My current Top 5

My current Top 5


Best Actress 1956: Katharine Hepburn in "The Rainmaker"

During the 50s, Katharine Hepburn went through her famous ‘spinster-period’ and received various Oscar-nominations for playing middle-aged women who experience love for the first time after having rejected it for their entire life.

In The Rainmaker, Kate played Lizzie Curry, a hopeless spinster who experiences a night of romance and awakening with a con man played by Burt Lancaster.

We first meet Lizzie at the train station where she is picked up by her father and her two brothers. We learn that Lizzie was visiting some distant relatives and her family hoped that she would finally find a man there. But when Lizzie is leaving the train we already see her worried face – she knows why her family sent her away and she is not able to bring them the news they hoped for. Instead, she tells later, she mostly stayed in her room and was not able to connect with any of the men.

Lizzie is a woman who knows that she is a plain spinster, simple as that. She knows that she will probably never get a man and in her first scenes, Katharine Hepburn shows that Lizzie seems to be more concerned about how her brothers and her father will take this instead of herself. She seems to have accepted her fate and only lives for her family. When they ask her about her stay at her relatives, we see that she doesn’t want to hurt her family by telling them that she didn’t find a man.

But Katharine Hepburn later opens Lizzie up and demonstrates that, underneath all this, she, too, is unhappy about her life. We learn that her acceptance is only a façade and that Lizzie, like everyone else, is longing for love and happiness.

Katharine Hepburn shows us the strong-minded, smart and independent side of Lizzie with her typical commanding screen presence while she plays the sad and unhappy parts with her equally typical collection of tears and shaking hands. In fact, this whole performance is a collection of Katharine Hepburn’s tics and mannerisms and they don’t really connect with the character of Lizzie.

Unfortunately, what becomes most obvious as one watches The Rainmaker is the fact that Katharine Hepburn is brutally miscast. First of all, the age difference between her and the character she is playing is too grand. It just seems weird to send a woman of her age away to find a husband – that’s something that would have made more sense 20 years ago. But to Kate’s defense one also has to notice that she never makes this obvious in her performance: she works very well with the other cast-members and is very believable as the big sister.

Katharine Hepburn has played a lot of spinsters in her career, but something did not fit together here. Apart from being too old, Kate is also too well-mannered. While this works well in her portrayals of sophisticated, well-behaved and intelligent ladies, it doesn’t really work here – this character would have needed an actress who can play more down-to-earth, who is more natural, more alive, more believable as a woman from the middle of nowhere in the American province.

Kate is also captured in a rather silly movie with a rather silly plot. The Rainmaker is also a movie to have a very exclusive distinction: it contains a performance by Katharine Hepburn that was overshadowed by the other cast members. While Kate normally dominates the screen without even trying, Earl Holliman as her brother Jim and Burt Lancaster (who was born to play characters who can sell hot air to the devil) as Bill easily steal the show and give the movie much-needed humor and energy.

Kate’s performance depends a lot on the one by Burt Lancaster. The moment he enters her life, Lizzie becomes a much more interesting character and Kate’s performance becomes much more alive and also amusing. She and Burt instantly develop a fantastic chemistry between them and her skepticism, realism and stubbornness work very well with his over-the-top and exaggerated con man. When Kate showed us Lizzie’s more vulnerable side, we already learned that she isn’t as strong and independent as she likes to pretend. In fact, she says that she wants to find a man to find herself – she wants to identify herself through a man. And when Burt Lancaster enters her house, we know that this is just the kind of man who can help Lizzie to discover her most inner feelings and longings. Kate has some great reaction shots when Burt tries to convince her of his honesty and we see how she becomes more and more fascinated by this man

Besides showing us the blossoming of Lizzie, Kate also has some very amusing scenes when she pretends to be a young, flirting girl. Unfortunately, the character of Lizzie is simply not very interesting and doesn’t allow Kate to ever become really funny or really dramatic.

Sometimes, Katharine even acts a little over-the-top, fake and artificial in her scenes of despair which is something she didn’t do very often. Surprisingly, she is not really able to grab the viewer’s attention in this part.

Kate gets much better in the second half of the picture and her scenes with Burt Lancaster in the barn are very moving and very real. She believably shows that her meeting with Bill is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her. He is able to give her confidence for one night and as a result has influenced her forever. In all her scenes at the next morning, Kate is suddenly very natural and real and shows us all her shining talents. But one also has to notice that these scenes work so well because she plays them in her usual defined and elegant manner which doesn’t work for the character but makes an impression nonetheless.

Katharine Hepburn’s undeniable talents and her miscast in this part result in a very mixed performance: on the one hand she can be great and believable but on the other hand she is also artificial and implausible. She is miscast but she can make it work.

In the end, it’s one of her most unremarkable performances but Kate is good enough to get


joe burns said...

If she was so much older then her character, then why did she cast in the first place?

Fritz said...

I don't know, probably because she was a big star...I'm not sure actually how old her character is really supposed to be because they never say her age but anything above 30 wouldn't make any sense.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

She's supposed to be close to 40 actually. Lizzie is an old maid in the original play and the musical adaptation. The film is horrible, not her best, but there are small nice pieces.

Fritz said...

Ah, thanks for the info! Mmh, Kate was 49 at the time, so the difference was not that big but it still doesn't feel right. Something is just not really working here...

Anonymous said...

I find the film compelling, and produced in such a way that it is akin to a musical. I think it is one of the best films ever made. But Hepburn in the role? Without the strong characterizations by the other strong actors, her very presence would kill the film.

I've been trying to think of an actress better suited for that role. Any suggestions?