I have always felt a draw, almost mysterious, to classic cinema. The often contrived plots serve as a space of comfort into which I can relax. I find the characters absurd, often frivolous, wonderfully flawed and, thus, entertaining. This particular preoccupation can be vividly charted in my return to the films of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. To me, these actors embody two radically differing notions of what womanhood may be and continuously diverge, in their personal and filmic lives, so perceptively from stereotypically bland and one-dimensional societal and cultural notions of femininity and gender (ones, no doubt, reinforced by studio-system Hollywood and its portrayals of social codes and mores). I will confess and acknowledge that many of the films that these women starred in would never be characterized as particularly enlightened or feminist in their conception and I realize that what I say rests on an often self-projected perception of both of these women, mixed with a messy amalgamation of the characters they played, and interspersed with highly problematic and possibly apocryphal anecdote. However, there are vast portions of these characters that I have gleaned from in order to gain a kind of personal support and a kind of blueprint of how I could function within the world, ones that often differ substantially from the many tropes assigned to female characters within Hollywood film produced in the 1940s and 1950s. Therein lies their almost mythic allure.
At sixteen I began a weekly ritual with The Philadelphia Story. Every Wednesday I would head over to my dad’s house after school, rushing, in order to get there early. And as I waited for him and my step-mom to get home from work, I would watch The Philadelphia Story. This happened every week and it began to take on the slightly obsessive allure of secret ritual. The first few times I viewed the film, I started it, as traditional, at the beginning. As time went on, I began to start it from various points, twenty minutes in, forty-seven minutes, even an hour and ten minutes in, varying the starting time, thinking that if I started it at any spot, if I looked at it from all possible angles and points of departure, then maybe some of the wisdom with which it was so clearly imbued would become apparent to me. Since that time, I have followed similar trajectories with the films Now, Voyager and All About Eve. Lightning fast dialogue, melodramatic love stories, intensely felt assertions of personhood, gravelly, unwavering voices, and psychoanalysis- really, all a person could hope to find in a collection of films.
Bette Davis, with her defiant eyes, has always embodied, to me, a kind of power. At the studios, Davis was notorious for volatility on the set, given to making demands of studio heads regarding the roles she was to play. Often the character she played was an open wound, seething in pain and contempt, although none could see it-her stomping defiance worked to cover it up, as did her uncompromisingly vocal assertion of her selfhood and importance. All About Eve, quite possibly the stunning apex of her career, stars Davis as Margo Channing, an aging star of the theater whose ‘paranoia’ towards a younger, aspiring actress leads to some of the most vitriolic verbal rampages ever recorded on film. Her unwavering intensity and defiant resistance to any and all who propose to take advantage of her, have marked her as a personal heroine.
When I think of Katharine Hepburn I think of the scandal she caused in 1930s Hollywood by donning trousers. Hepburn grew up in a liberal household, her mother campaigning for women’s suffrage and birth control education. As a young girl, Katharine ran around, conducting herself in what she referred to as a tomboyish manner (her antics often the cause of no little amount of trepidation from surrounding adults). Growing up, Hepburn seemed to be the embodiment of Jo, the character she would later play in George Cukor’s 1933 production of Little Women. Her gregariousness imbued all of her characters with what seem like delicate traces of the real Hepburn. When she began acting in films, she retained this spark of rebellion, often challenging producers and directors about the sparseness of her roles and the motivations of her characters. Later, she became recognized for The Philadelphia Story and the slew of “battle of the sexes” themed films in which she acted opposite long-time companion Spencer Tracey (Adam’s Rib and Desk Set, most notable among these). In all of these films, there is an uncompromising and yet tender quality to her characters; sharp, steadfast, and holding to the courage of their convictions.
At different points in my life these women have meant things often contradicting yet undeniably important to me. They have taught me to be equal parts defiant, self-absorbed, foolish, and terse, exuberant, joyful, intelligent, and compassionate. They have taught me to hold myself in a manner that signifies unwavering will, they have taught me to be voluptuously kind, and have reminded me that everything may be taken with a grain of salt. All these things and more they have instilled in me and all of these things I have needed.