Category Archives: Classics

A Double Dose of Katherine Hepburn

A few months ago I went on a big Katherine Hepburn kick (who can blame me? She’s still hot), and added a ton of her movies to my Netflix queue. However, I’ve been going through my physical discs so slowly that it took all this time to get through them. Many of them, such as Holiday, I’ve enjoyed immensely. Others, like Desk Set, are just kind of silly and dated.

The majority of her work seems to consist of romantic comedies in which she plays an incredibly smart career woman who’s at some sort of feminist odds with her husband. Or maybe it just seems that way because I just got two of those films in the mail at once: Adam’s Rib and Woman of the Year.

I was particularly looking forward to Woman of the Year, having seen photos of the stage play version and wondered what it was about. Spencer Tracy plays sports reporter Sam Craig, while Hepburn plays political reporter/columnist Tess Harding. After a public feud in their respective columns, the two end up falling in love and marrying. Unfortunately Tess is such a workaholic that she can hardly see that she’s making for a very poor wife.

And that’s about where Woman of the Year lost me. The character of Tess is an outright psychopath. She expects her new husband to move in with her, change nothing about her life, and adjust to her jet-setting ways while compromising nothing on her own. At one point she adopts a Greek orphan child, and is content to leave him home alone, unsupervised. By the time she realizes her mistake, it’s too late, and Sam has left her, leaving her with no recourse than to try to be a stereotypical “good wife” with “comedic” results.

I don’t know what this film is trying to say. Are we to honestly believe that a woman so intelligent and ambitious as Tess would put absolutely no work into marriage at all? That her career is to the detriment of any possible family life? One could conjecture, but little in the film’s conclusion will offer any help: like so many romantic comedies of the era, it ends with simply a punchline, and little resolve. The narrative arc is so weak, I’m left wondering what the point of it all was.

Adam’s Rib proved a great counterpoint, since it’s a far better film. Tracy and Hepburn reprise their roles as a bickering professional husband-and-wife, this time becoming opposing council in a sensational attempted murder trial of a woman who shot and injured her cheating husband. Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner is passionately convinced that her trial is evidence of a double-standard (a man has the right to protect the sanctity of his family!), while Tracy’s Adam Bonner is hotly dedicated to his work prosecuting the flaky woman that pulled the trigger. Ultimately the case and its ideals bring both the marriage and the courtroom to their knees.

What was, and still is, refreshing about Adam’s Rib is that it takes both sides seriously — both are intelligent, thoughtful people with entirely reasonable opinions, and both are entirely unable to see the other person’s point of view. Even today it’s refreshing to see a thoughtful debate on a dicey feminist issue (I don’t know how to feel about it today), but even more relevant is how divergent social and political opinions can truly break a family apart. (Plus it’s funny, though not always — the 1940s seems to find great humor in repugnant, “humorous” side characters that serve no purpose other than to annoy.)

Of the two, Adam’s Rib is worth seeing, despite being the less famous of the two.

Hepburn’s filmography has some major gems in it, like The Lion in Winter and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. There are still many more I haven’t gotten to yet. There’s so much good stuff here that it’s worth churning up the occasional dud.


Pop Culture of a Bygone Era

As a rule, I can’t stand the 70s. It’s developed into a physical revulsion: there’s a gutteral, instinctive dirtiness I feel from 70s pop culture and paraphernalia, developed, doubtlessly, when shopping at countless garage sales with my mother in my youth, and seeing the aged board games and toys on display. These toys, typically vintage 1975-80, bore not the slightest bit of interest from me, but did feature a layer of grime that felt like handling fireworks, or perhaps a toy that had been well-loved by both a toddler and a dog. Movies and pictures of the era also do nothing to help the dirty feeling: grainy, brownish and cheap Kodachrome (earlier eras are in vivid and beautiful Technicolor®), and everyone has a cigarette in their hand. Also, the fashions of the era are grotesqueries: the women appear to reek of perfume, while for men the fashion statement of the era tended to be, “I’ve let myself go;” their pictures conjure a vivid memory of BO. And all that is to say nothing of the era’s horrendous pop music.

So I can’t remember what made me stick “Love Story” in my Netflix queue. Maybe I’d read an article about it, what a giant blow-the-doors-off-their-hinges success it was, how every teenage girl in America, nee, the World saw it multiple times and cooed over the romantic lead Ryan O’Neil, and yet it went on to be nominated for 7 Oscars. It was, in other words, the 1970 equivalent of Titanic.

Well, finally having watched it, I can say that it slightly exceeded my expectations, but not much more than that. It’s a simplistic melodrama, coldly calculated at milking a teenager’s penchant for us-against-the-world romance. The leads, O’Neil and Ali McGraw, are good looking and talk in a terribly stilted, stagey way, like the cast of Dawson’s Creek. It’s also quite badly dated cinematically, featuring a relentless and soppy piano theme song that seems to insert itself whenever there’s a quiet moment, and plodding, methodical edits that you can practically feel go through the Steenbeck viewer with a click. It felt somehow wrong seeing the film on DVD; the feeling is akin to watching an old educational film on 16mm.

The plot is pretty much a cliché, though I have no way of knowing how cliché it was in 1970: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl against the wishes of his cold and demanding dad, boy marries girl, girl dies. (That’s not a spoiler, everybody in America knew how this movie ended when it came out, as the book sold 6 Million copies or so.) If that synopsis doesn’t inspire an eye-roll in today’s cynical viewers, I don’t know what will. Despite this, the film does successfully build believable characters and an emotional connection, but it’s a pretty tenuous one. It’s cute, it’s flimsy, it’s not worth making an effort to either see or avoid.

If there’s anything to snark about, it’s the fact that it inspired an insipid sequel (EIGHT YEARS LATER), featuring the widower O’Neil falling in love again. Audiences and critics hated it, despite it featuring Candice Bergen, who I always thought was hotness even in her waning years.

Also worth mentioning is how, despite the film itself being moderately progressive in its day, how sexist the world was in 1970. Audiences apparently thought nothing of a doctor telling a woman’s husband that she’s dying, and keeping it from THE PATIENT HERSELF. The girl’s father is also shocked that they’re having a wedding in which the woman gets to speak. At one point, after having been “saved” from having to work herself, O’Neil asks where McGraw is. “In the kitchen, where I belong,” she jokes back. I don’t know many women who’d be so cheery about being in that position today.

Love Story is a trifle, and really only worth seeing as a yardstick of American pop culture. It looks today how films like The Blind Side will look in 40 years: old and silly.

Nerding out for Kieslowski

I’m a huge dork for the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. His film “The Double Life of Veronique” is one of the first art house films I ever saw, and quite by accident. The story goes that a film buff found my old VHS fansub group online and contacted me to help him subtitle the film, which wasn’t available on any format in the States at that point, into Turkish to give to his girlfriend. I was sixteen at the time, and while I found the film in its entirety a challenge to sit through (especially in its washed out, jumpy PAL-converted VHS), the opening few scenes are written into my sense memory. Today the film, in all its wackiness about dopplegangers and implacable lost memories, is one of my warm-blankets of cinema.

I’ll write a bit more about Kieslowski and perhaps The Double Life of Veronique at some point (there’s a new Blu-ray edition from Criterion that’s calling my name), but for now I just wanted to note that, at long last, I managed to get an MP3 rip of the long out-of-print import-only soundtrack.

The opening choral theme, composed specifically for the film, is just the best thing ever.