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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: The Philadelphia Story

* * * 1/2

Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay, 1940

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart

For someone born well after Katherine Hepburn attained her status as a revered screen legend, it's hard to imagine a time when she was considered box office poison. I mean when you consider that she achieved something that very few actresses are able to do - namely that she not only continued to work but continued to be given leading roles past the age of 40 (and won 3 of her 4 Oscars after the age of 60) - it's weird to think that there was a time when no one wanted to hire her. Had it not been for The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn might have been a cinematic footnote rather than a major player.

The film is based on the play by Philip Barry, which he wrote specificially for Hepburn. She plays Tracy Lord, a socialite about to embark on a marriage to the dull but reliable George Kittredge (John Howard). Her plans are thrown off by her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who is the polar opposite of George and drives Tracy crazy, and Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart), a tabloid reporter who falls for her hard despite his best efforts. Watching the story play out, you kind of have to feel bad for George because the plot is centered on a love triangle and despite the fact that he's the protagonist's fiancee, he doesn't even figure into it! Poor George and poor Liz (Ruth Hussey), who is rather unceremoniously awarded Tracy's other castoff as the plot wraps up its loose ends.

At first Tracy and Mike spend a lot of time doing verbal battle, their conflict rooted in class issues. The more time they spend together, however, the more they discover that each has admirable qualities and they start to warm too each other. They warm to each other a little too much for George's comfort, though, and his suspicion that they've become more than friends ultimately puts Tracy in the odd and unenviable position of being nearly at the altar and having to decide whether to marry George, Mike or Dexter. In addition to this plot, there is also a subplot involving Tracy's estranged parents and the family's efforts to keep up appearances so as not to create a scandal in front of reporters.

Tracy is the kind of character that Hepburn excels at playing - a witty, spirited woman with a strong will and a mind of her own. Playing her against Grant, sharp as a tack here and always great with Hepburn, and Stewart, who matches both Hepburn and Grant barb for barb, works exceedingly well and allows the dialogue to come crackling off the screen. It's a very well written screenplay in terms of dialogue and the cast - leading and supporting - are perfect for it. At the same time, however, it's very much a product of its time in terms of its views on gender and women. I always find it kind of odd how when people discuss Hepburn's status as a feminist icon they often cite her film roles as a means of backing that up. Yes, she plays strong, smart women but, more often than not, those same women are set up by their plots in order to be swatted down. The Philadelphia Story is far from the most egregious example of the independent women must be punished mindset, but it doesn't entirely escape the attitude that if Tracy were a more "traditional" woman, everyone would be a lot happier. I mean, her father essentially blames her attitudes for his own philandering and the film ends with her telling Dexter that from now on she'll be easier to get along with, though in fairness to the film Dexter replies: "Be whatever you like, you're my redhead."

All told, The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Oscars and won two, for Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Stewart which, much as I like him in this movie, I have to think that his win was at least in part a way for AMPAS to make up for not rewarding him the previous year for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Perhaps more importantly than the awards hardware it received, the film also relaunched Hepburn as a viable leading lady. How different might the cinematic landscape have been were it not for this film? She's yar, I tell ya. Real yar.


R. D. Finch said...

Norma, I enjoyed your excellent post on "The Philadelphia Story," but I don't entirely concur with your interpretation of the plot. I know what you are talking about when you refer to the kind of anti-feminist movie that sets up an independently-minded woman for a fall, to be cut down to size in the end by a man. When watching some of the best-known pre-code films that have been touted for their modern portrayals of women--movies like "Female" and "Baby Face"--I've been stunned by the very thing you describe, where the woman recants her independent thinking at the end, puts herself under the thumb of a man, and the movie ends up negating the values it seemed to be espousing. But I don't see that in this film. To me, the problem with Tracy is not that she isn't feminine enough, but that she is too extreme in her attitudes. She has both pride and prejudice, an extremely judgmental temperament that applies impossibly high standards to others, setting herself up as an arbiter of their behavior. Once judgment has been made, she is inflexible. And she is so strong-willed and so firmly convinced of her own moral superiority that everyone else (but C.K.) defers to her to keep the peace. It seems to me that this is a perfectionist character flaw that can be found in both sexes (although it seems more common in males, especially at this time because of social and gender expectations). The point of the movie to me is that only when she is forced to acknowledge her own flaws is she able to re-examine her prejudices and inflexible judgments and actually change her mind about C.K. and her father. She learns tolerance, humility, forgiveness, and flexibility, and it seems to me that the desirability of those traits is not limited to females. I see her choice of C.K. at the end as the right one, because he is the only one of the three possibilities who can exist with her as an equal and help her maintain the new balance between strength and tolerance that she has acquired.

Norma Desmond said...

I don't disagree with you - like I said, I don't find this to be a flagrant example of the trope, but I do think it's there. The problem with Tracy is that she's extreme but the way the criticism is framed definitely ties it to her particular brand of femininity. Her father outright tells her that if she was a more traditional daughter - ie adoring of him, lavishing him with attention - then he wouldn't need to cheat on her mother, which is ridiculous. Further, everyone is on Tracy about how she needs to change, which she does because she is too hard on people, but apparently she's the only one who needs to change. Her mother accepts her father's philandering so there's no need for him to change. Dexter is never really taken to task for the problems he brought to the marriage and is instead treated with kid gloves. I wouldn't call the film anti-feminist, but it is definitely weighted against Tracy.