Times man A.O. Scott, awed by model Charlize Theron’s performance as a fat ugly lesbian (and Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks’ respective depictions of retards), recently declared a new Golden Age of screen acting. It’s as though gaining ten pounds and allowing the make-up girl to cut your hair into a mullet is the modern analog to intelligence, wit, and breeding. In lamenting the absence of these qualities in today’s actresses, our own Jonathan Leaf recently asked, Where Is Our Modern Katherine Hepburn? Mr. Scott is obviously mistaken in his proclamation of a new golden age of acting, just as the more adept Mr. Leaf is mistaken to think that this Shangri-La ever existed.
Katharine Hepburn was one of the very few women in Hollywood whose personality and screen presence overcame the studio’s paid-by-the-word scriptwriters’ flat renderings of female characters. When she first came to public attention in the 1930s, female leads were hardly paragons of sophisticated femininity. In the mad rush to beat the ticking clock of mounting decency codes, studios clamored to create female leads that had the raw sex appeal required to grab a male audience and make them sit up straight. To evade the censors, scripts relied heavily on fast talking dialogue with wit subtle enough to slip by the censors — or at least let those many censors on the take let it slide. Women were most often pseudo-innocent shop girls with no hope of making it to the top without sexual wiles or sly manipulation. The need for female leads capable of delivering on such charged and often sophisticated innuendos helped Hepburn, who was physically attractive but no Jean Harlow.
Hepburn bust into stardom in 1938’s Holiday as a smart, educated woman whose East Coast elite accent intrigued audiences. From the start, she was a writer’s actress; her voice alone imbuing the crudest of dialogue with resonance and meaning. But even then the pretty little things outnumbered her, a conflict dramatized in 1937’s Stage Door, in which she played a “real” woman in a boarding house full of aspiring actresses, the lot of them tramps, twits, and weak little girls.
To work under the studio system, an actress had to perform in the roles she was assigned, thus Hepburn’s unlikely turn in 1942’s odd anti-feminist epic Woman of the Year. Playing a workingwoman whose intelligence and savvy have propelled her to the top of the newspaper game, her career has rendered her impotent as a wife, and poisoned her marriage to lowly sportswriter Spencer Tracy. He finally leaves her, and to win him back she goes to his house, puts on an apron, and makes him breakfast. At last, things are as they ought to be. Even Hepburn, Hollywood’s finest actress, has to learn that there’s no happiness or true success without being a dutiful wife. It’s a credit to Hepburn and Tracy’s acting that the drama is elevated above the studio’s insidious message and flaccid script.
As the social and cinematic conventions of the 1930s were codified and made increasingly rigid by the introduction of the Hayes Code and then the growing political sway of the League for Decency, actresses such as Hepburn found themselves increasingly stifled. Although it is become a cliché, films in the fifties were by in large wholesome tributes to the status quo. (There were of course exceptions to this rule but few fared well at the box office). At the same time, youth culture became a major commercial force and pandering to it caused a dumbing-down of roles for both men and women, as grown-ups were presented less as people than as the cardboard automatons teenagers so often see them as being.
Among the embarrassing roles performed by talented actors during this period were Paul Newman’s performance as a hard working family man commuting to Manhattan from Long Island who finds himself sexually frustrated when his wife becomes devoted to community work in 1958’s Rally Around The Flag Boys, a film that made the Seven Year Itch look sophisticated and sexy; Humphrey Bogart’s role as an escaped convict who inflicts himself on a kindly French shop-keeper and his family, only to be quickly won over and reformed by their loving kindness, so much so that he decides to return himself to prison in 1955’s We’re No Angels; and, yes, even Hepburn and Tracy as a street wise manager and a world class athlete caught up in a frantic whirlwind comedy in which they learn to love one another despite his cheap talk and lowlife ways and her twitchy, twittery upper-class manner in 1952’s Pat and Mike.
So let’s not look with too much despair at Mona Lisa Smile and the like. It’s not that women abandoned smart and interesting role models so much as we never sought them in enough numbers to provide a substantial market in the first place. It’s no “man’s Hollywood” that keeps actresses attractive and dumb. No executive, man or woman, is going to sacrifice profit for principle and be in business for long. Let us not squabble between genders but focus our attention on a youth market that holds hostage our entertainment.
In his article, Mr. Leaf seems to imply that there were an abundance of Hepburns in old Hollywood, and that women have lost their smarts and luster in modern popular cinema. But Katharine Hepburn was one in a million then and she would be one in a million now. It takes what used to be referred to as “a real star” to transform some of the roles that she took into performances with lasting meaning. Hopefully the growth of independent film will better our slim chances of catching another star of Hepburn’s caliber and intelligence. “Love,” Hepburn once remarked, “has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get - only with what you are expecting to give - which is everything.” There are nor more than a handful of people today who can articulate their love of life and craft so beautifully — and there were no more than a handful when Hepburn was gracing the screen.