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Entries in A Year With Kate (33)

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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Wednesday
Jul232014

A Year with Kate: The Iron Petticoat (1956)

Episode 30 of 52:  In which you’d think Katharine Hepburn would have learned to stay away from accents by now.

The 50s were a time of great growth for Kate. The studio system collapsed and stars became more autonomous (Kate had left MGM after Pat & Mike) and Kate used the opportunity to break out of the glamorous-but-dull mold she'd been thrust into. She pursued scripts, directors, and collaborations that electrified her onscreen and off. She toured in Shakespeare, worked with Oscar-nominated directors, and forged a career renaissance even as her contemporaries flailed. Yes, the films she made contained the dreaded "S" word, but if her ladies were single, they were also single-minded and smart. Kate could have been pushed to the side. Instead she found great roles and challenged herself with the opportunities a collapsing system afforded. If her films seem troublesome now, the craftsmanship and artistic growth of this period cannot be denied.

And then there's The Iron Petticoat.

Folks, I sprained my shoulder on Friday and ended up in the emergency room. Despite the pain, I would almost rather go through it again than re-watch The Iron Petticoat. It’s that bad. [More...]

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Wednesday
Jul162014

A Year with Kate: Summertime (1955)

Episode 29 of 52: In which David Lean's beautiful romantic classic gives Katharine Hepburn an eye infection and me a headache

I admit it. The spinster movies confuse me. When Nick and Nathaniel invited me on the podcast (Have you listened to the podcast? Go listen to the podcast), I stated outright that I don’t like Summertime. As a fan, I take almost personal offense hearing my idol continuously called “plain” or (at best) “interesting-looking.”

But as a cinephile, David Lean’s 1955 love letter to Venice engages me. I can’t help it. I’m a sucker for a scopophilic travelogue cinematography. And trains. And Technicolor films that overuse the color red. And judging from last year's Hit Me With Your Best Shot submissions for Summertime, many of you share my inner conflict.

Summertime is more a mood piece than a plot-driven story. David Lean exorcised most of the third act from Arthur Laurents’ original play, Time of the Cuckoo, in order to create a sweetly romantic view of Venice, love, and September romance. Kate plays Jane Hudson, a secretary from Akron, Ohio who comes to Venice for… something. Adventure, maybe? Hanging out the window of the train to the city with her 8mm camera rolling, Jane proves herself immediately to be a curious and active observer.

Red goblets be damned; that 8mm camera is most important object in David Lean's movie. [More...]

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