A few months ago I was out at happy hour when someone posed an interesting question — if I had the power to pick my dream job, what would it be? After a bit of negotiating, she allowed me two answers, the first being that I could easily become a travel writer. Circling the world and blissfully writing day and night sounds like heaven to me, as long as I can fit some of my classic DVDs in my bag. Venturing more into the “fantasy” aspect of the question, my second answer was that, if I could, I would be Katharine Hepburn. The love and respect with which I always speak that name had barely escaped my lips when, quite innocently as if she hadn’t heard me, my host replied, “Who?” A bit of this blog was born that evening . . .

A few words about the magnificent Miss Katharine Hepburn, the woman who, to this day, holds the record for number of Academy Awards won by an actor or actress. Of the 12 nominations she received throughout her career, four Oscar statues went to Miss Hepburn. And as with so many remarkable artists of Hollywood’s golden age, my first introduction to Miss Hepburn was at a very young age. If I were ever to write an autobiography, the title would have to be Katharine Hepburn Taught Me How to Give the Finger. Yes indeed, my first exposure to the woman who is the very definition of “classy” and all its synonyms was in her film On Golden Pond (1982), Hepburn’s fourth Oscar win. Imitating Henry Fonda, who plays her husband in the film, she gives the bird to a group of young people in a speed boat, shouting “Buzz off!” as they motor by and scare the loons away. Now I ask you, what six-year-old boy wouldn’t fall into worship with a woman like that? Almost 24 years later, I’m learning that sadly, the answer is very few.

Yearning to expand my collection of women who misbehave (I may have begun the retirement of my witch’s hat at this point), it didn’t take me to long to mimic the 75-year-old Hepburn in the back my mother’s Volvo station wagon. I don’t know if they still make them as they once did, but in the Volvo of the 1980s, the back of the station wagon had a seat that would fold out, easily fitting two children who would then be riding backwards. Perhaps the people behind us were tailgating, maybe I found them unattractive, or it’s possible I didn’t even look at them — regardless, the Hepburn magic I felt dancing around in my middle finger was not to be contained. That car riding at our heels received a proper “Buzz off!” that I felt would have done Miss Hepburn proud. My mother, not so much with the “proud” at the time, but today she’ll smile about it more than anyone else.

Ahhh Tracy and Hepburn . . . once again I find myself tackling a topic about which so much has already been said. Since I could find two conflicting stories of Miss Hepburn’s relationship with the married Mr. Spencer Tracy, I’ll leave you to your own devices (or mine, if you visit the “Some Good Reads” page of my blog). Undeniable is the chemistry on-screen that occurs between these two incredible artists, so perhaps we’re safe in assuming that the offscreen chemistry made its way to the movie soundstage. So convincing are Hepburn and Tracy as a couple onscreen, that the love always feels just as authentic as the bickering.

Adam’s Rib tells the story of a married couple, both lawyers, battling each other in court over a woman who attempted to shoot her cheating husband. Hepburn’s Amanda Bonner defends of her client (played by the hilarious Miss Judy Holliday) by invoking equal treatment for women, claiming if the sexes were reversed in this case, the outcome would be quite different indeed. Adam (Tracy) sticks to his guns as the prosecutor, maintaining that the law is the law, and no person has the right to shoot another, regardless of sex. The case shines certain light on the Bonner’s own marriage, and as the cuddling and kisses turn to bickering, Hepburn and Tracy give us yet another gem, reminding us of how far we think society has come.

I realize I harp on about the cigarettes, drinks, and hats of classic films, but I have to say, no one wore a hat like Spencer Tracy. Cocked to the side just slightly, Tracy’s hat always threatened to fall off (in my eyes, at least), but his commanding presence wouldn’t allow it — that hat wasn’t going anywhere until he said so. In this particular film, Adam Bonner is in less control of the hats he gives his wife. After he surprises Amanda with an “absolute miracle” of hat, she turns around and gives it to her client, attempting to rattle her husband in court. If nothing else, Adam’s Rib taught me not to underestimate the power and importance of a hat in 1949 — she succeeds in rattling him like nobody’s business!

As the courtroom antics spiral further into the ridiculous, the film doesn’t seem to lose its message of inequality between the sexes. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, who received an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay, pulled off one of my favorite techniques — the ever-changing “whose side are you on?” Like watching my parents argue over the proper use of the dishcloth (can one towel be used for both hands and dishes?), I’m constantly switching alliances, as both the defense and prosecution continue to make reasonable points. But since Miss Judy Holliday really captures my heart while cracking me up, I do find myself siding with the lovable defendant. As she rehashes the film’s opening scene in which she shoots at her husband and his mistress, my face starts to hurt from smiling. The events of the shooting are interspersed with details of what she ate, where, and how it was cooked. The priceless scene is filmed as one shot with no cuts (as far as I can tell), giving it a theatrical feel and allowing Miss Holliday to draw my attention away from Miss Hepburn . . . an accomplishment not to be sniffed at!

And dear Mr. Spencer Tracy; his voice is as soothing to me as the slant of his hat. At times a willing punching bag in Adam’s Rib, Mr. Tracy allows himself to be hoisted up in the air by a rather strong circus woman who’s testifying on behalf of the defendant. The cable that is actually holding up Mr. Tracy may as well have its own spotlight and cartoon arrows pointing to it, but those are the little things about old movies that I enjoy — this lack of perfection has a comforting truth to it that I rarely see today. Like Hepburn and Tracy themselves, the movie simply is what it is, without the help of green screens, explosions, or chase scenes. I’ve learned recently there’s little that can annoy my father more than a movie chase scene, and while sometimes I can appreciate a frantic pursuit in a film, I’m back to the dishcloth, agreeing with both sides of the argument.

Duplicating the effect of a “Hepburn and Tracy” combo is impossible, but then again no two couples are exactly alike. No better or worse, but simply different, there is one other couple that makes me smile in that “slump-my-shoulders-up-and-look-at-the-ground” kind of way. I’m grateful to say that documented for all of us to see is a 19-year-old Miss Betty Perske in her first film with a 45-year-old (and married) Mr. Humphrey Bogart. The well-known formula of a tough man and his even tougher woman worked wonders on the black-and-white screen, and the folks of the 1940s were about to see just how well. Miss Perske and Mr. Bogart began a relationship that eventually led not only to marriage but also to one of the greatest onscreen couples I’ve ever seen: Bogie and Bacall. 

Add it to your queue.

  1. Hepburn could peel her like a pear, and God himself would call it justice!


  2. Drew says:

    I love Katharine Hepburn too (though I’ve only seen “The Lion in Winter,’ “The Philadelphia Story,” and a biography where you see scenes of her in her golden years) but I couldn’t help thinking of this Dorothy Parker quote about her: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” So mean! 🙂


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