Tuesday, June 14

Kate's 10 Best

Those 10 best lists have the potential of being kind of pesky because there's always one or two picks that will cause someone to say... what...?!?!  How'd that make the list or why wasn't such and such included? Unavoidable.  It's not difficult to come up with 10 great Katharine Hepburn films.  What was difficult was leaving off some of them.  Particularly illuminating is the fact that her film career spanned seven decades... not many can say that... and she was a star from start to finish.  I have included three films from the long-ago 1930s, only one from the 40s (boy, this was tough), two from the 50s, three from the 60s and one from the 80s.  So far she is the only actor to win four Oscars for lead roles and I have included three of those performances in this listing.  Let's get going.



Little Women (1933)
Despite her winning an Oscar for another picture this same year, Morning Glory, her portrait of the spirited tomboy in Little Women was really her first good role.  The story of four sisters during the Civil War has been filmed five times and this was the first of the talkie versions. With apologies to June Allyson and Winona Ryder for their deft performances in later versions, Hepburn was pure magic as Jo March.  Some may argue that playing a bossy, tomboy, older sister could have been a page taken from her own life, but don't most actors use their own lives as springboards to great performances? Here is a role she knew something about and people of the day went nuts over her work in this film.

Alice Adams (1935)
Despite being saddled with boring Fred MacMurray as her leading man, Hepburn pulls off the title role.  Director George Stevens' screen version of Booth Tarkington's poignant tale of a smalltown girl looking for love against the backdrop of snooty society types who dismiss her was perfect for her.  At the core of Hepburn's immense talent was her honesty.  She never baled on doing whatever it took to get the point across to all of us.  She admired the hell out of Stevens and he was able to coax a measured but vibrant performance out of her as Alice.

Bringing Up Baby (1938)
This is a film that I dearly love and it should have proven to one and all that Hepburn and her four-time costar, Cary Grant, were able to pull off broad comedy at the highest level. But the truth is the film was a bomb at the time and while it didn't much change what people thought of Grant as an actor, it leveled Hepburn and she fled to New York and the stage.  Her turn here as a daft heiress who makes life a living hell for Grant's equally goofy paleontologist was her first real shot at comedy and it was a bulls-eye. Baby, being a leopard, kept the proceedings hopping. For decades now it has been regarded as a screwball comedy screen classic.   


The Philadelphia Story (1940)
The rich and privileged world of Tracy Lord was one that Hepburn knew well.  To a large degree, here's one she was born to play. Tracy is snobby, superior, glacial... another heiress role. This time, while there is comedy, this is more a drama and to a large degree, a thoughtful one in that the characters learn something about themselves by the end of the story and they've survived the journey. This was also the role for which Hepburn fled to Broadway after Hollywood gave her the finger. She knew the story of a society girl on the eve of her second wedding was gold and when Hollywood came sniffing around, she told them it comes with her as its star or no deal. She was back.














The African Queen (1951)
The actress never had to find her motivation to play prim and proper.  She knew those words well.  Her characters all have those traits.  Her proud Yankee upbringing brought about a sheer force of ego.  All six of the children were brought up to believe they were something quite special and their payback was to do something well.  She brought most of these traits to the missionary's by-the- Good-Book daughter, Rose Sayer.  Going down an African river in a rickety old boat with Humphrey Bogart while trying to avoid the Germans was a casting coup as far as I'm concerned.  Their approaches to their craft was perhaps not on the same page but laden with skills, these two pulled off one of Hollywood's best pairings.  Of the films listed here, this is the first of a middle-aged Kate.


Suddenly, Last Summer  (1959)
She hated making this film.  She always had doubts but ignored them and even after it was over, she never changed her opinion. Part of the problem may have been that Kate was pretty much in the dark about the taboo themes of homosexuality, cannibalism, incest, mother love, mental illness and lobotomies which in her mind might have meant she was winging it more than she was accustomed to. Nonetheless, I regard her Violet Venable as a towering performance of self-righteousness, callousness, vengeance and illness.  Astonishingly, she supported another actress (Elizabeth Taylor) and I don't know that Hepburn ever did that.  


A Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)
One of the starkest and saddest of dysfunctional family stories.  It's one day in the life of the Tyrone family, as taken from the pen of gloomy Eugene O'Neill.  As Mary, Hepburn is an unstable mother who is addicted to morphine.  Ralph Richardson as her husband is a former actor and a current drunkard and the two sons, played by Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell, also alcoholics, suffer from guilts and fears and feeling misunderstood.  It's not my favorite Hepburn movie, but her performance is nothing short of magnificent. 


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  (1967)
This one IS my favorite Hepburn movie. While I found her portrayal of Christina Drayton to be flawless and though she nabbed her second Oscar for it, it is the overall film that I love.  I hold its entire main cast of characters near and dear to this day.  It's the only one of her films that I have in my 50 Favorite Films list so you may recall reading about it earlier.  


The Lion in Winter (1968)
Yes, this very next year, the lady wins her third Oscar and I suspect that this is her best work.  It was her first assignment after the death of Spencer Tracy, her longtime companion, and she threw everything she had into the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine, estranged and imprisoned wife of England's Henry II.  Playing Henry for the second time was the equally outstanding Peter O'Toole. (He played a younger version in 1964s Becket.)  The fictionalized story of the couple's arguing with and manipulating one another over which of their sons will be heir to the throne put two powerhouse actors at odds with one another on the screen. Lovers of good acting should not miss this one.

On Golden Pond  (1981)
She was up there in years at this point as was her screen husband, Henry Fonda.  Two actors many of us grew up with, as did our parents, and now they are an aged married couple having a last summer at their woodsy retreat.  After taking the sheets off the furniture, we see that she, Ethel Thayer, is a strong Yankee, a better wife than mother, who holds their lives together and he is proud and crabby and tired of being old. Both richly won Oscars for a most delightful senior citizen love story.



And finally... why not include the estrogen-laden Stage Door (1937), you say? Observing Hepburn battle with Ginger Rogers was great fun and no way I didn't like the theatrical story.  And what, I couldn't name 1955s Summertime, her wistful romantic tale of unexpected love for a starchy spinster in beautiful Venice?  No less exciting than her pairings with Bogart and O'Toole is one with Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956).  An even more repressed spinster, watching her and Lancaster, another person with a high opinion of himself, tearing up the screen in the scenes they shared, gave me goosebumps. Couldn't I have picked these roles?  Yes, if I had called this Kate's 13 Best.


Next posting:
Movie review

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