiscing to her maid, and that famous Hepburn posture and diction erode completely. It’s a sobering shock to watch Katharine Hepburn roll on the floor and groan because she’s too far gone to stand.
This film is so completely unlike the rest of Kate’s oeuvre that I’m honestly at a loss. I can’t help wondering what alternate paths might have been taken if Kate had continued to push herself in this direction. Kate was nominated for an Oscar that year (against Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane), but lost to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. I call foul to the Academy. Hepburn’s second Oscar wouldn’t come until her next movie, but five painful years and a long goodbye would be required of Kate before the Academy even sealed the envelope. After nine films and two decades, Kate and Spencer would make their last film together.
Who do you think deserved the Oscar for 1962? Kate, Bette, or Anne?
Previous Week: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) - In which Katharine Hepburn is like the Goddess from the Machine.
Next Week: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) - In which Katharine Hepburn wins her second Oscar and loses Spencer Tracy.