Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Birthday Take: Katharine Hepburn in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940)

Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Katharine Hepburn
Born: May 12, 1907
Died: June 29, 2003 (96 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress - The Philadelphia Story (nominated) as Tracy Lord

The Take

There are very few classic era actresses that hold as much reverence nowadays as that of Katharine Hepburn. For a generation, she represented poise and elegance in her demeanor. Her fashion was only outshone by her confidence and ability to command the screen. She was a performer that acted like she took the job seriously, and the results paid off nicely. She may  not have ended up with the most Oscar nominations for an actress (that would be Meryl Streep), but she did manage to hold the distinct honor of having the most acting wins for an actress. Starting in 1934 with Morning Glory, she quickly racked up nominations and eventually made a name for herself with The Philadelphia Story; a screwball comedy that was full of alcoholism and spousal abuse that it's an odd time capsule to view today.

The film opens with what is likely the best summation of the film. In a silent film-style approach, Hepburn is seen leaving her husband Cary Grant. Grant pushes her face as comical music is played. She falls. It is the sign of divorce that sets up the story to come in which she falls in love with a journalist played by James Stewart and goes through the motions right before her marriage. It takes place over the course of a few days and ends up serving as a bigger commentary on romance and family. It is a comedy for divorcees who have to live with their past and playfully fight to keep them out. Most of all, George Cuckor's direction keeps all of this from becoming apparent issues.

The biggest factor of all that may benefit the film more than its problematic sexual politics is that it features some of the finest quiet beats. For all of the comical lines and great line deliveries, it is the moments when the characters are forced to quietly react to situations that things become more visceral and exciting. To watch as someone awkwardly bumps into a scene is to see a plethora of things in motion, from the action itself to the reaction shots or the few beats before someone comments on it. It embodies screwball comedy to its core that it seems oddly kinetic and more fast paced than it should. There's not that much physical comedy in it, but the situations are so juxtaposed against each other that it manages to turn the simplest moment of petty competition into something grander. It is heightened without being overdramatic.

Of course, among the cast is Hepburn, who serves as the central love interest and the big pulling force in the film. She puts on the confident charm, the stylized accent, and makes a woman whose ego makes her too confident to fall for just any pratfall. For a woman surrounded by absurd situations, she manages to exist in a ground where she grounds the comedy and also elevates it. Her charisma manages to make the woman into a complicated character capable of competing with Grant and Stewart's prissy men. She at times steals the shows by managing to be too controlling but also occasionally wrong. She gets her own few moments of humorous situations, but what is remembered about her and why it ranks among her best is that she was confident and independent in ways that still feel cutting edge today.

The Philadelphia Story is a film that came early in her career and was a big stepping point towards bigger and better things. While she didn't win for it, it has gone on to be one of her most iconic works. It proved that she could be classy and funny while competing against two actors more known for their slapstick charm. Of course, the real charm of this film is that it is one of those films that condensed screwball idealism and ended up emphasizing why people would revere it. There have been few great screwball films that have been as perfectly paced as The Philadelphia Story. It could be the cast, but it was mostly in the direction. Still, for an actress who would eventually take on more complicated roles, Hepburn definitely nailed the complicated layers of her character and in the process made herself into an icon.

No comments:

Post a Comment