Caught The Rainmaker on TPTV last night, one of those 1950s film adaptations of not very good Broadway plays then considered ´significant´and ‘important´ and filmed with so little skill and imagination they now have the virtue of conveying what the Broadway production might have been like. Anyway, I digress, the main reason for posting is that I was just bowled over by Katharine Hepburn, charming and touching in a really embarrassingly conceived role. The play is a about the tensions between accepting reality and using fantasy and imagination to escape it. And the theme is played out over the figure of Lizzie, who does´t conform to then dominant notions of femininity. The play keeps asking ´what is a woman’ and assumes a female can only be a ´real woman´if she´s with a man. Burt Lancaster is athletic, a little over the top, but rather poetic with it as well. His Starbuck is not just a huckster but a dreamer and the performance is a dynamic dry run for his Elmer Gantry of a few years later. Pauline Kael called the casting, ´just about perfect’ even though Hepburn is about twenty years old for the part. ´Hepburn is stringy and tomboyish, believably plain and magnetically beautiful’ (p. 483, 5001 Nights).
Watching The Rainmaker last night made me wonder if any star´s reputation has altered so much as Hepburn´s in my lifetime. When I was a teenager in the 70s, she was the biggest and most influential star of the classic era, still getting leading roles in prestige productions, and in the late sixties being ranked higher as a box office star than she´d ever been in her whole career, plus winning Academy Awards, starring in hit musicals on Broadway, prestige adaptations on television that were seen nationwide by huge audiences (Love Among the Ruins, The Glass Menagerie). Books were published to satiate and fan demand, Charles Higham´s biography in 1975, Garson Kanin´s memoir, Tracey and Hepburn in 1970. She was a feminist role model, often cited as the most admired woman in America in the 1970s. Andrew Britton published one of the key early monographs on stardom through an analysis of her personal in 1984: Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist. Now….
It seems that what used to grate with audiences before (the voice, the mannerisms, the dreamy floweriness of her style) grate now. The feminism that then seemed so daring (Sylvia Scarlett but I´m thinking particularly Woman of the Year, how it seems less so now, and the ending of the latter is often used against her, forgetting all that leads up to it). Her great films (e.g. Holiday) are still greatly admired. But as a star, has lost some of the lustre she had in the 70s. And she didn´t even beat her daughter with a wire hanger to lose her lustre.
She doesn´t inspire worship the way Crawford, Bergman, Davis and others do. As an actress, Stanwyck is the one who´s most in fashion now. Hepburn was too uninterested in the things that inspire gay cults (glamour, clothes, jewels) and she has certainly been the victim of the viciousness of queens (Cecil Beaton´s diaries are particularly nasty). Of course her need to be the centre of attention in her quite old age, the awful tv movies near the end that seemed to get worse and worse, the extreme ego-centrism of her autobiography, Me, none of that has helped….
..But then one sees her charm, and shine and daring in even something so second-rate as The Rainmaker, something so second rate that is nonetheless still seen for what Lancaster and she bring to it, and one thinks, well, these things are cycles, and the evidence of the work, she´ll be back in fashion again soon.