Wednesday, April 18, 2007

façade: Katharine Hepburn

There's a scene from the 1979 Woody Allen movie, "Manhattan," in which Isaac Davis (Allen) does his best to put up with an insufferable conversation between his best friend, Yale (Michael Murphy), and Yale's pretentious mistress, Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton).

Yale: (to Mary) "Gustav Mahler? Hmmm, I think he may be a candidate for the old Academy... " (to Isaac) "...Oh, we've invented the Academy of the Overrated - for such notables as Gustav Mahler..."

Mary: "And Isak Dinesen, Karl Jung."

Yale: "F. Scott Fitzgerald..."

Mary: "Lenny Bruce! We can't forget Lenny Bruce now, can we? And how about Norman Mailer?"

Isaac: (disgusted) "I think those people are all terrific, every one that you've mentioned. What about Mozart? You guys don't want to leave him out. I mean, while you're trashing people..."

Mary: (ignoring him) "Oh! What about Vincent van Gogh? Or Ingmar Bergman?"

Isaac: (outraged by now) "Bergman? Bergman? Bergman is the only genius in cinema today!"

Mary: (finally acknowledging him) "His view is so Scandinavian. It's, it's bleak. My God! Real adolescent! You know, 'fashionable pessimism.' I mean, 'The Silence.' God's silence. I mean, OK, OK! I loved it when I was at Radcliffe but, I mean, OK, you outgrow it. You ab-so-lutely outgrow it..."

Fade out.

Back in '79, I thought that Mary Wilke and Yale were pretentous idiots and snobs but, these days, I find myself identifying more and more with their appalling conversation. The effusive words about films and stars, past and present, that I hear today rarely seem to correspond to the relatively modest achievements I see on screen.

This is in preamble to introducing my candidate for the Academy of the Overrated ... Katharine Hepburn.

OK, I'm getting into dangerous territory here. Katharine Hepburn, after all, is a Hollywood legend - Kate the Great. This is blasphemy, right? And, admittedly, she gave some luminous performances, particularly early in her career ("Alice Adams," "Holiday," "The Philadelphia Story" and "Bringing Up Baby"). But she also got away with a lot. She could be precious, willful and feisty, and all at the same time. Erudite wit Dorothy Parker said it all when she quipped of Hepburn's acting ability, "It runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."

Largely, I think she got by because of her great cheekbones. Her Bryn Mawr-lockjaw shtick wore thin with age, as well as there metaphoric comparisons for Spencer Tracy - I mean, "Spence." Remember when she compared him to a baked potato?

Yes. Yes, the time for The Academy of the Overrated has arrived.

(Artwork: Vintage publicity shot of Katherine Hepburn.)

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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com


The Cineaste said...

Her cheekbones had nothing to do with her searing performances in Long Day's Journey Into Night or A Delicate Balance, both late in her career. By all accounts she was an intense, dedicated professional, and we could use a few more of those these days. You should direct the gaze of your new feature elsewhere.

joe baltake said...

Hey, Cineaste-

Obviously there are certain Hepburn performances which are beyond compare. I mentioned a few of them in my post - and would definitely add Sidney Lumetn's excellent "Long Day's Journey Into Night" to the mix. And Walter Lang's "Desk Set," too. But, in general, I've always found her annoying in her mannered, often fussy ways. I suppose that I prefer more naturalistic performers and performances, but that's just me.

The Cineaste said...

Your illo looks like Albee, by the way, and A Delicate Balance is on DVD and well worth the time. But I don't disagree about naturalism. I can't watch Hepburn in romantic comedies. Life is too short.

DawnCat said...

I so agree that she is overrated! I think she had great beauty, intelligence and style. Certainly she had screen presence. But, I don't really "feel" much watching her performances. Give me Bette Davis and Vivien Leigh any day!