Happy Birthday, Kate

Roark went to see the picture. It was still Vesta, as he had seen her last. She had lost nothing and learned nothing. She had not learned the proper camera angles, she had not learned the correct screen makeup; her mouth was too large, her cheeks too gaunt, her hair uncombed, her movements too jerky and angular. She was like nothing ever seen in a film before, she was a contradiction to all standards, she was awkward, crude, shocking, she was like a breath of fresh air. The studio had expected her to be hated; she was suddenly worshipped by the public. She was not pretty, nor gracious, nor gentle, nor sweet; she played the part of a young girl not as a tubercular flower, but as a steel knife. A reviewer said that she was a cross between a medieval pageboy and a gun moll. She achieved the incredible: she was the first woman who ever allowed herself to make strength attractive on the screen.

– [Ayn Rand, Unpublished Work, Later appeared in The Early Ayn RandA selection from her unpublished fiction (reference via Valda Redfern)]

The fascinating character of Vesta Dunning was edited out of the final version of The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand dispensed with her and perhaps compensated by transferring some of her personality to Dominique Francon, the book’s heroine . Nevertheless, many people, even those who have never heard of Rand, have seen Vesta on the silver screen. The young Katharine Hepburn, who predated The Fountainhead by a few years, fit Rand’s description so perfectly that one could be forgiven for thinking that Rand had modeled Vesta after her. Hepburn would have been 100 today.

Kate was the original firebrand, an eccentric who refused to play the Hollywood game. I tend to like her more in her early flops : Christopher Strong, Bringing Up Baby, Stage Door, and Holiday, than in her early hits: The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year. I did, of course, like The African Queen enough to have watch it twice in a row. I think that post-1940, Hepburn’s roles, either deliberately or not, became more conformist, less provocative and less interesting. In these films, the female lead starts out as a refreshing contrast to the shy, forlorn, submissive damsel, but towards the end, she is tamed and subordinated to the male character. It is as if RKO and all the big studios abandoned the sense of danger associated with Garbo, Davis, Dietrich and Hepburn and gave in, wholesale, to the easy and accessible charms of Shirley Temple.

Most of these films were seen at the behest of my roommate, who got me interested in classic films when we were graduate students in Minneapolis. Every week, we requested a classic film from the public library, sometimes as old as the 1920s and 30s, and watched it on Saturday night. In between watching classics like Ben Hur, The Best Years of our Lives, Dr. Zhivago, The King and I, and Casablanca, we had a Kate Hepburn movie as often as we could. It would be unfair to close this post without referring to the site from which we got our information and our recommendations. We referred extensively (and almost exclusively) to ReelClassics.com, a very large database of classic movies, and actors and actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood. It defies belief that all that information has been compiled by only one person. Elizabeth’s site was a great resource for us, and her recommendations were always spot on.

Disconnected thoughts:

  1. If you want a surprise, try the geeky and often overlooked comedy, The Desk Set, which pits a librarian (Hepburn) against an engineer (Spencer Tracy) in a story about the fear of computers replacing human staff in large enterprises. It is not a very well-known film, but it is a hoot from start to finish.
  2. When one reads about Hepburn’s landmark films, everyone talks about The Philadelphia Story, but there is rarely a mention of Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), a three-hour film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s tragedy of a family coming apart. Kate’s tormented performance as an unhappy mother and morphine addict was probably her best work after 1950. It was the only Hepburn film that I found difficult to watch.
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Not just another Kidman biography, I hope

September brings a new biography of Nicole Kidman by the famous film historian David Thomson. Preliminary information on the book has been on Bloomsbury Publishing’s website for about a year and a half now, which should dispel any doubts that this book is an attempt to cash in on the publicity generated by the actress’s recent marriage. The book might in fact use some of the publicity that will result when Kidman starts promoting Fur, a fictional portrait of the photographer Diane Arbus.

Thomson is probably best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film, an opinionated and interesting compilation of major personalities in Hollywood. I recall checking out his entry on Kidman in the last edition of this book, in which he appeared – correctly I think – impressed by her in Eyes Wide Shut and The Portrait of a Lady, though he felt that Kidman’s voice was wrong for Isabel Archer, the elusive suffering heroine of Henry James’s novel. Having admired Kidman’s intense work in Dogville and Birth – relatively recent films which went unnoticed in the mainstream media – I am eager to read what Thomson has to say about Kidman’s evolution into a serious actress. Thomson acknowledges that he is a fan of the actress, having devoted an entire chapter to her in his previous book The Whole Equation. I read this with great difficulty, and found Thomson to be clever but not very concise, articulate but not at all systematic. Continue reading “Not just another Kidman biography, I hope”

Is The Da Vinci Code really such a bad film?

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I was taken aback when, about a third of the way through The Da Vinci Code, I started enjoying the film much against my previous expectations. Tom Hanks, who was criticized by many a reviewer for his flat performance, was actually just that – flat. But this threw Audrey Tautou‘s performance into the spotlight, and she seemed to carry the film rather well, with that wide-eyed sweetness that is so uniquely hers. Towards the end, as she skims her heel across a pond to see if she can walk on water, I thought that Sophie Neveu had been represented about as well as Dan Brown’s words could have permitted. Continue reading “Is The Da Vinci Code really such a bad film?”

And Boo Radley had come out…

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Looking very much like a eight-year-old Katharine Hepburn, Mary Badham's gangly tomboyish Scout Finch turned out to be the best part of To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck is restrained and serious and his interpretation of Atticus Finch is an appropriate homage to one of the most beloved characters in American literature. I wish the film had been longer, that some of the characters had been fleshed out more vividly – Miss Maudie was too bland and Mrs. Dubose was mostly absent except for one acidic dialogue. The voiceover – spare and melodramatic – grew on me towards the end, and I was sad when the film ended with Scout lingering on Boo Radley's porch. It reminded me strongly of my own childhood when, innocent of television and video games, kids could still have their trysts with the uncertain outdoors.