Saturday, November 14, 2015

1981: Katharine Hepburn for On Golden Pond

In her fourth (!) and final Best Actress winning role, Hepburn plays the female half of an old married couple who plan to spend a quiet season at their summer home as usual, when they receive a letter from their essentially estranged daughter that she's coming to visit them with her latest boyfriend. Hepburn's character is delighted at another chance to improve her relationship with her daughter; her husband, much less so.

Hepburn's not quite as fabulous in this as she was in her previous win for The Lion in Winter, and she's kind of secondary in importance to her co-star Henry Fonda, who won Best Actor, but I'd still call her performance Oscar-worthy. Her unrelenting cheerfulness in the face of Fonda's grouchiness could have easily been overplayed and annoying, but she makes it delightful. In fact, delightful pretty much sums up her entire performance. My very favorite scene is when she's gathering wood while dancing and singing an old camp song. She really gets into it, and I could not stop laughing. What's so wonderful about it, though, is that it seems like exactly the kind of thing her character would do, as evidenced by her daughter's reaction when she sees it. You can tell that Hepburn had a lot of fun with this role, and that's exactly the way it needed to be approached.

She also had great chemistry with Henry Fonda. I had no trouble believing that they were actually an old married couple. Hepburn and Fonda were both legendary actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but this was the only film they were in together, and they reportedly hadn't even met before. Yet watching her with him is almost like watching her with Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Emphasis on almost. Still, the fact that she could even approach the same level of emotion for a man she had never worked with before and had just met as she did for a man she'd made 8 other movies with and had been madly in love with for decades demonstrates that she's a better actress than I gave her credit for when I talked about that movie. Would Guess Who's Coming to Dinner  have been as good with Fonda instead of Tracy? Probably not. Would Hepburn have still won an Oscar? Quite possibly.

It is kind of interesting that this was her second Best Actress winning performance in a movie that ended up being her co-star's final theatrically released film. Tracy died only a few weeks after Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was finished filming. Fonda was in a TV movie that aired after On Golden Pond was released, but he passed away the following year. So this was both the only time he worked with Hepburn and the only time he worked with his daughter, previous two-time Best Actress winner Jane Fonda, who played their daughter in the film. While it probably wasn't much of a stretch for Henry Fonda to play her father, it reflects well on Hepburn that she was so convincing as her mother, given that she had no children of her own and reportedly despised Jane Fonda. So while this still isn't my all-time favorite Katharine Hepburn performance, I think she deserved this Oscar.

Katharine Hepburn lived much longer than Henry Fonda did, and she continued working for over a decade after this, mostly in TV movies. This was her 12th and final Oscar nomination. She died in 2003 at the age of 96, which at the time was the longest a Best Actress winner had ever lived. She's since been passed up by Luise Rainer (104), Olivia de Havilland (still alive at 99), and Joan Fontaine (96, just a few days older than Hepburn was), but that's still an impressive lifespan.

Speaking of records, this was a pretty historic win for several reasons. At 74, Hepburn shattered the previous record for oldest Best Actress Oscar winner that had been set by 63-year-old Marie Dressler exactly 50 ceremonies earlier. Hepburn would not hold this record nearly as long as Dressler did, since it was broken merely 8 ceremonies later, but to date she remains the second oldest winner of this award. Hepburn also became not only the first person to win 4 Best Actress Oscars, but also the first person to win 4 acting Oscars period, a record that has still not even been tied 33 ceremonies later. Even if she hadn't won this year, she would still be the only actress with 3 Oscars for leading roles. She was also the first person to be nominated for this award 12 times, but that record was broken when Meryl Streep received her 13th Best Actress nomination for 2009's Julie & Julia.

Appropriately enough, Streep won her first Best Actress Oscar the year after Hepburn won her last, so I'll be talking about her next. I'm not really looking forward to re-watching that movie because it's very sad, even though Streep is beyond amazing in it, but the movie after that one is overdue at the library so I'll probably try to watch them both today (I watched On Golden Pond last night). I have a feeling I'm about to have an emotional breakdown, but it will be worth it because overall I'm loving this project. I lost some momentum last month, and it's hard to keep it going during Noirvember, but I'm going to keep it going the best I can.

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