October 24, 2014

Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story

Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress

I first watched The Philadelphia Story a few years ago for a college film course, and at the time I hadn’t seen many screwball comedies nor was I very familiar with Katharine Hepburn’s work. Once the film was over I had no idea what to make of her performance. It was so…Katharine Hepburn-like. It was such a marriage of the qualities we typically associate with Kate—sophistication, wealth, haughtiness…not to mention the heavy Mid-Atlantic accent that is so rigorously unique and hers, that which reverberates so vividly in this film. I thought her to be very unusual; compared to her contemporaries, it’s obvious that she’s a much more idiosyncratic presence onscreen, and it just felt to me as if I was watching her be herself for an hour-and-a-half. I liked it, but I was a little underwhelmed; I expected more from a performance that is so revered and so heavily considered as one of Kate's greatest. Flash-forward to present day; I am older and (as I'd like to think) a bit more refined in my taste, and this time around while watching Kate, I saw the performance in a much different light.

There's a line in the film in which George Kittredge tells Tracy that she's "...some marvelous, distant...well, queen I guess. So cool and fine and always so much your own." Could there be a better way to describe Hepburn herself? I suppose that Hepburn's distinctiveness is what put me off years ago; her quirks make it easy to admire her from afar (even more so in this film, especially given how Hepburn is dressed in whites and draperies like a Greek goddess), but at first glance I couldn't really relate to her or make sense of her because she's so alien a specimen. Tracy Lord may be the defacto performance in securing Hepburn's legacy and iconography...it's the character that is said to be so much like Kate because it was written for her and originated by her on the stage. I've realized that my initial notion that Hepburn was "just playing herself" is too superficial a criticism; rather, the performance is to be appreciated because she's playing a character so similar to herself. She seems to know Tracy like the back of her hand—she trounces through the picture with such a command on all these different faces of the character, so authoritative and nasty in her early scenes with Cary Grant, so delightfully fake in her first scene with James Stewart and Ruth Hussey, so gentle as she discusses her goddess criticisms with George, so wounded as she takes on the scoldings of Dext and her father, so ruthlessly playful and jolly and ever so slightly horny while wasted off her ass with Mike, so wittingly tragic as she questions her virtues the morning after—she is as entertaining as she is dexterous. Again, little details—such as the loaded faces she makes while first talking to Mike and Liz, the purr she makes when she chats with George "much better now that you're here", and the delivery ("yes you am, are you?", "thank you Mike, I think men are wonderful!") all help to enrich this performance, which is sensitive as it is comical. You can't help but think how the role hits close to home for Hepburn (for instance, the comments about Tracy being too much of a prig making parallels to those early criticisms of Kate being too "high-hat", Tracy's "mistake" and second chance talks with George perhaps making parallels to Kate's being dubbed "box-office poison" and her struggle to make her own comeback and second chance with the public), and having that in mind makes her performance all the more interesting. A highly watchable and beguiling performance by a unique yet utterly beguiling actress, this is the character that saved Hepburn's career and (of the ones I've seen) the one out of all her nominated turns in which she feels most in sync with the character. She is all the superlatives in which Tracy is called —radiant, glorious, a queen, a goddess.


  1. It's one of the greatest roles ever, but Katharine is too one-note for my taste. Her last thirty minutes that makes it note-worthy.

    Did you like her more in this one than in Bringing Up Baby? And what are your thoughts on Hussey and Grant?

    1. Hmm, it’s hard to say. Her work in Bringing Up Baby versus and her work in this one are two very different styles for films with different tones. So both impress me in different ways…she’s all-in crazy/kooky comedy for Baby (funny because I think she’s more one-note in Baby, but delightfully one-note) and I found her to be more fleshed out in this one...as it stands the edge goes to this one but I've been flip-flopping between the two..

      I didn't think Grant was all that special here...kind of a thankless role, and less interesting than Stewart. Hussey I thought was good but not necessarily special.

  2. I've read that when Louis B. Mayer attended the play he had Norma Shearer with him, and initially, Hepburn feared Mayer was angling to buy it for her, but that was never the case. By mid-1939 Norma, embarking on a serious love affair with George Raft, was for once, more focused on her personal life than the professional one.

    Also, I've read the movie had to be made with some sense of giddy-up, possibly as little as eight weeks, because Hepburn still had contractual commitments to the play which hadn't lost any drawing power.

  3. I thought at least, she never looked more beautiful in this film and WOMAN OF THE YEAR...she really was underrated in the looks department.