Sunday, March 11, 2012

Miss O’ Takes a Holiday

Won’t You Come, Too?

Well, let's face it, Miss O' is exhausted. And why shouldn't she be? Between work deadlines and all this political examination of her womb, Miss O' feels the need to move away from fighting words, moronic news reports, and the numbing effects of sweet, sweet alcohol to go in search of real enchantment. So at the risk of sounding like a latter-day New York Blanche DuBois, let her invite you to join her in seeking solace in the talents if not kindness of strangers, starting with the makers and stars of this classic movie:

HOLIDAY (1938) Columbia Pictures
Directed by George Cukor
Starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant

Do You Promise This Isn't About Abortion?

Recently I have become obsessed with this 1938 comedy classic. Holiday, which I watched again in a four-part free upload on YouTube, and then purchased when that little YouTube offering suddenly disappeared, is marvelous. (I had seen the movie a couple of summers ago at Lincoln Center on the big screen, and saw it first back in college, when I rented it with Sue and Steve, two high school buddies, as part of a Katharine Hepburn film fest to ring in the New Year. We were PAR-TAY-ers!) And something really struck me this time through, which I think has to do with how today’s political climate mirrors the one in the film, and how the romantic angle is affected as a result. It’s quite a sophisticated movie, in addition to being smart, funny, and charming as hell.

I am bringing you along into my obsession, so come on along. You heard me.


Let me first talk about the stars. 

On Hepburn and Grant: A Match Made in a Celluloid Dream Factory

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, as great as movie stars get, made four films together: Sylvia Scarlett (1935); Bringing Up Baby (1938); Holiday (1938); and (most famously) The Philadelphia Story (1940). Their first three films together were utter box office flops. (The first, in which Hepburn disguises herself as a boy for most of the picture, was ahead of its time, and Brian Ahern, the romantic interest, is boring. I’ve only seen clips—someday I hope to see the whole thing, but it’s rarely aired and was un-rentable for years.)

The second, Bringing Up Baby, possibly the funniest screwball comedy of all time, has a couple of problems attached to it, and as a result, it tanked at the box office: First, the so-called “screwball comedy” genre was falling out of favor at that time. And second, the movie is not really hilarious until the third time you watch it. It’s THAT sublime. Here’s the thing: The first time you click on TCM and watch Bringing Up Baby (directed by Howard Hawks, the man who personally taught the future four-time Best Actress Oscar® winner how to be funny), you may find yourself thrown almost immediately because powerful dramatic actress Katharine Hepburn is playing an absolute ditz, and suave, hot Cary Grant is playing a dopey nerd. And then there’s the pet leopard of the title, and you can’t believe how easily Kate is engaging with the leopard. So you watch it in a kind of confused fascination, waiting for the train wreck. From these details alone, you can already see (without even seeing the movie) why following the plot takes a little work, not even mentioning the switch in location from New York City to rural Connecticut; the dinosaur bone Cary Grant carries under his arm for the first 25 minutes of the picture; the leopard’s arrival and its plot significance; and Hepburn’s rich old aunt and her lawyer, just for starters. And while you are fascinated, you are not amused. Ah, well. [Time passes.] Then one day it’s on TCM again, and you watch it again because you are bored, and it’s Kate and Cary after all, and you remember the leopard but you realize that you forgot everyone else: the stuffy aunt, her eccentric hunter friend, Barry Fitzgerald as the drunk gardener, and the daffy town constable, to say nothing of seeing Cary Grant in a negligee jump up and say by way of explaining the way he’s dressed, “I just went GAY all of a sudden.” They are great, and you think, “There was more to this movie than I remembered.” And this entices you to watch it a third time, and then will be your payoff: NOW for the first time—because the plot is easier to follow and the premise feels less bizarre—you are really watching the astonishing comic performances of Hepburn and Grant, the timing, the inventiveness, the chemistry, the balls-on wackiness, all brought to glorious fruition by the insane imagination of director Hawks. You wet yourself laughing. It’s that funny. Rent it, won’t you?

But I digress. This leads me to Holiday, possibly my favorite of their movies together, even more than The Philadelphia Story, which may be a better film, but I don’t care.

It’s a Jolly Holiday

Holiday, directed by George Cukor the same year as BUB, failed at the box office for another reason altogether: This was the height of the Great Depression, and the plot centered around up-and-coming financial wizard Grant marrying into Hepburn’s very wealthy family, and being conflicted about “making too much money.” Needless to say, few in the audience, most of whom had scraped together their nickel, and with much sacrifice, for the privilege of spending one afternoon at the movies, could muster any sympathy for the main character. (The movie is so much more than that, but it’s understandable why no one then could see it for anything else.)

And so, after a long list of unsuccessful pictures, culminating in her being labeled “Box Office Poison,” that was the end of Katharine Hepburn’s career. Almost.

A Little Film History: A Brief Digression Again

After these three strikes—for it was Academy Award winner Hepburn who received top billing in each film—along with several other “dull pictures,” Kate left Hollywood, moved to New York City, established herself on Broadway, and made herself into the acting icon we know her as today. She worked for her career. She worked hard for it. She and Judy Garland, should you care to know, are my favorite women in film of all time, for obviously different reasons, except this: They both had showbiz discipline, total focus, emotional transparency, and complete connection to everyone in the frame with them. As much as I admire Bette Davis and Greta Garbo—and all their emotional risk-taking and their amazing faces—their connection was, for me, primarily to the camera and then to the audience; and while they are rich and believable and great, it’s Katharine Hepburn who can range from daffy heiress to feminist newspaper executive to champion athlete to morphine-addicted mother to Queen of England all the while hating, loving, lusting after, and quarreling with everyone around her as if they were really hers to do unto. With Judy Garland, too, you know she feels all of her characters’ love, pain, joy, and fear totally and completely, and she connects deeply to anyone with her, whether it’s a song and dance man, a scarecrow, a middle class family, or a suicidal Hollywood husband: she’s present and giving, giving, giving as if her life and theirs depended on her every breath. Both actresses demand your total focus, and they deserve it. They both could also make weak and even lousy pictures, but never with half a heart. (As women, of course, they were also totally different: Hepburn, career-oriented and childless, with the strong family and the exercise regimen; and Judy’s “family” was a studio system full of abuse; pills, booze, money troubles, and famous motherhood are parts of her notoriety. Hepburn really tried to help her, but Judy told her, “I’ve lived a thousand years,” and Kate knew it was true.) But when they were onscreen, they were there.

So: Box Office Poison? This Picture? How?

I have this idea for a monologue I’d like to do, spending a little time setting up a screening of Holiday. I’d like to make a kind of guide for watching it, so that you might want to watch it again. Here’s why.

First off, in this movie both Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are at their absolute finest, their most fully fleshed-out, and are allowed to have and express a vast and true emotional range as characters. They execute crack comic timing alongside real dramatic pathos; they bounce from joy to despair to ecstasy to utter confusion, often in the same short scene, with total commitment and truth. For me, it is Cary Grant’s finest work. Sure, he’s brilliant in North by Northwest, but to see the creation of a truly rich and believable human being,  Holiday is the movie in which to see it.

The Premise

Young man of business and very fun guy Johnny Case (Grant) returns to New York from a 10-day holiday in Lake Placid and while there, as he relates to his old friends, Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan (Jean Dixon), he met the woman of his dreams, “the girl,” and is engaged. (The exposition is handled brilliantly—not only for plot but for character development and real point of view.) Johnny then visits her at home (which turns out to be, to his shock), a swanky 5th Avenue mansion, where he learns that his new fiancée, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan), is the wealthy granddaughter of a Morgan-type banker. There he also meets her older sister, Linda (Hepburn), who is funny and sarcastic and sharp, and who immediately likes Johnny. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that where money, temperament, and values are concerned, Johnny and Linda are the better match. But will it happen?

Of course it will. But that’s not why you watch the movie. You watch because everyone in the film has something to learn, to share, to find out about themselves and each other. Where do you stand politically? Socially? Who are your friends and why? What is the life you picture for yourself? How do you want to live in the day to day? What is really important to you? How do you matter to other people? What do you believe in? Is money your God?

Why the Movie Matters Now

Those aren’t exactly the questions an audience of hungry, unemployed people could afford to ask in 1938, but they are exactly the kinds of questions employed (and even unemployed) middle class and the very wealthy Americans can and should be asking themselves today.  It’s stunning how relevant and contemporary the movie is. There are doubtless plenty of people who will side with Julia (portrayed with real depth and sympathy by Doris Nolan, who wasn’t exciting enough to be a star, but nonetheless gives an ideal performance in this movie), whose ambition in life is to marry someone who will make a lot of money. It’s very clear to her what she wants, and since Johnny is so good at making money, why not push him to keep doing just that? There are as many others who will side with Linda, even as they may find her maddening, exasperating, exhausting, and unreasonable. Neither sister is a “catch,” in that one is unutterably dull and the other emotional and neurotic. In Johnny Case, then, does the real dilemma rest: Who am I? With what kind of mate can I be true to myself and true to her, and build a real future that is tied to what’s happening in the world, and not just here and now and for money? For me, it is Linda who has the strong moral core, the sense of what truly matters, though Julia seems by far more practical and realistic, if only is an opportunistic way. Johnny is caught in the middle, as are a lot of us. It’s not a bad middle to be stuck in, given the terrible places where people can get stuck in this world.

I’ll spare you the scene-by-scene take down, but do this: Watch the movie more than once in a short space of time. If you can, see it three times: Watch it 1) first for plot; 2) second for Hepburn’s performance, including Linda’s connections to her family, her own self-discovery, her nuances and change-ups and what motivates them; and 3) finally, for Grant’s revelatory showing as a real man, a total man, fully involved in every frame, as he switches allegiances and faces his own inner conflicts.

If you can, watch it a fourth time—and give it all up for Doris Nolan, Edward Everett Horton, Jean Dixon, Henry Kolker, Lew Ayres, Henry Daniell, and Binnie Barnes in all their supporting role glory. Every single actor plays a character that could easily devolve into stereotype, and all of them instead have real dimension.

All this is due to the astonishing direction of George Cukor, who brought out the best in every actor open enough to work with him.

Oh, and the WRITING. Remember writing? Screenplays—the words the actors say—are in fact written. The screenplay is by David Ogden Stewart and others, from the play by Philip Barry. (Fun fact: Philip Barry also wrote The Philadelphia Story, later, as a favor to Katharine Hepburn, helping her to resurrect her stage career when she left Hollywood. Howard Hughes, who was Kate’s boyfriend at the time, bought the screen rights to it as a birthday present, and gave the rights to Hepburn. She took it to Hollywood and asked for Spencer Tracy (whom she didn’t know, but who was a big star) and Clark Gable to co-star, but neither would accept roles so secondary to hers. Instead she got Cary Grant (who agreed to do it, provided he got top billing—he gave his salary to the British war effort), and contract player James Stewart, and George Cukor as director, and the rest is history.)

I hope you enjoy Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, and while you’re at it, The Philadelphia Story. (I even got my NASCAR-loving, Marlboro-smoking, manual-labor doing brother Jeffy O’ to watch. He loved them in spite of himself.) One more enticement: It’s fun to see them fly: Not only is their acting range extraordinary, but Hepburn and Grant do ALL her own stunts. ALL OF THEM. And they just get better with every viewing. How many actors can you say that about?

Happy Spring Holiday from Miss O'!

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