Monday, August 06, 2018

Today was Katharine Hepburn day as part of TCM's Summer Under the Stars. I watched "Little Women" again, for i don't know how many times; it remains one of my favorite movies. What i have found depressing is that, in the decades since i first saw the movie, it has been downgraded; instead of being celebrated for what it is (a quite precise approximation of Louisa May Alcott's novel, with many of the performers - such as Edna May Oliver and Henry Stephenson - performing in the theatrical style which was part of the professional theater of the period after the Civil War, and with Katharine Hepburn giving a definitive performance, as George Cukor always stated, it was the role she was born to play), it is now derided for its sentimentality, for its "miscasting" (why, the actresses playing the March sisters are adults) and for sundry other infractions which were totally part of the theatrical tradition which this particular production grew out of.

And i have to admit i'm also tired of people i know always trying to downgrade Katharine Hepburn. Yes, it is true that, starting in the late 1960s, Hepburn did as much to destroy her own reputation as anyone else, giving performances which ranged from misjudged to egregious. It's hard to deny that she gave some terrible performances. But at her best (which would be her work in the 1930s), she represented something that was unique. And that's important. Another thing people say is that so-and-so was a "better" actress (i have friends who would claim Miriam Hopkins, or Barbara Stanwyck, or Myrna Loy as "better" actresses) and that may be true, but they never signified something the way that Katharine Hepburn signified something.

It's rather like Diane Keaton. Starting in the 1970s, Diane Keaton signified the neurotic, post-analytic woman. Now, was Diane Keaton actually a skillful actress? Maybe. Maybe not. Were there better actresses out there? Yes. Blythe Danner is an example. Blythe Danner was a brilliant actress, with far greater depth, immense range, and incredible expressivity. But Blythe Danner never became a movie star, and she certainly didn't incarnate a specific archetype. Diane Keaton did.

And so it was with Katharine Hepburn. In the 1930s, she represented something unique: a defiantly independent woman, a post-suffragette heroine. She brought a specifically political perspective to her work. She had a rather limited range, and there were roles she definitely couldn't play (and when she was cast in some of those roles, such as the hillbilly in "Spitfire", she was dreadful). But when she was right for a role, she brought more to it than other actresses could. And she did that with "Little Women", which was, by the way, the most successful movie of her career (until "The Philadelphia Story").


Post a Comment

<< Home