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Entries in A Year With Kate (51)

Wednesday
Dec172014

A Year with Kate: Love Affair (1994)

Episode 51 of 52: In which In which Katharine Hepburn gives her blessing to Annette Bening and my inner actressexual weeps with joy.

A man and a woman bump into each other on a transatlantic flight. He’s charmed. She’s unimpressed. They both wear impeccably tailored suits. She banters. He flirts. A freak accident lands them on a Russian cruise ship. Their banter gives way to conversation. Their flirtation leads to longing looks and rose-tinted kisses. They both fall in love. But they’re engaged to other people.

If the opening to Love Affair sounds familiar, that’s because it is. It’s not a Tracy/Hepburn comedy, nor a Bogie/Bacall noir. In fact, it’s a remake of a remake, told first in 1939 (Love Affair starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer), then in 1957 (An Affair to Remember starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr), and later canonized in Nora Ephron’s 1989 film Sleepless in Seattle. The third version of Love Affair keeps the story intact: Terry McKay (Annette Bening) and Mike Gambril (Warren Beatty) start an affair on a cruise and promise to meet in three months at the top of the Empire State Building.

Surprisingly, the 1994 film is an even more old fashioned than its progenitors. The first two movies hold the whiff of scandal, but in his remake, Warren Beatty set out to make a simple romantic film with his new wife, Annette Bening. He even cast Katharine Hepburn, Hollywood legend, as the wisdom-spouting aunt. And while Kate only has one scene, her influence is felt throughout the film, because this is a film that is all about its stars.

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Wednesday
Dec102014

A Year with Kate: This Can't Be Love (1994)

Episode 50 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn starred in a movie with Jason Bateman, which will make every game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon you play significantly easier.

This is it. We’ve reached the final year of Katharine Hepburn’s career. Did Kate know that the three films she made in 1994 would be her last? Did she feel herself slowing down and decide that sixty two years in the spotlight were enough? Since she made no official announcement, it’s impossible to know Kate’s reasons for sure. Still, considering this was Kate’s last starring role, This Can’t Be Love feels like a retirement announcement.

Kate’s first final film was This Can’t Be Love, another TV movie starring Katharine Hepburn as Katharine Hepburn. Actually, she plays Marion Bennett, a world-renowned, Academy Award-winning actress who eschews public life and spends a lot of time being loveably grouchy to her chauffeur (an adorable puppydog-ish Jason Bateman). In Bennett’s younger days, she’d had a torrid offscreen affair with her co-star Michael Reyman (Anthony Quinn). Umpteen years later, Reyman has re-entered Marion’s life, but his intentions are more than merely amorous.

It’s a formula we know well by now, so let’s just settle in and enjoy it. Sprinkle the script with references to Kate’s career, add bits of Quinn’s womanizing past, mix in an opposites attract romance that sounds almost-but-not-quite-unlike Tracy & Hepburn, shake vigorously, and let the sophomoric senior squabbling begin. I actually considered making a drinking game out of counting Katharine Hepburn meta-references, but realized I’d get alcohol poisoning in the first hour. The African Queen, her brother Tom, Coco, her childhood nickname “Jimmy,” Song of Love, and even Rooster Cogburn get a shoutout. My favorite comes from Kate directly. It's a bit of dialog meant to echo the statue metaphor from The Philadelphia Story: “He put me on a pedestal. Good view, but awfully lonely up there.”

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Wednesday
Dec032014

A Year with Kate: The Man Upstairs (1992)

Episode 49 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn, octogenarian and Academy Award-winning legend, wrestles a convict and wins.

“You’re too old not to be interesting,” Ryan O’Neal tells Katharine Hepburn midway through The Man Upstairs. As the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, that certainly turned out to be the case for Kate. The formerly private star was now the subject of documentaries, interviews, and the 1990 Kennedy Centers Honors. When she released her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life in 1992, it would have been fair to say that Kate was the busiest recluse in the business.

By this time, there had been so many biographies, interviews, and fictionalizations of her life--of which The Man Upstairs would prove to be another example--so Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography was her chance to set her life in stone once and for all. Told in Hepburn’s typical forthright, conversational style, Me: Stories From My Life may not be the most linear (or truthful) autobiography, but it is a fascinating character study nonetheless.

With all of this energy being put into the performance of being Katharine Hepburn (in book form and the accompanying TV special All About Me), Kate had precious little to devote to actual film projects, which may explain the underwhelming quality of The Man Upstairs. Our own Kate plays Victoria, a misanthrope living alone with only her maid and relations for company. Her life is shaken when an inept escaped convict named Mooney (Ryan O’Neal) takes up not-so-secret residence in her attic.

Kate takes great joy throughout the movie in alternately snapping and smiling at her costars. (She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her efforts.) O’Neal matches her in energy, but his oily charms slide into a whine too often. Because this is a holiday TV movie, the convict and the hermit become bosom friends, and he teaches her the true meaning of Christmas. The film is overall pretty formulaic, but it does give 85-year-old Kate the opportunity to smack 51-year-old Ryan O’Neal with her cane and wrestle a gun away from him. It’s the little things that make these movies, y'know?

And stay down!

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Wednesday
Nov262014

A Year with Kate: Laura Lansing Slept Here (1988)

Episode 48 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn makes a truly awful houseguest.

Stars! They’re just like us! Except that they aren’t. An entire media industry has been built around bringing our cultural idols closer to us--Twitter alone delivers the illusion of intimacy 140 characters at a time--but at the end of the day, would you actually want to live with one? When George S. Kaufman had to host Radio Personality and Famous Critic Alexander Woollcott for a week, the experience was so aggravating that the playwright and his partner Moss Hart wrote a scathingly funny satire about Woollcott called The Man Who Came To Dinner. I bring this up for two reasons: 1) It’s a great Christmas comedy starring Bette Davis so go watch it right now if you haven’t and 2) This seems to have been more or less James Prideaux’s motivation when he wrote Laura Lansing Slept Here. If Prideaux is to be believed, Katharine Hepburn was witty, charming, and a gigantic pain in the ass.

Kate has played a lot of characters inspired by or based on her in some way, but Laura Lansing may be the most bluntly biographical since Tracy Lord. Laura is no actress, but a different kind of star: a celebrated author with a decades-long career. As Laura’s agent explains in a convenient bit of exposition:

“You were a sensation in your 20s, a household name in your 40s, an institution in your 60s, and now…"

Sound like anyone we know? Now Laura’s publisher is dropping her because she’s too out of touch, living in her NYC penthouse and only emerging for interviews. Laura’s agent begs her to retire, but she brushes off his suggestion with the typical Hepburn handwave. Instead, Laura makes a wager with him, the point of which can only be to move the plot forward: She will stay with an “average” family in Long Island for a week. If she flees back to the city, she must give up writing. Laura appears on the doorstep of an overworked accountant and his stay-at-home wife and immediately starts making demands. The results--to nobody’s surprise but Laura’s--are a disaster.

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Wednesday
Nov192014

A Year with Kate: Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (1986)

Episode 47 of 52In which Katharine Hepburn stars in a geriatric version of The Way We Were.

Mrs. Delafield wants to die. The TV movie opens on an ambulance rushing the society widow to the hospital after an unnamed relapse. Obscured by a breathing apparatus and various medical paraphernalia, Mrs. Delafield lies comatose as her children begin to mourn and divvy up her estate. Her neighbor waxes elegiac on the imminent elegancy of her death. Then, a handsome doctor puts a hand on her shoulder and--miracle of miracles! Mrs. Delafield opens her eyes! And then, out of nowhere, it becomes a marriage comedy.

After last week’s morbid misfire of a movie, the opening of Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry feels a little like purposeful trolling. Grace Quigley extolled the virtues of death for the elderly with an ailing Hepburn at its center, but Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry celebrates the life they still have yet to live. Our Own Kate as Mrs. Delafield makes her actual entrance 15 minutes after the morbid opening, and what a difference two years makes! Kate is bubbling and happy and in full health. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t breathe a tiny sigh of relief. She’s okay! Sure, she can’t carry wood anymore, like she did in On Golden Pond, but that doesn’t matter. She’s too busy carrying the movie.

Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry is about life, or rather the difficulty of having a life when your children start to treat you like a child. Mrs. Delafield falls in love with Dr. Silas (Harold Gould), the doctor whose touch revived her in the prologue. Unfortunately, Dr. Silas is Jewish, and Mrs. Delafield is the kind of rich, blue-blooded WASP whose name ends up on symphony programs and university lecture halls. Her kids, in a shocking bit of anti-semitism for 1986, don’t want her marrying a Jew. His kids don’t want a goy stepmother. Both are called irresponsible when all they are is in love. What are a pair of star-crossed septuagenarians to do?

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Wednesday
Nov122014

A Year with Kate: Grace Quigley (1984)

 Episode 46 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn makes a comedy about suicide with Nick Nolte because she's a living legend and she can do whatever she wants.

The truth about a career that spans seven decades, is that for the majority of that career, you'll be what’s traditionally thought of as “old.” Hollywood does not like “old.” The magnificent part of watching Katharine Hepburn age has been watching her flip old age (and Hollywood) the bird. True, her head wobbles, her hair is gray, and her voice is reedy. Still, she leaps after hot air balloons, bicycles, hauls wood, and even wins Academy Awards at an age far past what would traditionally be considered “her prime.” For the past few years, Kate has looked old, sounded old, and even talked about being old, but the stubbornly energetic woman has never felt old. Which is why Grace Quigley is more than a little scary.

Grace Quigley (originally titled The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley) is meant to be a black comedy about assisted suicide. Think Arsenic and Old Lace by way of Harold and Maude. Nick Nolte stars as a neurotic hitman with the misfortune of meeting Mrs. Quigley (our own Kate), an octogenarian who blackmails him into starting a business with her: killing people who want to be killed. Homicidal hilarity ensues, or would, except it isn't very funny. Despite a striptease set to Tchaikovsky, a hearse chase, and several attempts at witty banter, the movie vacillates between morbidity and dullness. The problem is threefold: 1) director Anthony Harvey (who’d beautifully directed Kate in The Lion in Winter and The Glass Menagerie) lacks the light touch needed for black comedy. 2) Nick Nolte’s character is about as good at killing people as he is at delivering one-liners (which is to say not good at all). Most importantly, 3) For the first time onscreen, Katharine Hepburn looks so frail that it is uncomfortably easy to believe she wants to die.

Kate's brush with death and life affirmations after the jump.

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