My current Top 5

My current Top 5

6/10/2010

Best Actress 1967: Katharine Hepburn in "Guess who's coming to dinner"

Ever since Mary Pickford won an Oscar for her flirtatious Southern Belle in the critically panned Coquette at the second Academy Awards in 1929, constant questions have been raised about the different and various reasons behind specific Oscar wins – are the awards truly only given for the performance itself or did additional reasons cause the vote of Academy members? The audience cheered when Elizabeth Taylor received an Oscar in 1961 but her winning performance in BUtterfield 8 had never been considered one of the best of her career, not even at the time of its release and even Elizabeth Taylor herself always openly talked about her dislike for the movie and her involvement in it. And so it easy to assume that the cheers of the audience were not directed at the winning performance but rather at the winning actress – her famous health problems that might have killed Elizabeth Taylor in the weeks leading up the ceremony caused such a nation-wide surge of sympathy that not only school classes prayed for her but also Academy members wanted to show their admiration and respect by casting their votes for a performance that was most likely never intended to be an award-winning acting showcase or a highpoint in Elizabeth Taylor’s filmography. With a lot of personal problems and tragedies, ranging from serious health problems to breakdowns and the tragic death of one of her children, Patricia Neal certainly had sentiment on her side when she was named Best Actress for Hud but unlike Elizabeth Taylor she also had the critics on her side who gave her the kind of reviews that would usually result in an Oscar win even without any additional sentiment and sympathy. And after seven losses in over thirty years, everybody expected Geraldine Page to finally take home the gold for The Trip to Bountiful, having achieved the kind of ‘overdue status’ that apparently made her impossible to ignore, a feeling that many believe also helped Paul Newman or Al Pacino to turn from nominee into winner after a long series of Oscar losses. Those different situations indicate that so-called sentimental reasons can arise from the most different circumstances – they can be a sign of sympathy for personal problems, they can come from a feeling of ‘it is time’ if the winner had to suffer through many losses so far, they can be an acknowledgement of an entire career or simply come as a make-up for a previous loss that many Academy members consider undeserved in hindsight. Of course, all those speculations can never answer the question which part any sentiment played in the final Oscar decision – was this sentiment only the final case for a performance that would most likely have won the Oscar anyway? Does it help Academy members to decide more easily in a field they consider even? Or does the sentiment cause the win of a performance that would most likely not have been considered without it? Obviously those questions can never be fully answered – a win that one Academy member might only have supported for sentimental reasons might be considered completely deserving only based on the actual performance by another one. But still, the Oscar win of Katharine Hepburn for Guess who’s coming to dinner almost invites to a closer look at the surrounding circumstances – because even if this might actually have been one of those cases when a performance is strong enough to win an Oscar without any sentimental reasons, there is no denying that her nomination combined not only one but several factors that might have influenced Academy members in their choice beyond the presented work itself and on more occasion than one, her win is often brought up as a prime example of a ‘sympathy Oscar’ – even back in 1968 journalists openly stated that Academy members have been more strongly influenced in their votes by other factors than her actual performance. And it is in fact rather easy to come up with various reasons why her win might be considered a sentimental choice. On a personal level, there is the most obvious aspect – the death of Spencer Tracy shortly after the conclusion of Guess who’s coming to dinner. Right after the Oscars, one reporter apparently complained that Katharine Hepburn was the first person to win an Oscar because her co-star had died – but Spencer Tracy had not only been Katharine Hepburn’s professional but also her private partner and their relationship, which had lasted for over 20 years, had always been a well-kept but nevertheless open secret in Hollywood. Katharine Hepburn had accepted her position as a quiet mistress since neither Spencer Tracy nor his wife Louise were willing to get a divorce and maybe she was even more than satisfied with this situation, having apparently never been interested to get married again or start a traditional family. During the making of Guess who’s coming to dinner, it was already obvious that Spencer Tracy was only a short period of time away from death and Katharine Hepburn herself later described how she was with him when he died a couple of days later but then left the house and didn’t attend his funeral out of respect for his wife and family. Katharine Hepburn’s lonely position as a widow who could only mourn in private was undoubtedly tragic and might easily have influenced Academy members when they filled out their ballots, maybe feeling that a vote for her was equal to consolation and support which they could not express otherwise. But beyond the personal aspects of the Tracy-Hepburn relationship, there was also the professional level – Hollywood must have looked back and realized what a wonderful on-screen pair they had lost, too, and how Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had exchanged sarcastic remarks and loving affection in multiple movies over a period of 25 years and that Guess who’s coming to dinner was the last opportunity to award this on-screen couple for its influence and place in movie history. But while the death of Spencer Tracy is usually considered the main reason why Katharine Hepburn’s Oscar win could be called a ‘sentimental award’, possible outside factors that could have influenced this particular decision can even be found beyond the relationship of these two actors, private or professional – the Oscar ceremony in 1968 was clearly dominated by a theme of tolerance, understanding and social encouragement, dominated by the movies In the Heat of the Night, which won Best Picture and Best Actor, and Guess who’s coming to dinner, received as a groundbreaking motion picture that not only caused a nation-wide debate on a controversial topic – interracial marriage – but also made a lot of money, too. The atmosphere of the weeks leading up to the ceremony made it unlikely that Guess who’s coming to dinner would go home without any major wins in the most important categories and even if it was honored for its original screenplay, it seemed doubtful that the Academy wanted to pass the opportunity to give its blessing to the celebrated cast, too, considering that the movie received four acting nominations in all four acting categories. But beyond this, even more important factors can be found that could be described as surrounding circumstances in favor of Katharine Hepburn. First of all, Guess who’s coming to dinner had been her first movie in five years – as Spencer Tracy’s health continued to deteriorate, Katharine Hepburn abandoned her screen work completely to support and care for him. And even during the years before, Katharine Hepburn was very selective in her choices and overall she appeared in only three movies between 1959 and 1967 and was Oscar-nominated for every single one of them – Academy members must have been aware of this and maybe speculated just how many more chances they would have to vote for Katharine Hepburn in the future and how selective she would continue to be. And then there was the simple case of ‘Oscar math’ – by 1967, Katharine Hepburn hadn’t won an Oscar in 34 years. She had been nominated and overlooked for classic performances, from Alice Adams to Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen, Summertime and Suddenly, Last Summer right to Long Day’s Journey into Night, she was one of the few actresses who maintained a career from the golden age of Hollywood right into the 1960s and her 10th nomination for Guess who’s coming to dinner put her right next to Bette Davis as the most nominated performer ever, with the only difference that Bette Davis had already won two Oscars compared to Katharine Hepburn's one. So yes, looking at the ‘evidence’, it is easy to support the general opinion that sentiment brought Katharine Hepburn an Oscar that many figure she would not have won otherwise – a feeling supported even more strongly by the sheer fact that the part of Christina Drayton is largely lost behind her more iconic and well-known creations during her long career and that her win came over various actresses whose performances have themselves become iconic creations by now. Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway stand for the new style and voice that began to conquer Hollywood during the decade and their performances as the immoral Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate and the murderous Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde belong to an elite circle of classic and immortalized screen performances whose reputation has already exceeded the actresses behind it. Neither co-nominee Edith Evans nor her performance in the British drama The Whisperers might be remembered in the same way but her work nevertheless belongs to the most celebrated and critically praised performance that the Best Actress category has ever seen, a prime example that popularity and high quality not always need to go hand in hand. And finally, another legendary actress was competing against Katharine Hepburn even if her performance is usually not among the most lauded of her career but her change of image in an unusual genre still caused a startling effect among movie audiences and critics – Audrey Hepburn who was competing for the fifth and final time of her career for her work as a blind woman in the popular thriller Wait until Dark which gave her the chance to combine physical disability with terrorized emotions. So, this closer look at the different aspects of the race made it very easy to accept the general notion that Katharine Hepburn received a sympathy Oscar for various different reasons that range from personal tragedy to a strong over-due status while her competitions seems to indicate that she would not have won this award without any of this sympathy – but obviously this look at the race did not analyze Katharine Hepburn’s actual performance so far which is, in the end, the only aspect that truly matters. Because even if sentimental reasons might have been on her side and her competition might have built a stronger and more well-known reputation, Katharine Hepburn’s work can still be one of those cases when a performance is actually strong enough to win an award without any sentiment and the strength of her competition does not mean that her own performance cannot be just as deserving as any more legendary or popular performances. So even if there are plenty of reasons that could speak for a purely sentimental award, the performance itself, separated from all surroundings, could still offer enough value and achievement to actually be considered with much greater care and dedication.

As mentioned above, Guess who’s coming to dinner was Katharine Hepburn’s first movie appearance in five years. And she most likely not only waited until Spencer Tracy was healthy enough to stand the pressure of filming but also until a project would come along that they both believed in and would be worth the hard work and exhausting process of shooting. And so they starred together for the ninth and final time, not as an unlikely pair in a romantic comedy of the sexes like they had so often in the past, but as an elderly liberal couple whose beliefs are put to test when their daughter announces that she has fallen in love with and wants to marry a colored man. It’s not only a story of changing times but also how those times are accepted, how society will react to people who act and behave outside of the usual norms and how liberal liberals truly are when their theoretical world views are suddenly challenged in form of actual reality – in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Drayton, this means when the black persons in the house are no longer only the maids but a man who could soon become their son-in-law and the question is posed how they can cope with the problems that undoubtedly will arise without abandoning all the believes that had so far been a part of their lives and how they can make their daughter understand their objections after having raised her constantly to their own values and ideas and to be rid of prejudice and blind of color. To ask all these questions, Guess who’s coming to dinner made the intriguing decision to focus its attention not on the central couple but rather on the people around them, especially Joey’s parents and how these startling news not only affect their relationship to their daughter but even to each other. In this context, the position of both characters does not develop towards mere acceptance but rather agreement, support and understanding and the script uses Joey’s parents to display this process and the pain and misunderstanding that can come with it – especially because they find a different tempo in their development and react with a different approach and dealing to this situation. In this parental structure, Katharine Hepburn’s Christina Drayton portrays the softer and more sympathetic side who completes the transformation from shock to denial to acceptance to understanding without a grave amount of emotional soul-searching and in a rather short period of time while Spencer Tracy’s Matt Drayton goes through a long, personal and difficult journey during which he focuses on the danger and prejudice that this couple will face and therefore finds himself unable to give them his blessings and support. This positioning of these two characters already indicates that the arc of Christina Drayton is of much less impact to the overall storyline – Matt Drayton’s decisions, attitude and thinking craft the internal and external conflicts in Guess who’s coming to dinner while Christina Drayton finds her own role and position very early in this process. But unfortunately she not able to also find her own voice as she is a character that is mostly reacting without truly taking action, constantly spending her time reflecting on the actions of others, feeling happiness or fear whenever the actions and thoughts around her call for it and the character of Christina Drayton often touches the story without affecting it – she is never an outsider and her feelings of understanding and support create a strong contrast to the character of her husband and also evoke the movie’s strongest moments of emotional conflicts but those results are mostly accomplished by who Christina Drayton is and less by what she does. But even with those limitations, the importance of crafting this ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’ should not be underestimated as an actress needs to find the right balance of support and objection to become the kind of motherly love that she is supposed to be. It’s a task that Katharine Hepburn fulfilled with warmth and tenderness but her usual determination and intensity shine through the passiveness of the character – and so she was able to find another layer in this role, a thoughtfulness that comes from her own decisions and ideas and Katharine Hepburn realized that Christina Drayton is the much needed strong and steady centre of a family going through a radical change. As stated before, this role as the movie’s and the family’s constant point of reflection might be based on Christina as she ‘is’ and not on what she ‘does’ but Katharine Hepburn found the possibilities of the role in her own decision to let this passiveness of the character be a much stronger influence than initially realized and she showed that Christina’s thoughts and ideas play an important part in the proceedings of Guess who’s coming to dinner even if she could not always use those aspects of her performance in the context of the story.

Right from the start Katharine Hepburn balances the task of showing Christina Drayton as a woman who always wants to be the kind of mother and wife her daughter and her husband need but also as a woman with her own strength, who likes to find her own position and who does much more for the sake of her family than is visible at the first moment, therefore rarely getting the chance to stand in the spotlight, preferring to use her influence and abilities in the background. By focusing on this aspect of Christina Drayton, Katharine Hepburn took the limited aspects of the writing which tended to emphasize the secondary importance and one-dimensionality of the character and beautifully turned it into her own advantage and the most memorable aspect of her performance, actively underlining the ‘background’ role of Christina Drayton without limiting it, crafting her as the quiet anchor in the story, a woman constantly concerned about the feelings of others, trying her best to lead all arguments and fights to a positive ending for the sake of her family. In her work, Katharine Hepburn almost stands for the affection, respect and devotion that is connecting the members of her family – her Christina immediately senses that her daughter’s early return from her vacation and her overwhelming happiness can only have been caused by a new love and Katharine Hepburn portrays the moment when Christina tells her daughter that she is already feeling happy for her after only a few words about John without any vanity but pure simplicity and honesty, creating a strong and undeniable bond between a mother and a daughter in just a few seconds. But even if the support and acceptance of Christian Drayton are two of her most distinctive features, Katharine Hepburn shows that her own initial reaction to her daughter’s fiancé is not one of immediate joy and happiness – Christina may never mind hearing her daughter talk about getting married to a man she just met and clearly joins her feelings of pleasure but when John Prentice enters the room, Katharine Hepburn turns her reaction, a combination of shock, surprise, denial and fear, into the movie’s most memorable moment. The long stare she throws at John Prentice while he is talking is never completely empty, never just a shock but a surface for a thunderstorm of emotions and Katharine Hepburn clearly displays how much is going on in Christina’s mind during that moment, how she is analyzing the situation and surrendering to it at the same moment. But while her first reaction might resemble that of her husband, both characters follow these initial shocks with a different path – Matt Drayton sees the problems and the dangers that can arise from such a marriage while Christian Drayton chooses to see the love and affection between her daughter and John. Katharine Hepburn makes it clear that Christina always respects the decision of her daughter not because she feels that she has to or because it is an easier way to deal with the situation but because she knows that her daughter is always aware of what she is doing and because she feels that the love between Joey and John is more than just a spontaneous decision. The character of Joey might be mostly noteworthy for its naivety but Katharine Hepburn shows that Christina recognizes those sentiments as honesty – Joey is not too unaware of the world to fail to see any problems in her relation to John but she chooses to ignore them and Katharine Hepburn’s own performance constantly follows this theme, showing a woman who might appear to just flow along but actually actively decides to take the direction of her feelings, supporting her daughter unconditionally once she sorted out her own feelings. In her work, Christina Drayton is a very practical and matter-of-fact creation who realizes that she won’t be able to change her daughter’s mind but more importantly, she doesn’t want to – the quiet moment when Christina watches her daughter and John outside and tells her husband that she simply has to feel happy for her is another beautiful moment in which Katharine Hepburn’s own strength on the screen prevents her from portraying Christina as a woman who is just overcome with happiness but instead as a women who chose to feel happiness for her daughter and her new relationship. It’s a simple and yet intriguing approach to this role and the combination of Katharine Hepburn’s thoughtfulness and her own strong personality on the screen with the quiet dignity of the character give Christina Drayton a much more independent life than the screenplay intended.

Katharine Hepburn’s success in Guess who’s coming to dinner is a success that results from her own instincts in a part that is mostly written as a vessel for the movie’s ideas of tolerance and acceptance but also from the simple fact that her screen presence illuminates every role beyond the written word – all this obviously makes it rather easy to overrate her presence and her work in a movie that is never as concerned with her character as she herself might be. Despite Katharine Hepburn’s ability to turn Christina into a maybe quiet but still important part in the structure of the story, her early acceptance of her daughter’s decision does not offer her any further development and the aforementioned passiveness of the role that is often reduced to different reactions to all the emotional chaos around her too often dominates the later parts of her performance. Most of all, the part of Christina Drayton quickly turns into a collection of loosely connected scenes of comfort or grief – ‘loosely connected’ in the sense that the character of Christina comes and goes throughout the movie without ever truly influencing it. Expectedly, Katharine Hepburn portrays all those ‘loosely connected’ scenes that she is given with her usual professionalism, moving intensity and even some surprising wit - the firing of her arrogant assistant Hilary is a truly cherish-able moment in which Katharine Hepburn’s talent for straightforward sarcasm and her dominant screen presence are used to their best intentions and Katharine Hepburn also leaves little doubt that Christina is constantly acting out of the need to adjust her family and its surroundings to the new circumstances of their lives but all those scenes nevertheless rarely advance her character or leave any larger impact at all. The scene in which Christina tells her husband that she will be on the side of their daughter if a fight should arise is strong in itself but still feels strangely out of place during the last minutes of the movie since it doesn’t truly affect the actions and decision of her husband nor does it provoke any deeper change in the character of Christina herself – Katharine Hepburn clearly found the right tone for this moment but she faces a script that too often understands the part of Christina as a token for additional emotional reactions but never as an equal part of its structure. Besides this, Christina Drayton’s role as passive bystander often turns her into the script’s mouthpiece – Guess who’s coming to dinner is the kind of movie that would have caused Norma Desmond to complain about all that ‘talk, talk, talk’ because it almost spends half of its running time to explain what happened in the other half and very often this burden is laid on Katharine Hepburn, turning monologues into mere replays and again denying her the chance to become a person that could appear to be independent from the major plot. Christina Drayton might give her family support and comfort but she finds rarely any opportunity to influence the actions of her husband or her daughter – a weaker actress than Katharine Hepburn could undoubtedly have overlooked the small opportunities in the role of Christina and focused too strongly on the aspects of a ‘suffering wife’ but it is also easy to imagine that many other actresses could have found the same layers and possibilities in their performances even if they might not possess the same kind of charisma on the screen. But it also needs to be said that it is difficult to think of any other actress who would have worked so well opposite Spencer Tracy at this point in his life and career. The strength in the relationship between these two actors had not been the fact that their affair off the screen affected their love on the screen but rather that they were able to create the sort of intimacy, relaxedness and friendship that so often defines a relationship even more strongly than any passion or affection could do. And in the case of Guess who’s coming to dinner, they were able to add a mutual feeling of lifelong support – maybe Katharine Hepburn could do the same with other actors, most notably Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond whom she had never met before this production but was still able to create the illusion of a lifelong connection, but her appearance with Spencer Tracy was nonetheless the most important asset of Guess who’s coming to dinner, not only because both actors had the chance to portray the kind of ‘normal’ marriage that had eluded them in real life, but also because both knew that Spencer Tracy had reached the end of his life which resulted in an undeniable pathos in both performances that created a couple that might have their differences in the past and is also unable to agree on their daughter's marriage for now but still holds on tight to each other, recognizing how lost they would be without each other and how much their love and friendship means to them. Guess who’s coming to dinner doesn’t show a pair that has to get used to each other like Woman of the Year or a couple having to re-discover their feelings like Adam’s Rib but rather a simple marriage that goes through hard times but will come out of it intact, just like it always has. It is maybe the most understated pairing of these two actors but in the context of the story and the context of their own history the most honest and memorable solution. Obviously, the magic in those moments and between those two actors doesn’t arise from what is seen on the screen but rather from what is known behind the screen but sometimes reality can influence make-believe for the better, especially when it creates such a moment as Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy sharing one last look at each other during the final moments of the story when Katharine Hepburn’s performance slowly transcends her character and becomes a moment of pure validity.

But when all is said and done, it appears that Katharine Hepburn’s decision to be a part of Guess who’s coming to dinner was mostly motivated by the general idea behind it and not because of her role itself – Christina Drayton always remains just a small part in the overall variety of reactions that Guess who’s coming to dinner wants to portray and does not exist in the story outside of her relations to her daughter or her husband. But as mentioned before, Katharine Hepburn also has to be applauded for showing that Christina is always in full comprehension of what is going on around her – she was smart enough to not portray her as a romantic fool but found the main difference to her husband in the fact that she sees Joey and John as strong enough to face their problems as long as the whole family stands together. But this does not mean that her Christina is not always aware of the tensions, feelings and worries around her – holding her family together, keeping grief from Joey and preventing Matt from distancing himself from his daughter are are the big worries that Christina faces during the run of the story. In this aspect, Christina Drayton often becomes the secret centre of the story as she is the one who is constantly aware of the other’s actions and thoughts and therefore always one step ahead of them. These are all almost different aspects of Katharine Hepburn’s work which she combines with ease and a hidden cleverness even if it does not allow her to play different games at the same time like co-nominee Edith Evans did the same year so brilliantly but also in a completely different context in The Whisperers. When Christina tells her husband that the times she loved the most in their marriage were those when they were facing difficult situations, she is not expressing the memories of a hopeless romantic but rather starts a hidden approach to slowly remind her husband of the fact that every marriage has to face different obstacles, no matter what they are and where they may come from. Overall, Katharine Hepburn was not able to realize any surprising or unexpected choices in her performance as the role of Christina Drayton is most likely one of the most straight-forward creations of her career but she gave her an inner strength and determination that is easy to miss but gave Guess who’s coming to dinner its own tone and rhythm. So, even if sentimentality did play an important part in this particular Oscar decision, the truth is also that Oscar nominations (and wins) have been given for much less than what Katharine Hepburn achieved in Guess who’s coming to dinner. She created a strong yet tragically helpless character, a warm and important presence that beautifully stands for a special kind of motherly love and anchors the movie’s most emotional moments while never giving in to easy sentimentality and avoids various clichés in her part even if she sometimes cannot fight against all the obstacles she is given by the screenplay. A performance that doesn’t shout out its strength but quietly and almost unnoticed unfolds its distinct aura.




5 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

There really was nothing to her performance. She did what she needed to nothing more. I am pretty sure though she has teary eyes in other scenes that do not make as much sense.

Sage Slowdive said...

If there had been more with her character, I think I would have been more impressed.

joe burns said...

Good review! And I agree. I'm just wondering, why do you always do the winner first?

Robert said...

Great review...it's been ages since I've seen this, I know people are divided on the performance. Of course, Katharine is an amazing actress in general. :P

Zephyr said...

Great review, as always!
It's a shame that for an amazing actress her awards were not for her best performances (except for 'The Lion in Winter'). I can respect Hepburn in everything that she did, but it's not really a best actress role.