Birthday Girls: Katharine Hepburn
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1955 Best Actress Oscar to Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo)
Why I Went Back: Happy birthday, Kate! And, as will be obvious, I'm forever resolving my thoughts about this film and this performanceeven, increasingly, about this actress.
The Performance: In my lifetime of commitment to Katharine Hepburn, her starring role in Summertime remains the great riddle: I can't decide how I feel about it, and it has the odd double-effect of seeming incongruous to her star narrative, maybe even resistant to her abilities, while also illuminating more about Hepburn as actor and woman than anything else she's done, possibly excepting Little Women. A key story element involves a goblet of vermilion-colored glass that is never fully resolved as a magnificent artifact or a dispiriting fake, propped up on its admirers' desire for truth and beauty, even in their absence. Summertime probably intends us to see the goblet as a metaphor for its American spinster's sad, sentimental, but nonetheless stirring trip to Venice, which plays convincingly as a climax of this woman's experience and as a somewhat pitiful self-delusion, and most richly as a blend of the two. In pulling his camera so close to the goblet, David Lean has the confidence and grace to invite speculation as to whether his own film duplicates the worrying riddles of that goblet. Summertime's lush but self-commodifying colorism sometimes seems dubious, though its emotional through-lines prove more delicate by the finish than the first hour leads me to expect, revealing a genuine distillation of poignant, autumnal feeling beneath a summer sun, rather than just an exuberantly lacquered miming of the same.
But what about Hepburn herself? Is she also the gobleta rare beauty, but also a heartbreaking myth? As with many of our most wondrous actresses, directors' desires to use her and viewers' craving to see her invited several occasions of strained casting, sometimes to her insuperable disadvantage (The Rainmaker) but often to her resourceful glory (Long Day's Journey into Night). Summertime entails an affront to plausibility right from the get-go. Hepburn's Jane wields a home-movie camera with such elated, confident vigor during the opening arrival to Venice that she's utterly believable as a hungry, first-time visitor to this particular city. But who could ever countenance Kate Hepburn as someone who'd never been anywhere? The piece depends, hugely, on our sense of the character's horizons expanding decisively, with a looming expiration date, but everything about Hepburn's gait and figure and mien connote a long life of open doors, knowledge absorbed, invitations rarely denied her even when she denied them. Scenes where she has to dog-paddle around with insulated American foibles, ostentatiously fumbling simple Italian words or proving too timid to solicit a waiter for her bill, cannot help but play as unconvincing pantomime for Hepburn, and also against the more elegant passages of the movie. I'm sometimes tempted to believe that Jane requires projections of bashfulness or naïveté that Hepburn simply cannot manage, but then the material clearly parses psychology into finer categories than just innocence and experience. Lean surely knew what he wanted when he cast this barnstorming New Englander in a role where the easier, reductive choice would have been a frump or a Jane Wyman type, though at the same time, Wyman might have found more to exploit than Hepburn is willing in scenes like the famous spill into the canal, where Kate is so sporting about her own stuntwork that she's weirdly unembarrassed by the public mishap.
In any event, Summertime works as a challenge to Jane's coping mechanisms, whatever those have been: she needn't be played as a delicate bloom, or as utterly uninitiated to the ways in which a wider world works, the ways in which people prevaricate in pursuit of sex or companionship or experience. So it's only for a while, then, that the cultivated Hepburnness of Hepburn, in all her disarming shrewdness and haughty charisma, seems to interfere with her ability to conjure as tremulous a figure as Jane initially presents, and also to serve as appealing but arbitrary compensation for a film that gawks so often and so centrally at the beauty of Venice that Jane herself feels like a generically mandated convenience on which to hang the spectacles and the formal compositions in which Lean is more fully interested. If the main character is a basically arbitrary surrogate for the camera, why not the Hepburn we know and love, rather than the paler, more vulnerable woman the script seems to solicit? But then, as Summertime confronts Jane with the truth of her desires and with the ambiguous effects of gratifying them, Hepburn's odd or erratic offering of herself in place of the scripted character becomes fascinating and rich. It isn't just that her driftless hurt and solitudecommunicated with real delicacy and sadness in shots like the one where she sits on a set of low steps by the side of a canal, or where she hides out of view of a younger couple who are abruptly reconsidering whether to invite her along on a dinner datefeel more moving to the extent that we associate them with Hepburn herself. After so many years of standing next to Tracy, not just contentedly but strangely pushing his cold stolidity to curb or eclipse her impetuousness, the woman we find once we get her alone is not any sidelined spitfire, yearning for independence, but a much more bruised and incapacitated figure, an inveterate codependent forced to languish by herself.
More immediate plot concerns, like Jane's initial outrage and then her soft-spoken pursuit of love with a married man, only intensify the conditions for seeing Jane as a window not into Venice, about which Summertime has little to say, but into Hepburn, even though Lean is too tactful and Hepburn still too fundamentally guarded and canny to imply a total unveiling, much less an exploitative one. She's still stuck saying lots of stuff that sounds like the kind of dialogue that Hepburn would sneer at from her patio at Fenwick: "Let me go, I must catch that train! Oh, Renato!" There are at least a handful of moments one wants to rewrite, redirect, or excise. But she's breathtaking, ecstatic and sad, when she's all dolled up for her night out with Rossano Brazzi: unprecedentedly eligible for chic strapless gowns, but also self-conscious about her age, her reserve, the tomboyish and undeniable eccentricity of her freckled beauty. She puts real heart into Jane's ardor as well as her disappointment. As brittlely mannered as Hepburn usually was, it's affecting to see how simply and directly she assumes Jane's elation and her mounting grief through the second half of Summertime, unmistakably connecting at some personal level with the material and thereby elevating the film above the risks of hollow melodrama or unanchored pictorialism. She plays from the heart, but not only from the heart: she knows that Jane's problems, her dramas, and her enigmas are finally in her head. Note that in her early, lying speech to the manager of her pensione about the "friend" who is really herself, traveling to Italy so as to connect with "something hidden way in the back of her mind," Hepburn reads the line not as a moist paean to the ineffable "something" but with a kind of pleased, reverential respect for the mysteries of the mind.
In this and other ways, we come to perceive a whole host of stories that Jane/Hepburn performs for herself, as herself, as well as what it looks like when she punctures or admits her own illusions: sometimes with tears, sometimes with angry swats at the furniture, sometimes with a kind of serenity unusual for the hardworking Hepburn. In some sense, all of this derives from overcoming an erratically written role, and from enforcing more of her own persona upon the part than she probably ought, even when it could stand a little saving. The more interesting and sobering coefficent for what Hepburn finally achieves, though, in all the peaks and revelations of her work in Summertime is a portrait of desperate neediness that is so credible that the lustrous carapace of Hepburn's independence in so many other films and press appearances is never again so believablea heavy toll to pay, if Hepburn has ever served, as she long did for me, as an exemplar of how to proudly and publicly know your own mind. Even more than Garbo's beauty or Bogart's sangfroid, Hepburn's headstrong, proudly intellectual spirit of autonomy is for me one of the paragon creations of the movies, onscreen or off. It's also, to no small extent, a willful and self-serving mirage for a woman who clearly fetishized paternal surrogates and made herself subservient to men and to myths that don't seem worthy of the brilliant persona she forged and sustained.
Any adult reader of Me: Stories of My Life can perceive the measures of masochism and denial in Hepburn, but one need not relinquish passion and gratitude for everything Hepburn achieved and represented, even if her image is built on shakier premises than one loves to admit. Summertime contains the one performance where Hepburn discloses these dynamics of heart and mind; maybe that's why it's the performance that seems most to combine moments of her unique, incandescent best with flashes of her limitations and failures of nerve. It's hard to look at Hepburn and acknowledge that some of what you're seeing is fake, but it's well worth it when so much else, so much more is beautiful, and when the sum of the fake and the beautiful feel so much like the truth.