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Thursday, July 10, 2014


Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner's beauty was insane. INSANE. Labeled "the Love Goddess" by the Hollywood publicity machine, the title was both an accurate description of the sensual feelings she inspired (merely by purring) and an equal misnomer, considering the reality of her romantic life. Ava was far from the dynamic seductress she would become as a Hollywood star. Growing up an impoverished tomboy in North Carolina, she became a surprise beauty queen when a talent scout spotted her picture in her brother-in-law's shop window. What followed was an uncomfortable for her, yet extraordinary for us, ascent as one of the most beautiful women in cinematic history.

However, Ava was far more than her luscious extremities. A down-to-earth, unpretentious, accidental femme fatale, her persona would be turned upside down through her progression in Hollywood from a shy kid from the sticks to the ultimate tiger woman. Unschooled in acting, she would have preferred to be a singer, which explained her brief love affair and infatuation with Artie Shaw. However, her abilities on the screen were more than enough to garner public affection. To say she was charismatic is the understatement of the millennium. Ava was fierce. In contrast to Marilyn Monroe, for example, she was not as openly vulnerable. The sharp features of her face as accompanied by her full mouth were intense, alluring, and unforgiving in a predatory sense. When paired with her sultry voice, the effect was devastating. She wasn't a sex-object so much as a a dominatrix. Women admired her intensity and related to the broken woman hiding underneath her veneer. Men... they just wanted to be destroyed by her. 

As many of the scout-found talents of her era, one can literally watch Ava's abilities grow on film. The awkward and uncertain girl (who married Mickey Rooney) artfully evolved into a courageous and dangerous actress. To see her blink-and-you'll-miss-it-featured roll in Calling Dr. Gillespie, to her poetically aggressive presentation in One Touch of Venus, and her comfortable, sexual masterdom in Mogambo is a fascinating experience in itself. By the time she appeared in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, she was a seasoned veteran, through with pretense and totally embracing the raw, rough and tumble aspects of her true nature. Ava had little use for BS. The older she got, the more she was able to shirk the accepted affectations and just be the edgy, emotionally abandoned, and even frightened woman she was underneath. Few actresses had such courage.

Her personal life was less savory. She suffered a slew of broken hearts, most notoriously from her intense marriage to Frank Sinatra, a soul mate that would never fully recover from her nor she from him. Unrepentant for the woman whom she developed into, Ava left the world of Hollywood behind for the most part in her later years, moving to her beloved Spain and dancing "barefoot," as was her way. As she aged, her iconic beauty remained but was faded by harsh years, hard knocks, and alcoholism. The real Ava, who was built into a star, got lost somewhere in the Hollywood machinery and spent the majority of her life trying to find herself again.

Still, the love Goddess remains, and on this day, the day of Lovers, it seems appropriate to honor her and the impassioned, unarguable, unbreakable imprint she left behind. An accidental pioneer in the world of feminism, her example of confidence, a healthy sexuality, and chronic defiance still coaches the women of the world on their own quest for pride in identity. And the dudes still dig her too.


Ann Dvorak

Ann Dvorak didn't have time for bull sh*t. A gifted and daring actress who graced the screen-- large and small-- from the late 'teens to the early fifties, she was too much of a free agent to be reined in by studio stipulation, general opinion, or flat out nonsense. A child of divorce, she learned self-resilience early, and her exploratory heart and avaricious curiosity compelled her to thrust the tough but elegant woman she was into the artistic realm where her passion could rule. She luckily brought along her common sense.

She had an early start, growing up on film sets, but it would be in the thirties that she had her big break. After serving as a dance instructor, her gal pal Joan Crawford introduced her to Howard Hughes who soon cast her in Scarface as Cesca-- the sister whom Paul Muni's gangster has quite obvious, incestuous feeling for. Unabashed at such controversial subject matter, she became one of the go-to girls during the sultry pre-code days, her other most popular piece being Three on a Match in which she portrayed a fallen woman, drug addicted mother, and eventual suicide victim. Pretty heavy.

However, almost as soon as her career started taking off, she ran into trouble with studios, mostly because she had a habit for ignoring contracts or all out defying them. Her life belonged to herself and no one else, which was an outlook the grinding Hollywood machine did not take to kindly. She ran off to get married, was suspended, then brazenly combated her low salary rate as well as the poor quality of her films and roles. The result was an eventual and tedious escape from her contract to freelance. She would never become as big a star as some of her contemporaries because of this. She quite simply didn't like to play games. She preferred to increase the lexicon of her ever-growing library and expand her mind and horizons instead of her celebrity.

She spent the last nearly thirty years of her life off screen and away from the public eye, most probably enjoying the fact that she was actually living life instead of merely pretending to live someone else's. Unlike many others, she merely hovered around Hollywood instead of allowing her soul to be immersed in it and therefore stolen. She had her own plans and left us with exactly what she was willing to give and nothing more. This isn't the best news for us, because her remaining work makes one want to see more, but you have to respect a woman with boundaries.


Alan Hale

Alan Hale, Sr. (not to be confused with his son, the Skipper of "Gilligan's Island") was a very unique personality in both silent and studio era cinema. A big lug, generally mustached, he would become familiar with audiences by portraying the befuddled man's man with a loud, raucous laugh, clumsy yet aggressive physicality, and his very expressive eyes-- usually twinkling. Appearing in nearly 250 films (that we know of) in a less the 40-year career, his energy, comic skill, and integral depth allowed him to easily traverse multiple genres and play the bad guy, the good guy, the drunk guy, the oaf, the clown, the tough, and most often, the best friend.

Alan's big voice encouraged him to pursue a career in the opera, which makes it interesting that he found a home for himself in silent cinema. However, the creativity and curiosity of his ever-spinning mind-- which led him to an initial career as an inventor (of foldable theater seats among others)-- also instilled within him a natural penchant for unique characterizations. For a man constantly tinkering with objects to see how they worked, cracking a fictional character open and making it tick was an easily adapted talent. His hammy, fun-loving personality only bolstered his appeal, giving him an unlikely charisma onscreen, which made him one of the most popular and beloved character actors of his generation.

 While as a fresh-faced 20-year-old he was able to land the lead in several pictures, it was his uncanny knack at supporting parts, those that added flavor and drove the plot of the story, which would provide for him a comfy position on the Warner Brothers roster. As such, he moved from a series of short film appearances to playing opposite  Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Lon Chaney in The Trap, and Douglas Fairbanks in the epic Robin Hood. His role in the latter was that of Little John, one that he would repeat sixteen years later opposite his good friend Errol Flynn in the 1938 version, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In fact, it is with Errol that Alan is most associated, as these hard-living, boisterous boys in cahoots got along swimmingly both on and off screen. They appeared in several features together, including The Prince and the Pauper, Dodge City, and The Sea Hawk. Alan's success at WB after the talkie revolution is beyond impressive. He was an uncouth buffoon in Stella Dallas, the notoriously flagged down driver (or should I say "legged") in It Happened One Night, and the ne'er-do-well married lover of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage. He appeared in Great Expectations, Imitation of Life, They Drive By Night, Algiers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Strawberry Blonde, etc, etc, etc, always lending the lead players his support and improving their performances with his own reliable and inspirational characterizations. One might even say that he was a bit of a scene stealer. He created a natural effect in his scenes, locking them in reality and adding nuance and complication to even the most saccharine or melodramatic plots. 

Alan passed away at the age of 57 far too soon. His talents could have easily translated to television had he more time to continue his thespian explorations. However, problems with his liver and a viral infection led to his untimely, premature passing, leaving behind his wife of 35 years and 3 children-- including his equally famous, doppleganger son Alan Hale, Jr. Less recognized than his contemporaries for his contribution to the cinematic arts, his presence in retrospect seems so fundamental to the success of so many classic films that is hard to imagine Hollywood history without him. When he appeared on screen, audiences knew a little something extra was coming their way. That 'something' was usually just having a more thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable night at the movies. At the very least, it meant life was about to get interesting.


Alan Arkin

Alan Arkin is a weirdo. This is precisely why he is awesome. Falling into the same category as our other beloved eccentrics-- Walken, Hopper, Lynch-- Alan can sell a line, a scene, or a story simply because he is interesting to watch. What he does is consistently, disturbingly familiar and yet wholly unexpected. He's the oddball next door; the dirty uncle you invite to reunions, specifically because you want to see what he'll say next. Yet, underneath it all, is the obscene bravery that comes with such reckless abandon. It's not every performer who can so unashamedly manifest in every role, giving the impression that he or she doesn't give a rat's ass. It's almost inhuman. This aspect of his character, the notion that he is from another planet, or at the very least operating on a whole other level, is what makes every nuance of his work so goddamned fascinating.

Alan has been working in film and television for nearly 60 years, and the older he gets, the more frequent his appearances have become. As an unlikely hero, he found his happy home in supporting or character roles, which have become more plentiful with age. Hardly the Hollywood heartthrob, Arkin's early appearances and work were much more striking and even uncomfortable than that of the average leading man. Intermingled with his wonderfully bizarre yet dangerous articulation, there was always humor. He still carries the same aura, one akin to someone like Bill Murray, where the underlying message seems to be: this is some effed up, cockamamie bull sh*t, eh?. The world is hilarious, a horror worth laughing at, because in the end, it's all a ruse anyway. People take it-- life, celebrity, performance-- too seriously. In summation, Alan takes the high, low road: "Argo f*ck yourself."

Arkin's first break was in the fitting, darkly comic wartime satire The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966), but it was Wait Until Dark (1967) that really earned him notice. A surprise hit, the unlikely pairing of the most elegant of actresses (Audrey Hepburn) with the new, maniacal maestro on the block created a psychologically tormenting and tension-fueled film as creepy as it was flawless. Naturally, much of this had to do with Alan's performance as the soulless aforementioned 'creep' whose eyes were eerily camouflaged by dark glasses-- almost like a premonition of a Satantic Morpheus. However, he was not always so diabolical. His unexpected and tender work in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968) and his unhinged, broken rebel in Catch-22 (1970) further proved his versatility and kept him working steadily over the next 4 decades, (including a run on "Sesame Street").

Today, he is still making an impact on a new generation of movie goers who recognize him as the aging salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), the inappropriate grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and the entertainingly cantankerous producer in Argo (2012). Peppering his resume with cameos (So I Married an Axe Murderer), hits (Gattaca), and misses (The Santa Clause 3?), he keeps doing as he does the way only he can do it. Strangely. Very strangely. Hey, the world needs it.

THE REEL REALS: Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell wasn't your average movie starlet, for the plain and simple reason that she always presented herself as totally average woman-- albeit with a slightly above-average figure. Joan didn't exude pretension nor indulge in any self-important celebrity posturing, yet she gelled with Hollywood like a breath of fresh air. Her natural attitude easily fit any character or story she was given, because she was "easy"-- easy to get along with, easy to love, no muss, no fuss, and most importantly, easy to trust, even if her character was flirting with you purely so she could steal your wallet.

She wasn't glamorous nor hoity-toity. She was an earthy straight-shooter. She was "all woman," and she didn't apologize for it, yet she held her own against the cast of men-- on the screen and off-- who crossed her path, pounding her chest. It turned her on but not on her ear. Her onscreen characterizations showcased a woman with incredible street savvy and sharp common sense. She may not have thought much of herself or the world in general-- her girls were always cynical-- but she seemed to accept the flaws in life, take its lumps, and even have some fun. She was a realist who didn't fear reality but instead rolled her eyes at it and, in doing so, ably played the role of the sarcastic best friend to a world of very grateful, often jaded moviegoers.

As is generally the case, this defiant, outward zest did not totally mirror the inner woman. She housed many private pains and heartbreaks along the road of life. Joan grew up quickly, getting an early start in vaudeville by the age of three and working steadily thereafter. As such, her performances, while not overly hammy, belonged to the school of stage craft and not screen etiquette, which perhaps held her back from being a bona fide movie star. Relegated to supporting, wisecracking, and working girl roles, she was the gal who gave a story a little edge, a little humor, and generally kept things grounded when they started drifting into melodrama. 

Joan with Barbara Stanwyck and an unnamed skeleton in Night Nurse.

This aura is projected is partly the result of her early introduction into the world of work and also tragedy. She was raped by a police officer in her late teens, which infused if not wholly tarnished her impression of men and the dangers of the world. There was no fooling her after that. Starry eyed, she was not. However, while she was tough, she was not cruel. She was fun-loving, but not gullible; shrewd but warm. Her smart-mouthed movie dames learned from and triumphed over her private lessons, and while they didn't win out in the lottery of life, they generally enjoyed it more.

Not as popular as many of her contemporaries, Joan's career remains impressive. From her early stage work opposite James Cagney, which brought her to Hollywood, to her cameo in Grease as one of the waitresses at the popular diner the T-Birds and Pink Ladies' patronized-- remember the beauty school drop out number?-- she has appeared in  over 150 films and television shows/specials, earning a little more credit in her later years due to impressive performances in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and an Academy Award nomination for The Blue Veil. Some of her best contributions remain: The Public Enemy, Night Nurse, Blonde Crazy, Three on a Match, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, Topper Returns, Cry 'Havoc' and Desk Set. 

Always entertaining and sturdy in a world that is full of chaos, she made life easier on her fans simply by brushing off the absurdity and sauntering off to the beat of her own drummer. She made survival look easy, which is probably why so many of the films she participated in have indeed survived the passage of time. It's refreshing, every once and awhile, to encounter someone who gives it to you straight.

Friday, May 9, 2014

A DELICATE BALANCE: The Enigmatic, Androgynous Power of Katharine Hepburn

Kate the Great as photographed by Ernest Bachrach.

*In conjunction with The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon of May 10-May 12 2014 as hosted by Margaret Perry.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that Katharine Hepburn was an extraordinary human being. There are many ways in which one could analyze this “extraordinariness”-- her talent, her humanitarianism, her courage-- but at the end of the day, the commonality exposed in all areas of her life and livelihood was that she was, unarguably, a woman without compromise. Indeed, she was a woman who refused to play 'woman' or be labeled, constrained, or predetermined by any outstanding social statutes regarding “expected feminine behavior” or such attempted assignations upon her person of the female gender role. It wasn't that "Kate" colored outside the lines; it's that she flat out ignored them. They didn’t exist, whatever these line separated between rich and poor, government and people, and most intriguingly, men and women. As for the latter, her unapologetic trespass over gender lines illuminated her as an unexpected force of nature on the screen and an accidental-on-purpose groundbreaker. 

Taking to the Skies like the guys in 
Christopher Strong.
With Kate, the sky was the limit in terms of just what she was capable, (as was expressed in one of her most androgynous roles in Christopher Strong). The way she played this game of mixed sexual power, her duality of the masculine and feminine (here discussed in the most conventional terms), evidenced itself in her decisions as an actress, and in a strange fashion, allowed her to indulge in an almost asexual fortitude that was absolutely atypical compared to the majority female performers of her day. She produced through her natural efforts an elevated, intellectual, and still romantic cinematic hero. Notice I didn’t say “heroine.” In her fashion/presentation, her acting style, and her explorations of love on the screen, she was one of a kind by being two of a kind: embracing both the male and the female stereotypes and melding them into one. She fused them so perfectly that the audience wasn’t even aware that she was leading them by the nose right into the future. She was herself a living testament to sexual equality.

The effect of her unspecified gender and for lack of a better word "sexlessness," (not sexiness-less) was most effective on film, of course, where her persona was indulged through the eager mass consumption of her work. Our conceptualization of sexual identity in any regard is forever in flux, which is to say that one’s sex does not necessarily define his or her gender and never has. However, we do try, as is our nature, to establish certain modes and codes of conduct in our daily interactions to diffuse the tension such unlabeled sexual confusion can cause. Ergo, the “effeminate” male and the “masculine” female are generally viewed as contradictions in terms, as their behaviors, and not necessarily sexual preferences, work in opposition to certain societal dictates and preconceived notions of “male” and “female. The meaning and power behind various cultural and sociological symbols, and the subliminal or even overt stories they implant in our subconscious, the ways in which they have and will continue to manifest within each era, are never totally synchronized, though the typical assignation of the female into the subordinate and domestic role seems to have maintained the most lasting and perpetual of impressions-- with few exceptions.

Kate in the stage production of "The Warrior's
Husband," which exemplifies not only her
rebellion against submission but an example
of her early twisting of gender roles.
From the genesis of "Genesis," the overwhelming consensus that women are the “weaker” sex-- in physical, mental, and emotional terms-- but also the most sexually dangerous-- temptresses bearing the fruit of life and turning all (heterosexual) men into legions of Tantaluses --- has throughout history, literature, art, and film, made "Her" a thing honored, adored, feared, and most desperately contained, if only to protect her from becoming a danger to herself. She is objectified, she is conditioned, and she is given very little freedom of movement on her journey of self discovery. Her “self” has already been structured into an easily duplicable system to which she is expected to abide. Though, it must be said, men suffer the same limitations and pressures in terms of proving their masculinity and worthiness both to their brethren and the women to whom they are expected to dominate with great "authority" and "confidence." It is a never-ending balancing act between desires, lust vs. loins, with little space for expansion. Even the sacred structure of the nuclear family couldn’t prevent its eventual implosion.

With this background, returning to the ‘feminine’ label, does it not make sense, after being subjected to such deliberate and unconscious sexual programming that one of the most liberating things a woman can experience is the rejection of her designated femininity through her indulgence in typically masculine behaviors? To do so is immediately empowering. It is to overcome preconceived limitations and walk comfortably in trousers (literally and figuratively) after being tightly bound and  handicapped by bodices and petticoats. Conversely, while the male emotional state must remain in conflict due to his inability to express himself through anything other than aggression, he can still not stoop to the level of feminine behavior, whose demure presentation would be viewed as debasing. The crassest example of this is the allocation of, pardon me, “pussy"-- the flowery term describing the female genitals-- as the lowest of lows when it comes to insults.

Dietrich being devious... with a wink.
But I digress. Coming to the point, in terms of cinematic presentation, the alternating and contrasting depictions of the masculine-feminine or the feminine-masculine in film leave quite an impression on the viewer and are generally displayed as tongue and cheek comic relief, indicating that in reality such sexual tradeoffs are incorrect. Still, like a pink elephant in the room, the manifestation is unexpected, exciting, and at times quite divine. For example, the dominating eroticism of a cross-dressing Marlene Dietrich vs. the immediately homophobic presentation of the femme man as comic relief (Gary Cooper’s butler in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town or James Cagney’s tailor in The Public Enemy), both toy with yet maintain the assertion that the exhibition of female qualities in a man is debasing, as women by nurture are the denigrated sex, but the exploration of the masculine is the highest of compliments.

In keeping, at the end of Morocco, Marlene still has to don a skirt and traipse after her man (again Cooper) to prove her worthiness of womanhood, and the more macho Cagney and Cooper, in their respective films, have to in various ways exude more male confidence to negate and thereby make fun of the homosexual, “girly-men” in their films. The message left behind is that such sexually incoherent gender trespassers are inadmissible in reality. Play with these delineations as one may, as far as symbolism is concerned, a man must still “be a man” and a woman a woman in order for the world to turn.

Perfect fusion of Kate's both masculine and
feminine beauty.
But Kate? Kate's 'musts' were of her own making. She went right ahead with her perplexing manifestations of both "womanliness" and “manliness.” However, whereas Dietrich donned a top hat in self-indulgent and comic provocation or Louise Brooks cross dressed in happenstance to only further elaborate upon her potently sexual girlishness, Kate wore pants because she literally “wore the pants,” which is to say that she was ultimately the lord and master of her own life. Her attitudes were not those of a woman out to prove a point. There was no agenda behind her choice of trousers over skirts, and she vacillated between both options on the screen with total ease. She looked eqally at home in any wardrobe, and not just because of her complimentary, trim physique, but because her posture was that of a confident being and not a costumed creature in dress-up. The only role she ever played was herself.

She wore makeup, certainly, but this only enhanced her natural beauty. It never exaggerated her features to transform her into a living doll. Imagine the clownish mouths of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or the exploitation of such ultimate cosmeticized sex icons like Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. Their faces were elaborate fictions, labeling them as creatures of lust while simultaneously hiding the soft, fragile human being beneath. In effect, it was dehumanizing. As such, Monroe as a pop-icon has legions of fans who have never seen her films and don't know or respect her work. In contrast, Kate’s face was never fraud, and more particularly as she aged, she embraced her flaws, warts, wrinkles, and all and wore them nakedly, which is why she continued working with regularity while other actresses of her time did not. She was able to go from the ingenue of Morning Glory to the aged, defeated Queen Hecuba in Trojan Women, because she had never painted herself in broad strokes (pun intended). She exhibited no physical vanity, unless this was specific to the character. Her identity as a woman was not plastered on her face and there upon advertised like a billboard for her purchasable  sexuality. Again, few recognize the continuing crucifixion of Monroe as a product, which forces her to interminably, while Kate remains unmarketable.

Still vibrant.
The same is true of her more casual presentation. Kate was able to more directly inhabit the threads of the typically masculine gender, because on her they too were clothes without labels. They said nothing about her identity and were not a calculated social movement bourn upon her breast like a badge of political anarchy. So, in Pat and Mike she jaunts about in athletic wear while jogging and playing tennis (again, more male associated actions) and in Sylvia Scarlett she goes full drag to “disguise” herself, but in so doing never seems to be in disguise nor incongruent, because she never defined herself by typically feminine nor typically masculine gestures. She remains the perfect hermaphrodite, attractive and intrinsically interesting in her bare faced, ornament-free, “Plain [John]” suit of clothes. One could just as easily imagine her punching her timecard at the mill as pressing trousers at home. (Hers, not her husbands).

In fact, much fun has been had utilizing Kate’s seeming ignorance of certain female sexual queues. The idea of her performing token domestic roles like folding laundry, vacuuming, or cooking seem immediately comic-- especially when it comes to cooking. These tasks may be "woman’s work," but they are not something a "working woman" has time to do. Kate absolutely fell into the latter category. She didn’t cook. She didn’t clean. Even when she is folding laundry and unpacking in Stage Door, she seems confused by the motion and making a trivial joke of it-- What a silly function it is, performing these ‘chores,’ she seems to say. 

Kate was equally indefinable as an actress, being neither the Gal Friday nor the femme fatale, and she rarely, rarely played mothers. The maternal instinct was totally lost on her. It wasn’t in accordance with who she was, and her portrayals of a mother on the screen could definitely feel unnatural (State of the Union), if only because such a display was irrefutable proof that she was absolutely a female who had at least once been penetrated/dominated (figuratively and literally) by a male force. (Though my guess is that she was on top). In any case, "Mom" was far too distinctive a title to be placed upon her. To be a mother would immediately erase her chameleon-like abilities as a gender blender and sell her incredibly malleable abilities short. Mostly, it would remove her androgynous Sainthood. Audiences didnt like Kate in a form fitting box. They wanted to see her ram her head against the wall 'til it gave. In truth, her audiences would be less surprised to discover that she had actually knocked up say Colin Clive or Fred MacMurray than they would to find her sitting in a rocking chair with a fat belly, knitting booties for "Junior." 

Alice Adams
Even in perhaps the “girliest” of her roles, that of Alice Adams, Kate may have presented a woman of grace and possessing other erstwhile symbolic examples of her femininity-- an interest in fashion and flowers, the intent of landing a husband-- but she also undoes any possible feminist insults such token symbols could inflict upon her person by choosing to make Alice's determination and drive the fundamental issue of her story. She never comes off as hopeless, delicate, or helpless. She isn’t a girl sitting by the side of the road, showing a little leg, in the hope that her hero on a white horse will trot up and whisk her away. Most importantly,  she’s not a “dizzy dame” searching for social validation through marriage. Instead, she’s a warrior, albeit in taffeta, with a concrete goal-- to establish for herself a life of romance and beauty, one which society tries to deny her due to her low social status, poverty, and family. Therefore, her romantic sensibility is more rebellion than romance. 

Love was a basic human right to Kate’s heroines, but not one she necessarily was compelled to indulge in-- unless the fruits offered were substantially appetizing. As such, men were easily determined by her as useful or expendable. She seemed to just as easily love ‘em as leave ‘em. The primary issue was that one didn’t waste one’s time. She would get around to it, "love," when she got around to it, which separated her further from some of the more obsessive women of the era who used to devote their time to either landing the love pup, getting over the guy that got away, or getting revenge on the skunk. The depictions of this woman were best showcased by "dames" like Joan Blondell or the perpetually lovesick and ever man-centric Joan Crawford.

Holding her own with or without Bogie in The African
Conversely, in most cases regarding her interaction with the opposite sex, Kate consistently presented herself with a bewildering but befitting androgyny, at least until she found the proper partner. In any case, she checked her typically "feminine charms," (cleavage, eye-batting), at the door without eliminating her sex drive. This wasn’t an effort consciously done, at least not in the way Kate presented it. As opposed to tough broads like Stanwyck, whose characterizations were often those of a jaded woman who had taken herself off the market in an “I’ll be damned if another man gets the best of me,” kind of way, Kate didn’t withhold her sensuality purposefully. She was merely too preoccupied with other, more interesting things to operate under such a mentality, which rendered her at the point of her own asexual oblivion. Anyway, men weren’t a threat to her or her happiness, as she never made a social distinction between herself, as a woman, and men in general in the first place. As such, she never gave a man, nor anyone else, power over herself. In Stage Door, while most of the other actresses are focused on “date night” and catching a beau, Kate is more intent on building her career. In The African Queen, she is a spinster unashamed of her spinsterhood, and only through the presence of Bogart considers that, having already devoted her life to selfless missionary work, she may be ready to indulge herself a little as a personal reward, since the situation has thrown a man in her lap anyway. Previously, any man would have been a mere distraction from her "calling." The ingredient of danger, the real attraction for her, makes him more interesting.

Sex, therefor was a maybe and not a necessity in her decision making. She had bigger fish  to fry. When her curiosity was peaked, and she did indeed find the great, white whale worthy of her attentions, she would use whatever means she had to possess him-- her ‘means’ being honesty, loyalty, and the innocence of her affections.  She did not “seduce” in the typical sense by using her physical presence to lure a partner. She offered. She let ‘it,’ her attraction, be known. This is me, fella. Grab it if you want it. We see this in the way she clings to Jimmy Stewart after their late night swim in A Philadelphia Story, “Hello, Mike,” rolling into his neck or the way her eyes are naked and open, staring at Rossano Brazzi in Summertime, telling him everything and leaving nothing unturned. In these moments, she is a child-- a changeling. She is a sexless spirit and a reflective soul asking recognition from another. 

Herein is the vast distinction between her approach to “wooing” and that of the typical female screen personality, the clearest evidence of which can be observed in the fact that that it was she who typically played the wooer-- not the guy. While studios liked to promote submissive good girls and "tits-first, ask questions never" sex goddesses, Kate was a slip of a woman that, had she been allowed to wear her standard choice of khakis and an old shirt, would have completely faded into the background amongst Tinsel Town’s more voluptuous treasures. As such, in her characterizations, her lack of these typically obvious female signifiers-- large chest, wet mouth, wide hips-- forced her to transcend her gender again to become the amorous instigator. This, in a way, was an apology for her her unapologetic indulgence in her own androgyny.

Sylvia Scarlett
The most obvious example of this is Sylvia Scarlett, the film in which Kate falls in love with and is tested with earning Cary Grant’s love in return, while in crossdress. Without the distraction of cosmetics and veneer, she is left with nothing but the revelation of the depths of her love and genuine respect to earn his. In Little Women, she is the headstrong Jo March, who eschews the standard role for women by refusing to marry Laurie, the boy who would have made her an eternal girl, and instead endears herself to the older, more educated Prof. Bhaer who challenges her mind and fosters her growth as a genderless human being. So too is her fate in Mary of Scotland, wherein she suffers the sexless life of a Queen-- thus making her the sole ruling King-- to whom marriage is politics, leaving no room for the usual female flirtations of youth. The man she truly desires, Fredric March, she must bind to her through reason, understanding, and true compassion, because she has a job to do and cannot exhibit her affections in the conventional sense. 

Perhaps the simplest way to say this is that Kate did not submit herself at any point to objectification, especially in terms of obtaining a man’s love or, at the very least, his attention. More bluntly, she led with the thing between her head, not her thighs. She did not "tease" in the physical sense. If she, with her strange duality, was going to win a partner, she had to come at him from an unexpected place. She worked from the inside out, pulling them apart and rearranging them like a puzzle, and in doing so opening their minds to the revelation of herself-- a different product of “woman” than they had ever seen before, as she was ultimately half man. 

With Fredric March in Mary of Scots
The effect was perhaps even more compelling than the standard experience of a male character falling in love. With Kate, he didn’t know he was falling until he had landed, face to face, with her. The ride was over just as the new one beginning, and his heart was already a lost cause, for where again would March, Franchot Tone, Bogart, or Grant find so fascinating and brave a sphinx to contend with again? Who could offer any of them so perfect a relationship? After all, what is a “couple,” whether heterosexual or homosexual, but a perfect blending of the genders and a sharing of each other-- becoming one another? Kate left immediate room for her mate’s further expansion and growth with her, because she had already arrived at the place of gender equality on her own and offered him the space to share it. Love with Kate, therefore, was on another level. It wasn’t “I am woman; you are man.” It was, “Here we are, two human beings. Now what?” The possibilities were endless.

Despite this description of Kate’s asexual presentation, one could hardly say that she wasn’t sexual. One of the most fascinating aspects of Kate’s screen presence was indeed her sexuality, her marked sensuality, and her enthusiastic desire, the evidence of which only works to further exaggerate her male-female conundrum. For the masculine, she is consistently the predator and a potently sexual one at that. She is always direct in what she wants, whether she has selected Grant’s lovable, overgrown boy buffoon as her next meal or the equally direct but close-to-the-vest Spencer Tracy, with whom oceans of philosophical dialogue passed in mutually appreciative stares, which indicated all the ravenous lovemaking that the camera, due to censorship, could not.

What differentiaties Kate from her contemporaries is actually her unemotive approach to the mating ritual. She is cut and dry and unencumbered by analytics. Her head was never spinning with wonderment about what lied within a man’s mind or his heart. She thought like a man herself. She had the ability to separate sex and love, and as such, in the realm of romance, led with an intellectual foot. This, a typically masculine demonstration of the head and groin approach (vs. the heart and gut of the female) is best exemplified in her partnerships with Grant, with whom she made four films-- Holiday, Bringing Up Baby, Sylvia Scarlett, and A Philadelphia Story. In all of these films, whether he knew it or not, Cary was her sexual toy-- whether we were witnessing the effect pre- or post-consummation. The latter film would eventually exhibit the toppling of Kate’s sexual methodology when her Tracy Lord has to surrender her macho behaviors to wind up with Grant's C.K. Dexter Haven.

With Cary in her net in Bringing Up Baby
Bringing Up Baby, a screwball comedy about a wild feline-- the leopard “Baby”-- could be interpreted as a parallel between Grant’s learned Dr. David and Kate’s blasé Susan, in that she is the real wild thing that has come into his life and is, as a result, spinning it into complete disarray. However, the ‘bringing up’ can refer only to David, who is little more than a baby-fied nerd whom the feral and comically unpredictable Susan must bring up to her level. While the more educated of the two characters, David is clueless, helpless, and even infantile in operation. He is equally sexually immature. Yet, at no time does the audience experience any confusion regarding the fact that the more poignantly carnal Susan wants to rip his clothes from his body and take him to task, no matter how daffy the presentation of her erotically charged affections. She leads David by the nose, being perpetually one step ahead, walking backward, ultimately waiting for him to catch up, reclaim the caveman instincts he left behind for the starched life of an intellectual, and shag her brains out properly. 

The bride wore shame.
Susan as the sexual aggressor, which was typically the male role during this cinematic time period, keeps David utterly befuddled and trapped in her manipulative game-- her creative sport of foreplay-- during which she preys upon and uses his sense of decency and responsibility the same way that male figures are typically portrayed as preying on the female sex’s maternal instincts and romantic eagerness. The result is David’s utter shaming and emasculation. While Susan cleverly creates a maze that will ultimately coax David into the marital bed with her whether he likes it or not-- “here, kitty, kitty, kitty"-- he is left to wander aimlessly in a frilly, white robe akin to a woman's wedding night negligee. It is Susan's purposeful costuming of him. She dresses him for the part and challenges him to change genders. When he leaps up and shouts the immortal retort to May Robson, “Because, I just went GAY all of a sudden,” it is a loaded statement. Due to the confused gender roles of the film, David is, in effect, a quasi-homosexual: he is a male attracted to a female who is in turn wearing the masculine gender. It’s not a sexual awakening; it’s a nightmare! And, ultimately, a turn on.

Naturally, as Kate represented herself in all her roles, she was consistently looking for an equal, or at least her perfect opposite, which was difficult considering her duality. Lovers, husbands, and boyfriends were faceless and interchangeable. A true sparring partner, now that was the real goal, and when she found a worthy opponent, she dug her claws in-- even if he needed a little coaching along the way. In Baby, in order to amp up David’s maturation process, we see Susan's comic shenanigans in the jail scenes. She and David have been locked up as local loons in the town jail, and it is Susan, not David, who uses her wiles and physical prowess to save the day. This she does by posing as an imaginary gangster’s moll, which causes a destruction so she can make her exit.

"Swingin' Door Sue makes her play in the pen'.
It must be noted that during this process, Susan inhabits the mannerisms and vocal intonations of a man-- a gangster, not his mill. She slouches, makes the choice to sit about-face on a chair, and leads with the shoulders-- not the hips. She’s a lampoon of Al Capone not his mistress. Cracking jokes with the big boys, she makes her getaway, finds a faux Baby, and returns to the jail, proving that she and David are not insane but genuinely were scouring the town for a lost leopard. Unfortunately, fake Baby is a mean Bitch, and in effect a sacrificial offering to David. When the cat goes wild and poses a real danger to Susan's life, he must finally step up and play the hero, protect his woman, and save her-- though it is clear that she never really needed his help. It is almost as if the effort is done simply to boost David’s confidence and temper Susan's own intimidating effect on him. This one act of heroics makes it safe for David to be with her, because he has already proved that he is a Man, even if not as big a man as she.

The combination of these two talents is beyond pleasurable, however one notices that their medley of sexualities only works in comedy. In reality, their chemistry doesn’t make sense romantically. They are more like a brother and sister at play. Who can recall them even kissing? If they did, it didn’t leave much of an impression. Kate’s masculinity was really too much of an accidental threat to Grant’s own, as he increasingly throughout his career devoted himself to the image of his sharp-dressed man seductiveness. He was Bond before Bond. (And nearly was James Bond, but that’s another story). This prototype that would be solidified in his Hitchcockian performances would and could not be dominated by any woman. As his career progressed and he distanced himself from the handsome clown of his youth, his performances took on a bit more of a sinister air (Notorious, North By Northwest) as his emotional detachment, the same seen in Kate's romanticism or anti-romanticism, began to invade his demeanor. 

Dressed down and chumming between takes.
As such, they were really mirror images of each other, not fuseable counterpoints. The result of this-- Grant having transformed totally into this put-together, macho person-- was their last collaboration, A Philadelphia Story, a film that works perfectly but somehow feels wrong. While the couple of Tracy and Dexter duel for domination in their failed relationship and eventually reunite, the hoped for Hollywood ending, the resolution rings false. Neither one is ever really going to submit to the other. They are too in sync to be compatible. The greatest chemistry produced in this film was actually that between Kate and Stewart, whose is sycophantic passion is illuminated by Kate’s luminosity. He comes to adore her, but he knows his place-- beneath her, beside her, basking in her light. Unfortunately, her Tracy “doesn’t want to be worshipped; [she] want(s) to be loved.” She sought a partner in toto, one who would not idolize her more than she idolized him back. Interestingly, she would find him in the man she had originally hoped to cast in A Philadelphia Story...

Tracy and Hepburn
Nowhere better was the perfect exchange of Kate’s other gender and elevated romantic expectation met and fulfilled than with Spencer Tracy. Their first coming together (pun may or may not be intended) was beyond perfection. The story behind their offscreen romance has become mythical of course. It was a legendary companionship and extra-marital affair that lasted from their teaming on Woman of the Year until their respective deaths. (Kate naturally outlived Spence, as was her way). Their rapport onscreen is beyond skepticism or gossip. We have the evidence of this consensual beauty. Perfect opposites who complimented and exaggerated the better, worse, and lesser indulged qualities of each other, their onscreen companionship-- at its best-- was poetry.

Examining the films of Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner as a trilogy of their best works-- the young couple, the married couple, the aged couple-- you witness the endurance of their chemistry: the way they move around and adapt to each other, compliment each other, battle each other, and mostly just love each other. In their pairing on the screen, there is never any question of that love, and there is neither any question that in her roles Kate was never more sincerely romantic as an actress than in her films with Spence. It is the only time you truly see her vulnerable.

A date so good, they didn't want to let go...
This is interesting, because in a way, Tracy and his intense, every man masculinity,was perhaps the first beast that Kate’s film females were truly impressed by or in awe of. In their films, she moves away from her feigned girlishness and coquettishness and spars with her partner in a continuing trade of domination/submission. Their early scenes in Woman of the Year-- their first real date at the bar when they get drunk together, that first cab ride home-- feels like an intrusion into very private and honest moments. With her eyes and manner, Kate’s entire being seems to curl up like a cat in Spence’s lap, where he lovingly and tenderly offers safety for the expression of her total inamoration of him. 

Most importantly, it is a fair trade. Tracy is just as enticed by Kate’s strong-headedness and ambition as a worldly working woman, someone form whom he can learn something and experience more of life, as he is thrilled at seeing the revelation of her secret charms and hidden sincerities. His duality as Kate’s fellow asexual counterpart is his ability to take on, in the film, equally more feminine manifestations. While her gaze is fixed, he often casts his own downward, bashfully-- searching clumsily for words on the table, for example. When he first asks her out, she challengingly meets him head on, forcing him to walk backward at her show of intimidation (and up the stairs at that. Oh, George Stevens... I heart you). It’s a cat and mouse game with her showing precisely what she’s made of to ascertain if Tracy is willing to put on his gloves and face her, again, like a man. She is also ultimately more successful than he in the film-- she has a higher education, higher breeding, she comes from money and makes plenty of her own, speaks several languages, etc. He, comically, goes to her business gatherings and stands aside like her socially incompatible wife and arm trophy. When she adopts a son, it is he who takes care of him. It is also he who has the heart in the relationship. He’s the woman trying to break through to the unattainable fortress of emotion in Kate’s masculine facade. 

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that Kate is ready to pounce on her prey, as ever, on the first date, but it is Tracy who makes his innocent exit. He doesn’t want to lose a future with this woman by indulging in the heated superficialities of immediate sex. Kate wants his “cookie;” he won’t give it to her. He plays his cards in order to win a wife and not a temporary lover, just as women are perpetually coached to guard their carnal treasures: “Men of the world only want one thing,” “When they get what they want, they never want it again,” etc. Spence's card up his sleeve is-- to borrow the philosophy of modern comedian Steve Harvey-- that he already “thinks like a man,” because he is one. So, he doesn’t fall into Kate’s more typically male sexual traps.

In the end, Kate has to surrender her position as the sole pillar of strength and her independent, career-focused lifestyle to accomodate her role shared position in their marriage. She is, by title, his wife. She must, therefore, embrace her femininity. Naturally, this makes the modern feminist cringe a bit-- a woman’s salvation was always in an apron in the studio era. The ending would be more insulting, however, were it not for the equal balance of Kate and Spence's sexual-chameleon qualities. In the beginning, Tracy was willing to play the wife as much as the husband; Kate was never willing to do the same. It is therefore only fair that she must surrender some of her authority to embrace and offer him equal tenderness. She must give as well as get. While one can’t help but feel that she will never, ever be comfortable in the kitchen-- not after the breakfast scene that destroys any illusion of her culinary abilities-- one feels that she will at least be consistently willing to bend a little, and in turn, to compromise and fuse her androgyny with Tracy’s own.

Spence and Kate, post-slap.
In fact, Kate seems happy to do it. While she certainly has the carriage of a woman who bows to no man, you also get a sense from this pair’s playfulness and flirting that she wouldn’t mind letting her guard down and getting a spanking or two from the only man in history who could knock her off her guard. Fittingly, Tracy does slap her right on the tush in Adam’s Rib, which instigates a brilliant quarrel on the rules of consensual S&M, gender roles, etc, etc, etc. Had the slap been a sexual slap, it would have been one thing. However, in this scene, the two dueling lawyers are genuinely debating each other, and the resentment and use of masculine power attached to Tracy’s slap goes from being an acceptable form of foreplay to an assertive sublimation of Kate into the role of the weaker sex. She rebels against it. Thus, the matter of contention in the whole film: the compromise between the sexes and the establishment of peace in between.

At ease.
This is an extension of Woman of the Year. The married couple battles in the bedroom and the courtroom for the determination of just exactly who the "man of the house" is. The end is a justified compromise: Kate wears the pants in court; Tracy at home. Their roles become switched a bit in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with Spence playing the fixed stick in the mud, and Kate the more emotional and amenable matriarch-- the curmudgeon vs. mother earth. Their mental ping-ponging remains in tact. Of course, this exchange exists in all of their films, perhaps best witnessed in Pat and Mike, wherein Kate is the athlete who is accepted for the collision of her masculine-feminine nature by Tracy, who specifically fosters her androgyny as her trainer. As ever, he wants the best of both worlds in one woman. In Desk Set, they are again competing professionals-- Kate leading with her limitless intelligence and encyclopediac mind and Tracy with his technical expertise, neither being able to outdo the other. The formula works less when their delicate balance-- a wider establishment of Kate's own-- is found not in the middle but on opposite ends, with Kate taking on the token suffering wife roles in Sea of Grass or Keeper of the Flame. These example, as it turns out, were playing totally against type for her if not totally for him. When their playfullness is lost and thus their almost psychic understanding, so too goes the emotional connection the audience has with them, but mostly with Kate. We want to see her wearing both the pants and the skirt in her usual 50/50 ratio. 

What we can gather from this (very longwinded) description of Kate’s fluid indulgence in her own identity and her total lack of allegiance to stereotype is that this was in large part the quality that made her work so resonant. One never witnessed Kate as a cliche. She eschewed the word. When one can be impersonated, one has reached true distinction. When someone puts on a Katharine of Arrogance accent, everyone (with some level of film knowledge) knows who is being lampooned. This is both the reason for her success and the reason why it is so impressive. The fact that she wasn’t a “type” should have made her un-castable. Hollywood doesn’t like to think or create. It likes Model-T stars and stories. Yet, Kate’s desexualized personage and un-homogenized acting style,made her range run the gamut from A to Z to the far stretches of the universe. (Yup, you were wrong about that one Dorothy Parker).

Kate transcended material, general audience expectation, and direction, meaning that she spread herself in every possible way across the mortal landscape when it came to her interpretations regarding the human heart, human ugliness, and humanity period. She was both old and young, comedic and tragic, flawed yet beautiful, and-- yes-- man and woman. She was, in her art, the upright and the upside down triangle, the token symbols of the masculine and feminine, creating an interesting specimen of the eternal figure eight-- infinite possibilities. No beginning, no end, just an experience.

The epitome of the androgynous allure. She is
indefinable and everything.
Katharine Hepburn's films last because she made them real by offering all facets of herself without shame. She was whatever she wanted to be, and all of that offered with the one-hundred percent generosity of her spirit. 

She was a great guy. And one Hell of a lady.