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Entries in A Year With Kate (38)

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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Wednesday
Aug272014

A Year with Kate: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

Episode 35 of 52In which Katharine Hepburn wins her second Oscar and loses Spencer Tracy.

Today is the first of many goodbyes we’ll have to say on this series. After the success of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with critics declaring her one of the greatest screen actresses of her generation, Kate disappeared for five years to take care of her partner of three decades, Spencer Tracy. It was the longest break she’d taken since she started making movies in 1932, not even her infamous “Box Office Poison” drought had lasted longer than 3 years. But the news was bleak: Spencer Tracy was dying.

Spencer Tracy’s health started declining rapidly in 1961. By 1967, he was in such poor health that the studios considered him uninsurable. Everyone working on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner knew that this would be his last film. As a result, when Spencer Tracy died 17 days after shooting wrapped, Stanley Kramer’s sweet dinner comedy gained new gravitas as the summation of the two decade-long partnership between Tracy and Hepburn.

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was supposed more about miscegenation and racism than it was about reuniting screen legends. Released between Loving v. Virginia and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner told the topical story of a liberal San Francisco couple (Kate and Spence) whose daughter (Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s pretty but dull niece) announces that she’s going to marry an African American doctor (Sidney Poitier, underused). There are a host of issues--the lovebirds have only known each other two weeks and he’s over 10 years her senior--but because this is 1967, race is the main problem the Draytons are forced to chew on. Because of its topicality, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner was a smash success, earning a spot in the Box Office Top 10 and two Oscar wins.

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Wednesday
Aug202014

A Year with Kate: Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)

 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?

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Wednesday
Aug132014

A Year with Kate: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Episode 33 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn is like the Goddess from the Machine.

I want to write about Katharine Hepburn, but the movie keeps getting in the way! Reading last night’s contributions to Hit Me With Your Best Shot, I was struck by how many bloggers described Suddenly, Last Summer as “camp,” “wildly expressive,” or “absolutely batshit gonzo crazy.” This is a film that will not be ignored. It’s garish and shocking. The psycho-babble hasn’t aged well--as Nathaniel points out, such things rarely do. The themes of cannibalism, sexual deviance, and monstrous madness creep like kudzu vines hanging in Violet Venable’s garden, blocking the light and threatening to squeeze the resistance out of unwary viewers who venture into the film unwarned.

This unsettling excess had been, up to that point, unusual for director Joseph L. Mankiewicz--best known for character dramas--but can be easily traced to his collaborators. Gore Vidal adapted Tennessee Williams’s short lyric play about a rich widow’s attempts to hide her dead sons secrets by lobotomizing her niece into a Southern Gothic by way of Freaks. There are scenes with sanitariums and gardens, and many things are said. In fact, you might overlook how talkative the film is thanks to Jack Hilyard’s beautiful black and white cinematography. Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn (both Oscar nominated) battle over and between Montgomery Clift against the lurid Louisiana locations created by Oliver Messel and William Kellner (also nominated). In short, this film is sensory overload.

But I digress. This series is about Katharine Hepburn, not censorship or deviance or strong production design. One shot stands out to me as the definitive Best Shot when discussing Kate’s turn as Violet Venable: an empty chasm in the ceiling into which Dr. Cukrowicz gazes as the elevator whirs to life. You hear Violet Venable before you see her...

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Wednesday
Aug062014

A Year with Kate: Desk Set (1957)

Episode 32 of 52:  In which Katharine Hepburn plays a woman named Bunny who starts a battle of wits with Spencer Tracy's computer. That's actually the plot.

Desk Set is a strange movie that feels both dated and ahead of its time. Its office setting, midcentury style, and technophobic slant are all signs of 1950s comedy. But in tone it stands apart. The 1930s screwball comedies and the 1940s battles of the sexes had given way to two subgenres in the 1950s: sex comedies (typically starring Marilyn Monroe), or romantic comedies (typically starring Doris Day or alternately Audrey Hepburn, depending on the ratio of laughs to romance).However, Desk Set fits into neither category comfortably. Nor is this second-to-last Tracy/Hepburn collaboration a throwback to their 40s battles.

So, where does Desk Set fit? Considering the flirty bickering over lunch, the playful bantering over dinner, the details about food, the major character revelations during holidays, and the amicable way the leads transition from friendship to romance, Desk Set resembles nothing so much as an Ephron romcom.

And that’s exactly what Desk Set is.

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Wednesday
Jul302014

A Year with Kate: The Rainmaker (1956)

 Episode 31 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn lets her hair down and rolls in the hay with Burt Lancaster.

 It makes a certain kind of sense that The Rainmaker, which is the last of Kate’s Spinster Films, should be the most archetypal of this phase of her career. N. Richard Nash’s screenplay about a silver-tongued conman (Burt Lancaster) who promises water to a town and love to an old maid (Kate) works almost as a genre checklist: Lonely Single Woman? Check. Scenes establishing that most folks find her plain? Check. Handsome outsider who sees the beauty in her? Check. Life affirming rendezvous? Check. Throw in a metaphor about the drought-stricken land and Lizzie’s lovelorn heart, and you have The Rainmaker.

Make no mistake, Lancaster and Hepburn elevate The Rainmaker. Their acting styles clash--Kate’s Old Hollywood manner butts against Lancaster’s charismatic, physical style (which he’d later hone for the incredible Elmer Gantry). Apparently, the two actors disagreed on the set as well. As a result, though both are compelling, they’re never connected in their scenes together. This works in the film’s favor. It’s completely believable that Starbuck and Lizzie are two people who can love each other for a night, but don’t like each other enough to truly fall in love for good. Their dreams are too different; they don't see each other for who they really are.

The best thing about having a film as unsubtle as The Rainmaker is that it relies heavily on its stars, both in acting talent and in star image. Much of this series has been devoted to identifying, attempting to dissect, and--as often as not--flat out worshipping Katharine Hepburn’s star qualities. We’ve touched on everything from Kate’s beauty to her tomboyishness to her charisma and comedic chops, but we’ve neglected one physical trait which was as defining to later Kate as her famous cheekbones: her hair. More specifically, this is about Katharine Hepburn’s hairography, in the key scenes where she unwound the topknot and let it all hang loose.

My official Katharine Hepburn Hair Theory after the jump

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