My current Top 5

My current Top 5

5/13/2010

Best Actress 1942: Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year"

Going through Katharine Hepburn’s filmography it becomes apparent very soon how closely the milestones of her career are connected to her various Oscar awards and nominations. She won her first Oscar for one of her first movies in which she played a character that surely many considered an alter ego of herself, an aspiring young and arrogant actress who comes into town with big ambitions and even bigger dreams and turns into an overnight success on the Broadway stage. Later she was nominated for the role that officially ended her period as box office poison, for her first motion picture in color and for various variations of her famous spinsters who unexpectedly experience a live-changing romance late in their lives. She was also the female lead in the movies that brought screen legends Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart their only Academy Awards – even if Katharine Hepburn initially wanted to see Spencer Tracy in the part of Macaulay Connor in The Philadelphia Story. But the first pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy on the screen would only be postponed for two years and started one of the most famous professional and personal relationships in Hollywood history. They appeared together in nine movies and the most important cornerstones of this collaboration would bring Katharine Hepburn again the blessing of the Academy Awards as she received her second Oscar for her final performance opposite Spencer Tracy in Guess who’s coming to dinner and was nominated for their first pairing in the romantic comedy Woman of the Year. And even though Guess who’s coming to dinner was a groundbreaking movie on interracial marriage and Woman of the Year a popular comedy of the sexes, made in a time when Hollywood really knew how to bring the best out of this genre, both movies have secured a permanent place in movie history not because of their own virtues but rather because of their significance in the well-known off-screen relationship between these two performers. Guess who’s coming to dinner gave the world one last, wordless exchange that did not merely show two characters remembering their lifetime of love and affection but also two real people feeling the same sentiment simultaneously while knowing that their time together won’t last very long anymore. And just like Guess who’s coming to dinner gave audiences the chance to see Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy share a kind of final farewell moment on the screen, Woman of the Year did the opposite, allowing them to witness the first encounter of these two different personalities who fitted together so perfectly – the characters and the actors. Both Tess Harding and Sam Craig seem like copies of Katharine Hepburn’s and Spencer Tracy’s public images, making the love story on the screen almost seem like a public version of their private relationship – which only added to the overall standing of Woman of the Year as an integral part of Hollywood’s history. But does this strong standing really only come from the pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn or do their movies have their own qualities beyond this? The answer can probably be found somewhere in the middle. The fact that the chemistry between these two actors was based on a genuine affection certainly added an extra spark to all their movies but this does not mean that all of them turned into classics automatically. Woman of the Year, Guess who’s coming to dinner and Adam’s Rib deserve a spot on this list for one reason or the other, maybe Pat and Mike, too, but Desk Set, State of the Union, Keeper of the Flame or The Sea of Grass aren’t necessarily very high on the resume of either Katharine Hepburn or Spencer Tracy. And this obviously leads to the question: was the pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy truly so incomparable? After all, and despite their personal on-screen attraction, they were subject to the same circumstances as other on-screen pairs, showing that even a pairing of these two actors needed favorable material that used their different personalities to its own benefit or offered them a strong and engaging story to be able to truly shine. And most of all, even if Woman of the Year or Guess who’s coming to dinner are well-known motion pictures, none of Katharine Hepburn’s most famous classics Bringing up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen or The Lion in Winter featured Spencer Tracy as her leading man – and Katharine Hepburn never seemed to miss him for one second. So, why is the pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy always regarded so highly, considering that Katharine Hepburn always created wonderful chemistry with all of her male co-stars and that her most famous movie roles were not opposite him? Obviously, the famous backstory behind this professional relationship plays an important part in the reputation of their collaborations but the other reason might be the sheer fact that the legacy of this pairing is mostly based on their most famous collaborations, Woman of the Year, Guess who’s coming to dinner and Adam’s Rib. And the way Katharine Hepburn crafted her characters in regards to their personal relationships is visibly different from her other most famous characterizations. Throughout her career she was mostly known for creating somewhat farouche characters, women who either didn’t want a man or pretended to not need them and even if they did it was mostly in a rather unusual way. She was awkwardly desperate in Alice Adams, deliciously nutty in Bringing up Baby and a scheming opponent in The Lion in Winter. And in movies like The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen or Summertime, she started as a woman who saw herself above the affection of men only to slowly discover some unexpected feelings hidden inside of her. In all these cases, Katharine Hepburn never portrayed what could be considered a typical romantic heroine or a mature and loving partner. But Guess who’s coming to dinner and Adam’s Rib started differently – right from the first scene Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy portrayed a loving couple that has adjusted itself to the needs and demands of the other completely even if a murder trial or an unexpected son-in-law cause a brief rift in their relationships. Of course, even this life-long affection was something that Katharine Hepburn could portray without Spencer Tracy when she co-starred with Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond but these two actors didn’t have the love story behind the camera to make this pairing even more noteworthy. And in her filmography, Woman of the Year was also different from her usual screen personality – because even if the relationship on the screen was new and sudden, Katharine Hepburn’s Tess Harding showed no signs of the aloofness of Tracy Lord or Rose Sayer. Instead, her Tess Harding was warm and loving right from the start, curious of this man who unexpectedly attracted her attention, even if the usual feelings of arrogance and superiority were still visible. And so it does make sense that the on-screen chemistry between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy has achieved this legendary reputation because their most well-known relationships on the screen are so differently executed from those in other Katharine Hepburn pictures. But what has all this to do with Katharine Hepburn’s actual performance in Woman of the Year? Well, a closer and analysing look at the Hepburn-Tracy duo is an important step to not let its legendary reputation influence any judgment on her work but it also indicates that Woman of the Year offers a performance that resembles Katharine Hepburn’s most famous work but also offers something unexpected and surprisingly different.

In her own ways, Katharine Hepburn was not a true chameleon in her craft. Her strong personality always shined through her characters and she did not imperceptibly switch between different personalities, always putting her own distinctive stamp on the roles she played. But her versatility never suffered from this – instead, Katharine Hepburn belongs to the group of strong and unique actresses who all brought their own styles and personalities to their parts but still made each of their characters appear unique and unmistakably. Just like Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford or Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Hepburn could both dominate her character and let herself be overshadowed by it – they all delivered intriguing performances that lived from their star power but succeeded because of their talent. In the case of Katharine Hepburn, she often displayed a very recognizable acting style that seldom differed in her pictures but she still added small details and characteristic traits to the women she played and was able to bring them all to live with her own well-known but still inimitable determination. The reason for a lot of this familiarity might be the sheer fact that a lot of her parts often seemed to resemble each other on a first look – the spinsters from Summertime, The African Queen or The Rainmaker, the arrogant heroines from The Philadelphia Story or Morning Glory or the supportive but still self-determined wife in Guess who’s coming to dinner or On Golden Pond. But these roles all varied in their demands and challenges, Rose Sayer and Jane Hudson might appear like old spinsters but they are still completely different women and Katharine Hepburn's own thoughtful work constantly underlined their unique personalities and their different circumstances. And besides this she has also shown many times in her career that she could easily be completely different whenever she was given the chance – she could be hilariously nonsensical in Bringing up Baby, honestly concerned in Holiday, touchingly helpless in Alice Adams or grippingly scheming in Suddenly, Last Summer or The Lion in Winter. Or surprisingly earthy, approachable and human in Woman of the Year. It's startling that her Tess Harding is actually a character that seems to fit Katharine Hepburn like a glove because all the traits of superiority and arrogance are there and almost understandable – Tess Harding is not a cold heiress like Tracy Lord or an uptight missionary but an expert on the political scenes and an intelligent journalist with contacts around the world, deeply involved in the happenings during the war in Europe, a renowned and respected figure who can form the opinions of millions. Spencer Tracy’s Sam is presented in the rather opposite way – he’s a sports writer, not concerned with too much that’s going on in the world, enjoying a simple life without too many complications. Such a pairing of opposites was not even new in 1942 but it worked so well because Katharine Hepburn defied all expectations with her performance. In Woman of the Year, Katharine Hepburn’s Tess Harding can first be heard as a guest on a radio show and Katharine Hepburn uses her sharp and slightly pretentious voice to indicate right away that Tess Harding is a woman who knows about her own importance and self-worth. Taken by itself, this would not be a reason to expect her to be off-putting and unlikeable but the comments of the listeners, including Sam, and Tess’s opinion on Baseball is enough to cast a rather dubious light on her character – this is a concept that the movie will follow through until the end and even if Katharine Hepburn is always willing to go along with all the demands that are put before her she often cannot overcome the way her character is presented and shaped. In some ways, Woman of the Year unfortunately failed to make use of Katharine Hepburn at her most warmest and radiant (like co-nominee Bette Davis she reached the highpoint of her unique beauty in 1942) since it too often forces her back into the position of a battle ship constantly defending itself by attacking those who are in its way. But more on this later because Katharine Hepburn’s first scenes with Spencer Tracy show a Katharine Hepburn that has never been more relaxed or natural. Their famous first meeting already displays a playfulness in her work that has seldom been visible in her other performances. She doesn’t seem to see herself above Sam, instead she obviously finds him interesting right from the start. She delivers the line that she always likes to quit a battle when she's losing free from any fake friendliness and she has never been more charming than in her acceptance of Sam’s invitation to a baseball game – her short and immediate ‘Okay’ shows a woman who is much more appealing and endearing than anyone would have expected, especially considering that this whole first meeting could have been played completely differently, with a much slower approach and a Tess Harding that still would have preferred to listen to her head instead of her feelings. In some ways it can be speculated if Katharine Hepburn’s performance was actually intended to be so relaxed and light or if it was the novelty of working with Spencer Tracy that led to this acting style. Because, as just mentioned above, Woman of the Year displays like no other movie in her career that Katharine Hepburn’s famous independence and strength was often actually just portrayed as false arrogance and boastfulness or maybe even just too much confidence – and that she needed to be cut down to an acceptable size before there could be any hope for a Happy Ending. But more than that Woman of the Year constantly makes it clear that a relationship in which the woman appears to be the busier, more deciding or just more important person can only be completely illogical and that Tess never uses her role in this marriage for any good but only her own benefit. The first meeting between Tess and Sam, as charming as it might be, also rings false because of the way it makes Katharine Hepburn’s beauty almost surprising because, after all, who would expect an intelligent woman to be beautiful, too? Tess constantly turns into a self-centric monster, a woman who wants to wear the pants and therefore loses every bit of what would be considered ‘feminity’ or any maternal instincts – she adopts a child without actually caring for it or asking her husband and later wants to leave it alone at night and constantly insults her husband’s position without showing any sign of self-realization. And so it’s frustrating to see how Woman of the Year does it best to show that all the imbalance in this relationship is caused by this ‘woman of the year’ who apparently cannot be a woman at all. Of course, Katharine Hepburn is not to blame for any faults of the script but she often cannot catch up with the constant change of tone that has Tess loving and caring in one second and then selfish and distant the next – Katharine Hepburn plays all these moments accordingly but very often cannot connect them. Her part remains strangely underwritten for most of the time despite all the possibilities of a woman like Tess Harding.

But even with all the problems that Woman of the Year presents, it still remains an enjoyable experience thanks to the work of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn who both give the kind of light and charming performances that complement each other perfectly and make their characters themselves much more interesting than their actual actions. His humor and laxity work very well with her more serious approach to the part and throughout the movie it’s always easy to see the sparks flying between these two actors. And while Katharine Hepburn might often not be able to connect the different parts of her performance she still creates many strong moments in a movie that is usually not asking for them. And so there are mostly single moments in her work that stand out more than her actual characterization as a whole. She is absolutely winning in her scenes at the baseball game and for once benefitting from the dominant role that the screenplay is giving her because it allowed her to play Tess not as a typical love interest but a woman who is equal in the development of this relationship and that she is just as much a buddy as a love interest, not intimidated by the men around her and enjoying the game once she understood the rules. She follows those moments with equally memorable scenes and again she displays much more spontaneity and genuineness than in most other of her performances.  She’s honestly charming and delightful in her drunken scenes when she goes out on a date with Sam and later in the taxi and her apartment crafts the sort of intimacy that maybe could only exist truly between her and Spencer Tracy. What’s so refreshing about Katharine Hepburn in those scenes is that her Tess never shows any signs of arrogance and therefore she constantly remains a delightful surprise since the combination of a successful single woman and Katharine Hepburn seems to guarantee this characteristic almost by design. But Katharine Hepburn only displays a natural self-confidence that never pretends her from enjoying the possibilities that life is offering her. The idea of having a man in her life never rings an alarm bell for Tess – she may be strong and independent, but she is neither against marriage nor a husband. Her reaction to his unexpected marriage proposal and her delivery of the line ‘Plenty’ again shows Katharine Hepburn at her most unaffected and she finds a simplicity in those early moments that beautifully complements the complexity of the character even when the writing lets her down. She also never makes it seem as if Tess is swept off from her feet and marries Sam without thinking about it – instead she clearly demonstrates that Tess is aware of her own feelings and steps, showing her as strong and self-reliant enough to know what she wants and what she can handle. There isn’t the kind of virginal coldness in her that she displayed as Tracy Lords two years earlier – her Tess makes it easy to believe that she had her fair share of romance and flirts in her life but it’s the famous attraction of opposites that makes her want to marry this sports reporter who knows nothing about her world just as she knows nothing about his. In some way the fact that Tess afterwards turns rather often into an appalling partner does make sense – even if the marriage did not happen out of a spontaneous idea, Tess still apparently never realized what getting married truly means. But the script never finds the difference between a woman not being able to adjust herself and a woman not giving any thought about the feelings of others, a characteristic that has never been visible in Tess before. And so the previously mentioned statement that it’s questionable if Tess was ever supposed to be played with so much warmth in the early scenes comes back again – Katharine Hepburn apparently wanted to bring more depth and dimension to the part than the script intended to but she is not able to make Tess’s actions and behaviors completely believable. Still, it’s noteworthy that she decided to play her with such honesty and makes it even easier for Spencer Tracy to win the sympathy of the audience but while the chemistry between both actors is always right, the relationship of the two characters remains strangely pale. The attraction of these two opposites loses some of its fascination after the realization how big these opposites truly are and not even the careful direction, in which the screenplay is guiding both characters to let them realize how perfect they are for each other in the end, can re-create the sexual tension and almost magical power of attraction from the beginning of the movie. Nevertheless Katharine Hepburn uses the remaining dramatic opportunities of the script very well – the scene in which she realizes that the little boy she adopted prefers to stay in the orphanage instead of coming back home with her is a very powerful moment of self-realization but even more memorable is Katharine Hepburn’s close-up during her father’s wedding. She later tells Sam that she truly listened to the words spoken by the priest for the first time – and her face touchingly makes this obvious even before. Her sadness, understanding, self-doubt and quiet desperation certainly create one of Katharine Hepburn’s most unforgettable moments on the screen. Later, she again fights a lost cause very bravely in her final scenes when Woman of the Year again wants to show how ‘un-woman’ Tess Harding actually is when she cannot even make her husband breakfast – Katharine Hepburn’s confusion and anger are certainly portrayed well but she is again unable to overcome the limits of the role in those scenes.

Overall, the work with Spencer Tracy clearly had a strangely appealing affect on Katharine Hepburn, letting her open up her usual screen personality without losing all her qualities that made her such a natural choice for the character of Tess Harding. Besides this, she could make complete use of her talents for comedy and drama even if she sometimes feels uneven in the way she brings this character to life. Her work may always feel fresh and Katharine Hepburn has rarely been so loveable but the script too often leaves her helpless and even contradicts her own intentions. So when all is said and done Woman of the Year and Katharine Hepburn’s performance benefit mostly from the undeniable chemistry between the two leading stars – Katharine Hepburn might have worked with other co-stars just as well but the chemistry between herself and Spencer Tracy managed to be defined by friendship and honest support just as much as it was by sexual attraction and love. And this chemistry did more for the success of Woman of the Year than either the script or the two central performances. This shows that both actors could be held back by the same circumstances as other screen pairs but they were still able to use their appeal to the audience and to each other to turn deservedly into one of the most iconic screen couples and the creation of their chemistry should also not be underestimated in its difficulty – Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon worked together on eight pictures and they were often handed tailor-made material but they still never achieved the same kind of intimacy and attraction. So in the end, Katharine Hepburn gave a delightful, charming and sometimes multi-layered performance even if those layers often were not able to connect to each other. It is rather frustrating that Woman of the Year found Katharine Hepburn at her most natural and relaxedness in her career but gave her a part that never truly took advantage of it. All this is not to say that her other work, even if not as relaxed or warm, is less impressive – on the contrary, her most outstanding work has been created by her ability to be so strangely distant and Katharine Hepburn could always be a warm presence if she wanted to but rarely was she so completely willing to let all her guards down. Maybe Katharine Hepburn could not overcome all obstacles of her role and she also could not completely use her own characterization in the context of Woman of the Year but it’s still a beautiful, often amusing and touching piece of work.


6 comments:

dinasztie said...

Well, I was wrong, now I don't think she will be your pick. I'm rooting for Bette. She was soooo great in her soappy movie. I think it's her greatest performance after All about Eve (by a hair). But I keep my thoughts until you write about her. which I hope will be very soon. :-)

Fritz said...

Mh, well, I don't reveal too much when I tell you that there are many Bette-performances I prefer to Now, Voyager...

Sage Slowdive said...

Haven't seen it in a long time, but it's one of my least favorites of Hepburn's nominations.

Fine, but didn't think she needed to be nominated for it.

dinasztie said...

Well, opinions are different. Which are your favorite Bette Davis performances?

Simon said...

Oh, Katharine. How you are missed. Rooting for this lady, then.

Fritz said...

@Simon: Yes, she is missed.

@dinasztie: Mmh, I haven't seen too much of her yet...but I surely prefer All about Eve, Dark Victory, The Letter, The Little Foxes and Jezebel.