My current Top 5

My current Top 5

1/03/2011

Best Actress 1933: Katharine Hepburn in "Morning Glory"

There is something very special, almost magical about watching the movie that stands at the beginning of Katharine Hepburn’s incomparable career. Morning Glory was only her third film but Katharine Hepburn belongs to the remarkable group of actors and actresses who made an overwhelming impression right at the beginning of their career – in 1932, she gave her highly acclaimed debut in A Bill of Divorcement and her distinctive features, her sharp face and her always visible touch of arrogance and aloofness made her appear almost as exotic and fascinating as Greta Garbo. For Katharine Hepburn, everything seemed to have come very easy – fame, praise and Oscars. 1933 would be the beginning of a love affair that lasted almost 50 years when she would receive her fourth award for On Golden Pond – a record that even Meryl Streep couldn’t match (yet). All this makes the beginning of her career even more fascinating. It shows how she was able right from the start to create this famous screen presence, a combination of strong personality and awe-inspiring talent that helped her get to the top right away and stay there for the rest of her life. Her combination of A Bill of Divorcement, Morning Glory, Christopher Strong and Little Women turned her into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and not even her noticed presumptuousness and her unwillingness to play the existing rules of the game, which made her also highly suspect in the eyes of fans and colleagues and would turn her into ‘box-office-poison’ very soon, would ever change that. Katharine Hepburn did it her way – all her life.

Because of that, Morning Glory certainly holds a strong fascination for every fan and Oscar follower. Because even though 1933 was ‘her’ year, her win for Best Actress was still an unpopular surprise among Academy members since this newcomer lacked all the visible kindness of other winners before her and she surely didn’t possess the sweetness of other successful newcomers who would later win in this category, like Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews or Marlee Matlin. But it was probably this novelty and imparity that made it so impossible for voters to ignore her even though she constantly ignored them. Looking back on the race, it seems perhaps surprising that she wasn’t competing with her most famous part from that year – as Joe in George Cukor’s Little Women. But in some ways, Morning Glory was simply the perfect vehicle to carry this new and exciting star to Oscar gold since she played a new and exciting actress who is hoping for her big break and becomes an overnight sensation on Broadway – Oscar couldn’t ask for a better chance. Besides being new and exciting, this actress named Eva Lovelace seemed to have been a true alter ego of Katharine Hepburn at this stage of her life – she’s young, talented and arrogant. It’s an interesting combination of actress and part because Eva Lovelace seems to inhabit everything that Katharine Hepburn was and still is famous for. So, it must have seemed very logical to reward her for a role that seemed both mirror her own situation and character but also took a darker look at the price of success and showed the vulnerability behind the self-assurance of these young actresses – Eva and Kate.

So, the question after watching Morning Glory is: what went wrong? On paper, it seems to have all the ingredients for a captivating look behind the glamour of show business and at the arrival of a new star, but unfortunately, all these interesting aspects came together in a shockingly banal, lifeless and bland story. And even more shocking: Katharine Hepburn’s performance is just as banal, lifeless and bland. In the part of Eva Lovelace, she lacks everything that usually makes her such a delightful and entertaining screen presence – charm, honest confidence, poise, appeal and, most importantly, the ability to turn every material into gold. If Morning Glory hadn’t starred Katharine Hepburn, it would have disappeared from the face of earth. And even with Katharine Hepburn it surely wouldn’t have been remembered and it can only be attributed to her Oscar win that the film still exists. The problems of Morning Glory can be found in almost every aspect – the script, the character of Eva and the performance of Katharine Hepburn. Morning Glory isn’t the typical backstage-drama it proclaims to be. Actually, there is hardly any backstage or drama. The only clichéd part of the plot is the obligatory diva who leaves the show on opening night and so makes way for the unknown Eva to become an overnight sensation. Before these scenes, the whole story barely touches the theatre world because Eva Lovelace isn’t part of this world herself yet. She’s an unknown, still willing to take lessons, hoping to find a job. Like A Star is Born in 1937, Morning Glory presents a hopeful, naïve young actress at its center and never really concerns itself with the question if this young actress even has the talent to fulfill her dreams. At the same time, the movie takes a surprisingly unconcerned view on its main character – it doesn’t really care who Eva Lovelace is and instead focuses on who she wants to be. Acting seems to be her main goal but somehow this is a largely absent topic even though everybody constantly talks about it – at the beginning, Morning Glory focuses on her ambitions, in the middle it shows how these ambitions were crushed and at the end how they are fulfilled but it’s done in such a rushed way that never connects the character and the story that it becomes almost aimless in it’s presentation. Granted, with only 70 minutes of running time there may have been not enough room to fully develop the characters and the story but even these 70 minutes are spend very unwisely and a much better movie easily could have been made with this running time. The movie focuses on Eva Lovelace as its main character but at the same time it so often drops her or pushes her to the side even when she is actually in the center of a scene that it’s impossible for the viewer to follow the intentions of the story – are we supposed to admire Eva, pity her, hate her, love her? This doesn’t mean that the movie leaves room for interpretation – it actually makes it very clear that we should love Eva but unfortunately neither the script nor Katharine Hepburn give any reason why we should.

The biggest problem can be found in Katharine Hepburn’s characterization of this aspiring young actress. The character could have been played with a certain childlike naivety but Katharine Hepburn is too self-aware to portray such a woman and that way she tried to cover Eva’s single-mindedness with an overwhelming amount of arrogance. She invests her with nothing else but an incredibly monotonous and annoying voice that goes non-stop and never changes its tone for any emotional connection. It’s a voice that is certainly filled with the right amount of self-assurance but she isn’t able to use her usual strengths, especially her dominance of the screen, to her advantage but instead loses the character of Eva and the viewer’s interest in her before she even tries to find them. Especially the introduction of Eva is working against the actress playing her – the first part of Morning Glory takes place in the office of an agent and the room in front of his office where Eva is waiting, hoping to get some attention. Different characters come and go and even though it’s clear that Eva is the central character, Morning Glory gives just as much time and space to its underdeveloped supporting players. Because of this, Katharine Hepburn spends the first 30 minutes sitting around, delivering her unappealing lines with an unappealing voice and mannerism from time to time and waiting. The right actress might have been able to get a tighter grip on the part and create a more captivating character but Katharine Hepburn only underlines the static natures of the scenes with a characterization that lacks every bit of life or passion. Morning Glory faces the problem that it’s a story that wants to be different from the usual movies from this genre. Usually, the young and aspiring actress is personified innocence, delicate and helpless, waiting for her big chance. In this case, Eva Lovelace is rather the opposite. She almost bursts with arrogance and self-assurance and instead of presenting her inspiring way up the ladder of success, Morning Glory actually seems to enjoy to destroy her self-assurance by denying her the big break in the middle and humiliate her at an important party and later she even begins a futureless, and in the plot of the movie needless, affair with an older man. In this way, Katharine Hepburn’s early characterization makes sense and there is no denying that she shows a change in Eva – at the end of the movie, she has learned quite a few lessons, in both her professional and her private life, the arrogance is (mostly) gone but what still remains is Katharine Hepburn’s lifelessness and her inability to lift her underwritten character to a higher level. It’s obvious that it’s a thought through performance and that Katharine Hepburn knows what she wants to express but the problem with this performance is how she expressed it. Like Bette Davis in her early work, Katharine Hepburn didn’t quite know how to project the novelty of herself and that way exaggerated everything that was so new and unusual about her. She doesn’t know, as she would later in The Philadelphia Story or Woman of the Year, how to project the arrogance of her character without making her unlikable or loosing the interest of the viewers. In the case of Morning Glory, she glides through the scenes with too much room between herself and her character. Neither Eva nor Katharine seem to be really interested in this story.

The problem in the character of Eva is the fact that she is arrogant and too sure of herself even though she doesn’t have any real acting experience to prove it but at the same time she is able to capture the attention of various people with her (supposed) charm and noteworthiness. Unfortunately Katharine Hepburn didn’t find this balance in her performance. And she not only neglected the charming part of her performance, she also almost forgot about Eva as an aspiring actress, too. In Shakespeare in Love, Gwyneth Paltrow was able to display this burning desire to become an actress, the longing for the stage and her love for poetry with a beautiful simplicity and believable passion. Of course, Eva Lovelace and Viola de Lesseps are two completely different characters and it’s the goal of Shakespeare in Love to portray Viola with the utmost sweetness and kindness while Morning Glory aims for a different goal but still – in all her speeches about acting and the stage, Katharine Hepburn is so robot-like, so rid of every true emotion and too focused on Eva’s arrogance that she loses all possibilities she could have found in her character. When she walks around the entrance hall of the agency at the beginning and looks of the pictures of famous actresses, she seems only to be there with her body but not her mind. But even an arrogant character needs to be portrayed in a way that evokes a feeling in the viewer, may it be understanding, annoyance or dislike. Unfortunately, Katharine Hepburn’s approach to the part lacks every emotion and that way she did nothing but evoke boredom and disinterest and it’s hard to understand why everybody around her doesn’t react in the same way. So, Katharine Hepburn might have taken a more difficult route when she decided not to win any sympathy in her portrayal but at the same time she also took a wrong route when she placed her characterization too far out of the context of the story.

Because of the structure of the scene which makes Eva Lovelace an almost unnoticed presence and Katharine Hepburn’s monotonous performance, the introduction of the character fails completely and when Morning Glory finally shifts its focus on her, Katharine Hepburn still plays her scenes with too much boredom and lack of spirit to overcome the first negative impressions. In the middle part of the story, Eva seems to have come to the lowest level of her life and it’s not clear if she has enough money to eat or rent a room but it’s mentioned shortly that her first job was a big failure. But the movie finally puts Eva Lovelace, the actress, in the center during a party when she is drunk and decides to play scenes from Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet for the party crowd. These scenes are certainly beautiful to watch and Katharine Hepburn’s soft delivery and delicate touch comes surprisingly sudden especially because she has showed in the minutes before that playing drunk isn’t very easy and made it look rather ridiculous. But in these few moments, Katharine Hepburn suddenly shows the abilities inside herself and inside Eva. The whole moment could have been too out-of-context, appear lost in the middle of the party scene but her recital of Shakespeare’s poetry is so earnest and so beautiful that it makes sense that everybody stops talking and others fall in love with her at this moment. Instead of using the scene for comedic effect, Katharine Hepburn risked a lot and succeeded by doing this scene straight-forward – that way, it became almost the only time she made the right choice in her interpretation.

Katharine Hepburn made an intellectual approach to the role which does make sense in some ways since Eva Lovelace is a very self-aware character but she completely forget every single emotion for her part. Even her teary break-down in her dressing room before her performance is incredibly ineffective because she rushes her lines with such hurry and at this point of the story, it’s hard to tell if anybody even cares about Eva’s fate anymore. And considering how much time the movie gave to rather unimportant or overlong scenes, the final solution is done in a very rushed way and Katharine Hepburn constantly looses against the weaknesses of the script and the direction. Janet Gaynor may have faced similar problems in A Star is Born but she was still able to get more out of her material and she also succeeded in her chemistry with her co-stars and carried the romantic part of her storyline with ease. Katharine Hepburn unfortunately never really connects with any of her co-stars and also the private experiences of her character fail to become memorable which is more the fault of the screenplay that seemed to have felt the need for some dirt, too, and threw in the love affair without any reason. These complaints are certainly not meant as a suggestion that an actress like Janet Gaynor might have been more appropriate for the part. Her natural sweetness would have been lost among the snobby dialogue and it certainly would have been hard to portray Eva as written in a more positive and captivating light – but that’s the challenge of the role and Katharine Hepburn wasn’t up to it at this point in her career. Only in the moments when Eva is at her lowest does Katharine Hepburn find moments to impress – her quiet walk out of the apartment the next day, her talk to Fairbanks, Jr. where she begins to see herself in a different light and her quiet, accepting reaction to the break-up of the affair in her dressing room after her big success on Broadway are done very memorable and if her whole performance had been on this level, Eva Lovelace might actually have become a very intriguing character but as it is, they are only loose moments of occasional adequacy almost lost in an overall ineffective portrayal.

While Katharine Hepburn is an actress that can usually express 1000 emotions at once, she emphasized the limitedness of the character in Morning Glory instead of fighting against it. Her interpretation makes it seem as if she couldn’t care less about the character she plays or the movie she is in – so why should the viewer care? This way, the whole movie basically collapses because if the central character isn’t able to carry the story and provide the journey to follow, what else can the audience follow? It’s neither a star-making performance nor a promised yet unfulfilled, instead it’s a disappointing prologue to one of the greatest careers in Hollywood history. At the end, Eva happily proclaims that she doesn’t mind the possibility of being only a morning glory that comes and goes. ‘I’m not afraid!’, she shouts. ‘I don’t care’, I want to answer. In her recital of Hamlet, Katharine Hepburn asked ‘to be or not to be’. It seems, that for herself, she decided not to be this time. It’s a performance that is often disappointing, once captivating, sometimes adequate but never interesting. Overall, it’s one of the most uninspired entrances in the history of this category and for this she gets
 

5 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

I have not gotten around to seeing this win, and your well written review certainly has not encouraged me to view it.

Sage Slowdive said...

I think she has alot of presence on screen, and certainly makes the most out of that thin material, but again, it's not much.

dinasztie said...

I saw one scene from this and it was horrible in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Wow, one of the few times I disagree with your opinion, I just saw this and I thought she was brilliant, not her best performance but certainly deserving and very good, I thought she was actually very convincing and showed Eva's vulnerabilities and aspirations without being arrogant, I think it's her second best Oscar winning performance:

1. The Lion in Winter.
2. Morning Glory.
3. On Golden Pond.


4. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Fritz said...

Thanks for your comment!

Well, everybody sees performances differently and while I usually love Kate, she just left me cold this time.
But I am happy that you mostly agree with me! ;-)