Thursday, May 12, 2016

Birthday Take: Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year" (1942)

Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year
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 - Woman of the Year (nominated) as Tess Harding

The Take

Among critical consensus, there are few Classic Hollywood actresses that have gotten lobbied with as much praise as Katharine Hepburn. For starters, she is the record holder for most Oscar wins by an actress, with four total (Meryl Streep comes in second with three). However, one must ask themselves why Hepburn was such an iconic and important actress. After all, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford played far more complicated women. Most could boil down Hepburn's performance to an accent, which itself feels like a caricature of a Mid-Atlantic accent. For the crass sake of note, Hepburn never starred in a Best Picture winner, either (though there were nominations aplenty). So, what makes her so great then, especially if most people cannot name more than a few of her films?

What's most impressive is that history washed away the frays of Hepburn's career. In the early days, she was a comedic actress. By the 50's, she was considered "box office poison" by the studios. By the 60's, she won two consecutive Oscars and would receive her fourth in the 80's. For a performer whose success rate wasn't necessarily shining, she sure managed to work hard enough to build up her reputation several times over. Still, one would be forgiven for still asking the question as to why she remains this icon of great acting. After all, she is much more of her time than some of the peers that she outlasted. I suppose the answer isn't necessarily in acting choices, but more in her charisma.

The charisma in question is in her presentation of herself. For instance, Woman of the Year is an early screwball comedy through and through. Its gender politics are very dated. However, there's Hepburn working with future husband Spencer Tracy in a battle of the sexes comedy that actually is very entertaining if you put cultural differences aside. There's a reason that these two worked together. They complimented each other's brashness and allowed for the chemistry of two hard working characters to be endearing. Even then, Tracy's role isn't particularly memorable. The film is mostly about how Hepburn tries to assert herself as a strong, independent woman in a modern society. She wants to watch baseball games with the fellas. She is very outgoing in a progressive way. It's what she would continue to do best, even as she transitioned into more serious fare. 

However, there's something that inevitably works about early Hepburn. Following the rough transition in the early 30's from silent films to talkies (of which her Oscar nominated work was at its roughest), she had an enthusiasm and class that made her difficult to ignore. She could do hard work and be seen as a heroic figure. However, there was something to also seeing her struggle - such as in the film's final act where she comically attempts to make breakfast. She balances her emotions between sheer uncertainty and misplaced confidence in ways that suited physical comedy. Even if Woman of the Year gets buried as one of her lesser films, there's still a magic here that explains why Hepburn was an icon. She was a vulnerable woman, but not always a tragic one. 

It may be difficult to assess this in the modern era when actresses get meatier roles and are often expected to have more range, but Hepburn definitely was important to how women were seen on film. Sure, Davis and Crawford were bitter and sometimes repulsive, but Hepburn embodied the accessible, desirable type that transcended beauty and reflected a desire to be helpful. Maybe her films aren't always the best at aging, nor is her acting style always easy for newer audiences to appreciate. Yet there's still something immediate about her presence that makes her easy to watch. Without history of her various career struggles, she is a wonder in the right role. With history on her side, it's a miracle that she managed to end up with four Oscars after only winning one of her first nine nominations, and not winning her next two for 34 years (then 13 years after that). She is a testament to endurance as well as craft, and that's among the many reasons that she continues to resonate.

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