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Entries in Old Hollywood (85)

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
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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Friday
Sep122014

"The Women" turns 75

Anne Marie here to celebrate a personal favorite. There are two ways to enjoy George Cukor’s sparkling comedy, The Women. The most obvious is to thrill in the delights of the best that a 1930s MGM comedy had to offer: an A-List, all-lady cast including Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard and Joan Crawford; costumes designed by Adrian (with a Technicolor fashion show bonus), and lavish sets, from department stores to nightclubs to Reno, including a bizarrely beautiful bathtub courtesy of Cedric Gibbons. But strip the elegant frivolity away, and you see the true nature The Women: A claws out, teeth bared, no-holds-barred bitchfest.

The Women is social satire aimed squarely at the myth of love in marriage. Neither Clare Boothe Luce (original playwright) nor Anita Loos (who adapted the screenplay) was shy about uncovering the backbiting of upper class socialites. The fights get more vicious as the stakes rise for these rich women for whom marriage is as much a job as a happy accident of love.

The film centers on two knock-down, drag out fights.

ROUND ONE: Saintly Mother Mary Haines vs Perfume Counter Girl Crystal Allen in the dressing rooms of Saks Fifth Avenue. The barbed insults fly as Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, MGM’s reigning royalty, face off.

WINNER: It seems to be a draw. Crystal doesn’t fight fair, but Mary gets a few blows in for motherly morality.

ROUND TWO: Old Wife Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) vs New Wife Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard) in the wilds of Reno, all pretenses of civility stripped:

WINNER: Miriam gets a scar, but she also gets Sylvia’s husband. Here’s where the film gets tricky: Sylvia’s presented as a comedic villain, but she’s also in the exact same position as Mary, losing her husband to a lower class woman. The fact that Miriam Aarons is the victor in the fight and in the audience’s sympathy makes The Women better than a simple divorce comedy.

Of course, these are just two scenes in a film with more insults and innuendo than a Hedda Hopper gossip column. So this weekend, paint your nails Jungle Red, open a bottle of wine, and watch the film while thanking heavens you don’t have friends like these.

Whom do you root for: Mary or Crystal or Miriam or Sylvia?  Post your favorite moments below!

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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