Agnes Paterson on Hepburn's Oscars and the Emoters of Hollywood

04.6.2004 | Agnes Peterson | Film

In continuing the New Partisan discussion of Katharine Hepburn, let’s look for a moment at her famed four Oscars. 

These were awarded for her 1933 role as a stage-struck aspiring theatre actress in “Morning Glory,” her 1967 role as the understanding mother in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?,” her 1968 role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in “Lion in Winter” and, finally, her 1982 role again as the understanding mother in “On Golden Pond.”  In addition to these wins, she received a total of twelve nominations for the best actress award. What do all of these roles have in common (with the notable exception of a nomination for “The Philadelphia Story”)?  They are all in dramatic roles.

Regardless of what else one might think about Hepburn (and opinions about her personality have been strong since her first entering the public eye), there is no denying that she was a fine comic actress.  Despite being labelled “box office poison” after a string of financial failures, largely because she was intensely disliked by moviegoers, she returned triumphant in 1940’s “The Philadelphia Story.” During her 6-year reign as queen of bad box office, she made the wonderful “Bringing Up Baby,” now recognized as one of the funniest movies ever made.

In addition to these two wonderful comedies, Hepburn also appeared in the very funny “Holiday,” “Adam’s Rib,” and as the ultimate sexy librarian in “Desk Set,” as well as in several lesser comedies like “Pat and Mike.”  The roles she played in these comedies were not only very rich but made more so by good direction and writing, in addition to the brilliant acting. So, why was Hepburn’s work in
drama so much more valued than her work in comedy, especially when the dramatic roles she played often reduced her to the figurehead of tragic modern heroine in her early films or bland mother in the later ones?

I certainly do not think the fault lies with Hepburn, but rather with the bizarre notion, most prominently held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that dramatic acting is better than comedic acting.  Hepburn’s pattern of nominations, and non-nominations, exemplifies the Academy’s long-standing tradition of valuing drama over comedy, presumably because its members think drama is more important and more difficult.  In this it echoes schoolchildren everywhere who are sure that great literature cannot be funny. (Why should they think differently when Literature is taken so seriously by their elders?)  The comic film is in much the same position as the comic novel; the comic actor and director is just as undervalued as the comic writer.  Film criticism usually treats comedies as entertaining pablum for the masses, with no admission that such films can actually be art.  Even the few writings which, ahem, treat comedy seriously are usually, to borrow a phrase from the great comic novelist PG Wodehouse, of the naso-labial variety.

Of course, as we all know, the Academy Awards are not serious, though do take themselves very seriously.  They are awarded for any number of reasons, but are almost never awarded to those who are actually best in any given year. Bill Murray’s recent loss to hammy emoter Sean Penn in a contest that matched a great comic turn against a dreadful dramatic one is a good example. The Academy, and filmgoers who share its values, unquestionably most highly value drama and dramatic performance for the the supposed power, difficulty, and artistry involved.

Some great comic actors have won Oscars, but, like Hepburn, almost exclusively for dramatic roles.  A few actors have actually been awarded Oscars for comic performances (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert for “It Happened One Night,” Kevin Kline for “A Fish Called Wanda,” Diane Keaton for “Annie Hall,” among a very few others). However, taken in the whole history of the Academy Awards, these are extremely rare, and most have gone to supporting actors.  Cary Grant never won, not even for his more serious roles, because he was not seen as a serious actor. Irene Dunne, William Powell, Myrna Loy, even Charlie Chaplin never won.  More recent Oscar awards have been handed out just as badly.

The real reason for this is that, of course, most people think dramatic acting is harder than comic acting.  This myth could easily be dispelled by watching the Oscars themselves and seeing the presenters, many of whom are fine actors normally, fall flat with one badly presented joke after another.  Many fine comedic actors are extremely capable in dramatic roles (witness the surprise of many at recent dramatic roles by Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey, neither of whom is a particularly subtle comic actor), but dramatic actors often have problems in comedy roles.

Katharine Hepburn was certainly a fine dramatic actress.  However, her best talent as an actress was in mocking the spoilt rich girl image many moviegoers had of her in her wonderful comic roles.  In this she was eventually able to win many more fans than she had as a dramatic actress, and make movies that are still widely seen and enjoyed today while fake classics like “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?” gather deserved dust on video-shop shelves.

Agnes Paterson is currently studying for her MLS. She holds degrees from the University of Chicago and New York University.

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