Regarding Katharine

The Aviator (2004) & Summertime (1955)

illustration by Tom Ralston

The giving of awards for art-making is a slippery prospect. Whether it’s Oscars or Pulitzers, a Guggenheim or a Jury Prize, agita abounds—what exactly are we doing here? Ribboning our ecstatic ephemera as if it were a State Fair zucchini? The whole enterprise would be more palatable if it were more ignorable, but these fairy-dusty pronouncements (“this is the best film”, “this poet the most worthy”, etc.) too often carry material consequences. Access to awards is access to access, to resources and the kind of acclaim—or scorn—that opens and closes doors.

Too much hand-wringing need not be spent dissecting the framework for these awards: especially in the case of the Oscars, the anti-artist union-busting at the heart of that ceremony’s founding is well-documented. Louis B. Mayer’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was conceived of as an invite-only union replacement that gave all power to Hollywood’s mogul managerial class. The Oscars themselves would be the means of policing the artist’s agency, with head boss Mayer swearing that if actors and filmmakers were enticed with “cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted.” 

It should be no surprise then—if a minor comfort—that recent on-screen portrayals of Mayer have skewed towards the skewering. In Mank (2020), Arliss Howard treats him like a soft shoe gangster who imposes his labor extracting via dream fog and isn’t attendant on but completely subservient to the imperial William Randolph Hearst. Barton Fink (1991) translates Mayer into the composite ‘Jack Lipnick’, a Tex Avery steamroller who ends the film dressed in the literal garb of fascist dictator, braying that his writers are merely write-offs and earning actor Michael Lerner—what else?—a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And in The Aviator (2004), character actor Stanley DeSantis plays Mayer the same way he played a studio stooge in Ed Wood (1994): arch and altogether un-interested in artistic risks, let alone art itself. 

If the Oscars are the zone where film criticism becomes Public Relation, this last trio of films indicates a glimpse into Hollywood’s myth-making/-breaking process. All the films cited above navigate Hollywood narratively, either as fictional fantasia (as in the Coens’ film) or explicit history (as in Fincher, Scorsese, and Burton’s.) Not incidentally, all films received Oscar buzz despite their respective critiques of the studio system. Mayer’s Oscars were designed to police the artistic and political ambitions of filmmakers but have, in the last few decades, slingshotted back around to being manipulation and reflection of the industry’s status quo, as if to even engage with the myth is to get caught up in its glue trap. Critique of Hollywood mythology is not immune to mythologizing itself, especially when it’s rendered in Hollywood cinema trappings, especially when the promise of prestige and profits lurk. It’s the same pharmakon measure that makes A Star is Born Hollywood’s ultimate self-obsession: remedy, poison, and scapegoat exist in the same night of phantasm-packed sleep. 

The Oscars as a cultural institution love when Hollywood plays itself. The Oscars love when actors play actors, a love that argues that good acting is tantamount to “people playing real people, preferably loudly.” There weren’t many surprises when Cate Blanchett received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. So much of this moment makes perfect Hollywood sense: a vaunted actor of Hollywood’s present plays a vaunted actor from Hollywood’s past in a film that critiques but also speaks the studio system’s mode of production. Also unsurprisingly: like so many other biopic wives and girlfriends—see Inside Amy Schumer’s “Actress in a Leading Role” for the definitive take on this subject—Cate’s Kate is relegated to emotional support, being asked a little too-frequently to exist as an emotional and narrative baseline for DiCaprio’s Hughes to ping off of.

Through The Aviator, Scorsese otherwise turbulently suggests that a pure puerile expression of American exceptionalism can only end in the spectacular crash of the past eating the future alive. In film though, the suiting of one of this generation’s most compelling film actors in the physical and psychic garb of one of yesteryear’s mostly only solidifies the screenplay’s stolid biopickery. Cate is mostly asked, like her co-star Kate Beckinsale, to impersonate the famous Hollywood actress she’s playing, not problematize or investigate her actions. Like Beckinsale’s Ava Gardner, Cate gets Kate’s pieces right, if big: the voice is convincing, the lips waver the right way, the vamp and the shrug and the eyes all preen with Hepburn’s own off-kilter glamor. Mostly though, Cate Blanchett’s Katharine Hepburn exists in The Aviator in the same way that the Cocoanut Grove does: it suggests a sense of dramaturgical rigor while maintaining a clear runway for the script’s faux-Freudian treatment of Howard Hughes. By the time Cate’s required to say lines like “Every time there’s a picture of you with another woman it’s like a slap in the face. Don’t you understand that?” we understand she’s not long for the film. Sure enough, a few scenes later, Hepburn as a character mostly exits the story, returning only in a moment of emotional turmoil, offering comfort and being turned away.

The Aviator is a fine film, knottier than most ‘Oscar movies’ and directed by Scorsese away from both the ironic and self-righteous modes, unlike Fincher’s and the Coens’ efforts. It has a sour love for Hollywood, with Thelma Schoonmaker’s hard cuts suggesting lurking phantoms that would emerge from the murk in her magic trick, Shutter Island (2010). Scorsese overlays The Aviator with a false Technicolor and mock period lighting, effects that don’t gimmick so much as they make it jut and jaunt like a half-forgotten nightmare more similar to The Shining (1980) than Hell’s Angels (1930). That it fumbles what Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner—let alone Faith Domergue, and Linda Darnell—mean to what Howard Hughes and Hollywood means isn’t unsurprising; at its core, John Logan’s screenplay seeks to account for Hughes’ anxiety by tying it to a monstrous maternal fixation that left him paralyzed by fears of contamination. Gratefully, Scorsese and DiCaprio seem more inclined to crack Hughes up merely to America in front of a camera, a perfect avatar laid bare for all the ways corporate industry insists it’s a spectacular dream.

That Hollywood proper would, in 2004, see Cate as Kate as somehow both definitive and laudable is equally unsurprising. For all her success, Hollywood had a habit of keeping Kate Hepburn at arm’s length: as Cate’s Kate alludes to in The Aviator, 1938 saw the actress declared “box office poison” by an ad taken out by the Independent Theater Owners’ Association. Even having already having been anointed with a Best Actress win for Morning Glory (1933), this criticism feels especially untrustworthy from the vantage point of the future, our present: immediately preceding the ad, Hepburn acted in Bringing Up Baby (1938) and after it ran in The Hollywood Reporter, she appeared in Holiday (1938). These films are serious comedies, frothy but also fraught with modernity’s anxieties. The former is an atomization of gender confusion, a near literalizing of ‘screwball’ that convincingly acts out what unshackling from conventionality looks, sounds, and feels like. The latter is simply the saddest comedy there ever was, the impossibility of escape—from wealth and from poverty, from scrutiny and from alienation—clinging to the stare coming off Hepburn’s eyes. You can’t see the color, you just feel its absence.

It’s nearly ludicrous to have to insist but: Hepburn is so obviously doing “good acting” in these roles. Even the languaging of the Independent Theater Owners’ Association takes care to note that it’s referring to actresses “whose dramatic ability is unquestioned, but whose box office draw is nil.” The Aviator makes its Katharine Hepburn cite the “box office poison” ad aloud because this storyline fits Hollywood’s familiar mythologizing strokes that ultimately constrict an artist’s agency: she wasn’t popular until she was Hollywood legend, she was too boyish until she was ground-breakingly glamorous, she was living a closeted life until she shared extramarital/ cinematic space with Spencer Tracy. To talk about Katharine Hepburn in Hollywood’s PR tongue is the stuff of Best Actress Oscars, which—after Morning Glory—she would win for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981), an “Autumn of My Life” brand of film that doubles as a Lifetime Achievement award for both her and Henry Fonda, in addition to their literal Lifetime Achievement awards.

In the case of The Aviator’s twin-win for the ideas of Cate and Kate, both actresses deserve better. To talk about Katharine Hepburn in the dead language of ‘Best Actress’ is ultimately what makes the giving of awards in honor of the ephemeral frustrating. I don’t mean to suggest that film acting or any other art form is fundamentally unknowable and therefore unquantifiable. On the contrary, my hope is that more film writers free themselves to talk about an actor’s performance and presence in ways that deliberately frustrate the language of prestige award-giving. Rather than a force excerpted from cinematography, editing, and mise-en-scène, film acting is just another equivalent tool that a film possesses. We give awards for these other elements, but as anybody that’s had to endure an awards broadcast can tell you, the clear narrative focus is on ‘Best Acting’, a handy avatar that doubly keeps artists striving for singled-out praise for their exceptional accomplishments and audiences in thrall to exceptional individuals rather than the vast communal efforts that wrench art into being. To talk about film acting and so, Katharine Hepburn, on their own terms means a de-privileging on the one hand—and so, moving cinema away from the totality of celebrity—and empowering it on the other as a workable, writable element of filmmaking, no grander or less-potent than any element of the cinematic apparatus. What does it mean to think of actors as filmmakers, equally collaborative in the communal stew of the image? If cinema is first uttered in the editing room, the actor’s choices between takes are ultimately the letters that—when combined and montaged—change the meaning of given phrasing of images.

Summertime, a 1955 vehicle for Hepburn directed by David Lean sees the filmmakers lean into their midlife vantage points. Lean, who would be lauded for epics like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965), embraces adapting Arthur Laurents’s The Time of the Cuckoo, an intimate play that examines a desperate romance between a middle-aged American woman and the Venetian shopkeeper she meets abroad. Hepburn, known for (and occasionally typecast into) roles as patrician women of estranged elegance, embraces, in Lean’s adaptation, playing the mid-western and middle-aged “fancy secretary”, Jane Hudson. Her dresses are uptight, not glamorous. She is from Akron, Ohio, unconfident and deeply sad in ways she can’t articulate. She has never been in love, though she can feel its absence.

Hepburn’s performance in Summertime was mostly well-reviewed in 1955, if subjected to praise that displays a certain lack of imagination. In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther bemoaned that in translating Arthur Laurents’s stage play, The Time of the Cuckoo, Summertime “reduced the complicated pondering of an American woman’s first go at love with a middle-aged merchant of Venice to pleasingly elemental terms.” In so doing, Crowther suggests, the movie prioritizes Venice rather than Hepburn as the primary dramatic actor, as the “wondrous city of spectacles and moods becomes a rich and exciting organism that fairly takes command of the screen.” Variety, meanwhile, called her performance “a feverish acting chore of proud loneliness,” an underhanded if accurate summation of Jane’s essence. Pauline Kael also thought Hepburn’s work mostly admirable, writing “There is an element of embarrassment in this pining-spinster role, but Hepburn is so proficient at it that she almost—though not quite—kills the embarrassment.” 

These reviews either extract Hepburn’s performance from the impressionistic impact Lean’s film makes or discusses the actor’s performance first and the feeling the character instills in the audience second, if at all. Kael’s capsule review gets the closest with regard to an emotional reaction and also partially blames Lean’s flair for fireworks as the reason this “overwrought, understated, romantic” movie might be both remembered and embarrassing. The sticking word though, in Kael’s summation is “proficient”, which makes it feel as if Hepburn came up short on a standardized test.

Acting is, admittedly, hard to talk about. How do you see being? Actors, like any sect of artists, develop their own craft-based language for discussing the subject, but non-actors often only have ‘being’ to go off of. As film writers and watchers, we languish somewhere in the middle, knowing that a movie is just a sequence of images, that cinema itself is only ever the image. But if there are human beings, we must talk about them not as proficient or not proficient, but as discrete and feeling objects. We must give ourselves permission to feel them as they feel in time to the image. No mere mimesis, the part this feeling plays in the vast apparatus—of us in the seats and the bright cone overhead, of the portaling screen and the ink of everything surrounding us—is a reckoning with something eternal. Our body isn’t just our body—it’s them too.

For the first 21 minutes of Summertime, Kate’s Jane Hudson is dragged through the situation of Lean’s film. She has emptied her life savings to get to Venice, a place she imagines is so far from Akron that she might be far enough from who she was to be someone else. This self-distancing isn’t so different from anybody who’s ever gone on vacation, worked a desk job, felt that life is happening to them rather than for them with their full acquiescence. Hepburn is—as she was wont to say sometimes—“playing herself”: she lugs luggage, all arches and angles hinting at the slapstick and the glamorous in the same instance. She hunches at tables with a squared set smile, a literally stiff upper lip that portrays the cool remove of etiquette while dragging it. She laughs that laugh. She could win an Oscar for playing Katharine Hepburn. 

And then at 21 minutes and 16 seconds, she’s alone. She is standing still. She turns around, takes a few steps across the patio of her luxurious Venice hotel. She looks up and the camera cuts to the roof that she sees, to the statues that survey the sweaty humaning from somewhere stiller, more sublime. The camera cuts back to Jane, who is Katharine Hepburn. She breaks eye contact with the statue, with the camera, with us. There’s a crossfade—two Katharines going opposite ways, flanging—and she sighs a noise I wish I didn’t know by feel. This is a film about waiting your whole life to get to the kind of place where Hollywood miracles happen, only to be the same outcast wildlife, the same looking-inner. This is an acting about that kind of empty, a making of it in real time by a human body in front of a camera. This is anti-statue acting.

Hepburn’s melancholic work here isn’t at odds with the rest of her career. Elements of edges and fringes of self-doubt cloud up all the supple nerves of Amanda Bonner in Adam’s Rib (1949), in Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940). But Summertime, the film about living the loss and finding a way through it imperfectly, stutteringly, so thoroughly depends upon her acting out these edges in order for the film to happen. She subverts her Hollywood image by breathing into it. She plays herself in both senses of the word, as in impersonation, as in pranking towards a beautiful delusion. Isn’t that what acting can be? Self-scrutiny in the company of others towards shared truths that might resound? And if I can play you? And you can play me? Our edges might not be as locked up as we imagine.

And as for Cate? She’s stuck, quicksilver concreted up in biopic. But there’s a glimpse at the morphable myth in motion, and I could kiss Martin Scorsese square on the mouth for its handling. At the beginning of The Aviator’s Act II, just after Kate has had to endure Hughes’ abuses, just as Cate has had to submit to the role of emotional hindrance or magical cure in the subject’s life. And then she leaves the room. And the film leaves Howard Hughes, the first time it’s left Howard Hughes since it started. Kate goes to work. She walks onto the studio lot, opens the door that separates the harsh daylight from the cool dark of on-set. An off-camera Spencer Tracy flips her an apple. “From my orchard,” he says. She breaks, going all the way into herself, a ghost a heave, just like Jane Hudson in Summertime. Scorsese’s commitment to aesthetic, to shooting The Aviator “like” The Aviator would look with lighting and coloring of the period means that here, in this on-set set, with the film inside a film-lights on her red hair, Cate’s Kate no longer feels biopic-broad: she looks like Katharine Hepburn in a movie. Spencer Tracy asks, “trouble with Mr. Hughes?” and Kate says “there is too much Howard Hughes in Howard Hughes,” a line that’s not as clever as the screenplay thinks. But Kate played plenty of lines like it, and so Cate does too, looking just like Katharine Hepburn when she’s acting.