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Entries in A Year With Kate (42)

Wednesday
Oct152014

A Year with Kate: Rooster Cogburn (1975)

Episode 42 of 52In which Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne star in The African Queen 2: This Time it's a Western!

Growing old in Hollywood sucks. To borrow a line from Goldie Hawn, “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” And while Hollywood’s ageism is well-documented and well-criticized, for some aging actors, an equally tricky problem can arise: the trouble with becoming a Legend in your own time. What happens when the legend eclipses the actor?

In 1975, Hepburn was arguably more popular than she’d ever been. This was due in no small part to her friend Garson Kanin’s unauthorized, best-selling 1972 “tell all” entitled Tracy And Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir. Though shocked by the invasion of her privacy, Kate used the public interest that the book generated to fuel her career, appearing on talk shows and even the 1974 Academy Awards (in pants, of course). As a result, in the 1970s, while Bette Davis was taking guest roles, Joan Crawford had retired, and Barbara Stanwyck "slummed" it in TV, Katharine Hepburn was as prolific as she’d ever been, starring in seven movies total. However, her popularity came at cost. Kate became in effect the curator of her own legacy, more valuable as a symbol of the past than as a well-respected thespian in the present.

Certainly, it was Katharine Hepburn the Legend that director Stuart Millar and producer Hal B. Wallis had in mind when they paired her with John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn. Five years after Wayne won his Academy Award for True Grit, Wallis’s wife Martha Hyer penned a sequel designed to play to its two stars’ greatest strengths: take the American Odyssey outline for True Grit, fill it with details from The African Queen (including more white water rapids), add a few pounds of nitroglycerin and some extra genre cliches about the death of the American West, and voila! Rooster Cogburn is born.

Westerns, Oscars, and a comparison Meryl Streep after the jump.

I have the strangest sense of deja vu.

 

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Wednesday
Oct082014

A Year with Kate: Love Among The Ruins (1975)

Episode 41 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn does a TV movie with Laurence Olivier and George Cukor, which might have been disappointing if it wasn't so good.

Whew! What a nice change of pace this breezy little comedy is after so many dramas. Don't get me wrong, I love Great Actresses performing Great Roles in Great Films, but sometimes you just want to curl up on the couch with a glass of wine and laugh with your friend Katie, y'know? It's been 2 months since our last comedy (or less, depending on whether you laugh as hard as I do during The Lion in Winter), and I for one was cautiously excited to see Kate return to comedic form in Love Among The Ruins.

I say "cautiously excited" because even though so many of you pointed out how good this movie is, its existence a TV movie (albeit an Emmy Award-winning one) depressed me. The fact that three giants of the Studio Era - George Cukor, Katharine Hepburn, and Sir Laurence Olivier - were forced to make their triumphant reunion on the small screen, when only a decade before they had commanded CinemaScope and roadshow releases, proved to me once and for all that by 1975, Old Hollywood was dead. And while I by no means begrudge the birth of New Hollywood and the waves of startling creativity that came from the auteurs of 70s counter culture, I nonetheless mourn the way we did (do?) treat our aging giants. So it was with bittersweet feelings that I turned on the television.

Kate delivering some quality sass to dumbstruck Olivier

It turns out that there is such thing as worrying too much.

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Wednesday
Oct012014

A Year with Kate: The Glass Menagerie (1973)

Episode 40 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn takes to TV to show that Laurette Taylor can eat her heart out.

Apparently Kate adapted to TV quickly. Mere months after her first two part television interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Katharine Hepburn returned to the small screen, this time to act. Director Anthony Harvey (last teamed with Kate directing The Lion in Winter) did away with the more fantastical elements of the play in order to get a more "natural" feel, relying on strong acting rather than stagecraft. Nonetheless, The Glass Menagerie remains a touching work of nostalgia and regret that comments in unexpected ways on its legendary lead actress’s life.

When The Glass Menagerie premiered in 1944, Laurette Taylor’s performance as Southern matriarch Amanda Wingfield effectively revolutionized American theatrical acting. In her second foray into Williams’ world, Katharine Hepburn steps out of Taylor’s long shadow. Hepburn's Amanda is not a dreamer, but a fighter. (The biggest shock: Katharine Hepburn, she of the infamous Bryn Mawr brogue, nearly conquers a Southern accent.) Kate plays the most Yankee Southern Belle; she speaks quickly and she demands rather than cajoles. As Kate plays her, Amanda uses her frequent escapes into memory as anecdotal proof that her current suffering is undeserved.

Trivia, nostalgia, and a good reason never to clean out your closet after the jump.

Another explosive family dinner courtesy of Tennessee Williams.

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Wednesday
Sep242014

A Year With Kate: A Delicate Balance (1973)

Episode 39 of 52In which Katharine Hepburn stars in an Edward Albee play that's not Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and does her first television interview.

When you hear “Pulitzer Prize winning drama by Edward Albee,” you probably don’t imagine a play as self-conscious as A Delicate Balance. In Tony Richardson’s chilly movie adaptation, Agnes (our own Kate) and Tobias (Paul Scofield) try desperately to keep pretenses of civility intact. Early on, Agnes debates the possibility of losing her mind - a fall into chaos she worries that she’s tipping precariously towards. Her issue is not how it will feel, but how it will look. What will her husband do? Order, or the semblance of it, must be kept. Civilization is built on such shaky foundations.

A Delicate Balance appears, for its first hour at least, impenetrable, impersonal, and pretty dull.  The supposedly welcoming home is bathed in cold overhead light, which gives everyone a corpse-like pallor and unreadable eyes. The house’s occupants are equally dispassionate. Agnes and Tobias maintain a polite-if-precarious balancing act with each other while living with Claire (Kate Reid), Agnes’s alcoholic sister. Their daughter Julia (Lee Remick) is an empty nester’s nightmare, a grown woman-child on the eve of her fourth divorce.

Slowly then suddenly, the truly bizarre occurs and the film picks up. Two family friends, Harry and Edna (Joseph Cotton and Betsy Blair), have been scared out of their house by a nameless terror, and they refuse to leave Julia’s room, a fact over which Julia quickly flies into hysterics. What starts as a breach of etiquette becomes an existential quandary. Can fear infect like a disease? What rights can friends and family claim from you? What does it say about you if you throw your friends out?

Katharine Hepburn's last Albee play and first television interview after the jump...

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Wednesday
Sep172014

A Year with Kate: The Trojan Women (1971)

Episode 38 of 52:  In which even Katharine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave cannot save a 3,000 year old stinker.

As a budding theater and film student, my freshman year of college I landed in Intro to Set Design. The professor, a thespian in the grand academic style garbed oversized scarves and an air of intellectual enlightenment, explained to us that our final project would be a rules-free design for The Trojan Women by Euripides. “After all,” she said with a weary sigh, “you can’t make it any worse.”

Low praise for high art, but her reasoning was sound. Though The Trojan Women is subversive and surprisingly modern in theme, the play seriously lacks structure. (The year Euripides offered The Trojan Women at the Dionysia theater festival, he placed second out of two.) Beginning immediately after the downfall of Troy, The Trojan Women laments the enslavement, rape, and murder of the women of the captured city. Unfortunately, Euripides fails to tie his diatribe to a plot until late in the play, resulting in a funereal dirge. Like Euripides’s tragedy, Michael Cacoyannis’s 1971 film adaptation is full to brimming with good ideas that ultimately fail to coalesce into something great.

One of these actresses steals the movie after the jump...

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Wednesday
Sep102014

A Year with Kate: The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969)

Episode 37 of 52:  In which Katharine Hepburn plays another aristocrat in an odd little movie that makes no sense.

1969 was a really weird year for Kate. At age 62, she’d achieved commercial and critical success unlike any she’d experienced before. The Lion in Winter and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner had not only earned Katharine Hepburn back-to-back Oscars, but also made her one of the top grossing stars of 1968. But as the 60s blossomed into the 70s, Kate took two very strange steps: an allegory, and a musical. Limitations be damned, she was Kate the Great, and she hadn’t had a flop in 15 years. That was about to change.

The Madwoman of Chaillot works as a curio, but not as a film. Based on a postwar French allegory, “updated” to include topical issues such as student riots and atomic power, the resulting movie is one Be In short of a bad 60s cliche. The cast is a veritable Who’s Who of Old Hollywood, New Hollywood, and Cinecitta: Katharine Hepburn is joined by Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Dame Edith Evans, Donald Pleasence, John Gavin, Danny Kaye, and Fellini muse Giulietta Masina, as well as two of Kate’s former leading men: Charles Boyer and Paul Henreid. This is great news for anyone playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but unfortunately does not improve the quality of the film.

"That's the way we became the Chaillot Bunch!"

 

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Wednesday
Sep032014

A Year with Kate: The Lion in Winter (1968)

Episode 36 of 52: In which if there’s only one Katharine Hepburn film you see, make it this one.

When you take Screenwriting 101, your first lesson is the Three Act Story Structure. Act 1: Introduction. Act 2: Conflict. Act 3: Climax (and hopefully Resolution). If I were to so arrange the lives of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, it would roughly look as follows: Act 1: Eleanor and Henry II fall in love. Act 2: Eleanor and Henry fall out of love and into battle. Act 3: The Lion in Winter. 

James Goldman’s script starts in media res, with Eleanor of Aquitaine (our own Kate) and Henry II (Peter O’Toole) already at the end of two civil wars and any pretense of civility. Knives are out as everyone prepares to fight at the Christmas court at Chinon. Joining them are their three angry sons--Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry)--and the newly minted King of France (Timothy Dalton). (That's right, Hannibal Lector shares a movie with James Bond.) What follows is the messy climax of decades of personal grievances fought on the international stage. In short, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Eleanor, Queen of England, former Queen of France, and Duchess of Aquitaine, is pure Katharine Hepburn: a perfect synthesis of part and persona. It’s Kate the Great at her greatest, channeling three decades of star power, 15 years of classical training, and one year of intense grief into a powerful performance that radiates rage and sex in a way the Hayes Code and her image had never allowed previously. Kate uses her beautifully mastered voice to chew on James Goldman’s dialogue and spit it out with focused intensity. But behind that perfect control seethes a barely contained fury, which bursts forth in beautiful surges of speech.

[more]

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