On screen​ , Katharine Hepburn looks as if she has made a curious contract with time. She has promised not to change, and time has promised not to count properly. Of course time can’t halt entirely. It’s a long long way from May to December, as the song says, or from Bill of Divorcement (1932) to Love Affair (1994), and you can see much of the road in the current season of Hepburn films at the BFI. The brittle bony face does get brittler and bonier, the dry voice gets dryer. But there was always an older lady in the young woman, and there is a skittish young woman in the old lady. She wasn’t wiser than her years, but she was smarter and snappier than her years were supposed to be, whatever the years were.

In Adam’s Rib (1949), for example, she is still flinging in and out of rooms like a teenager, closing doors behind her by athletically throwing out a foot; but she can also age ten years in a single close-up when she looks worried. In Holiday (1938) she is accused of having the ideas and attitudes of a person of 17 – we don’t know the age of her character and Hepburn was 31 – and promptly takes this as a compliment, as if 17 were a condition of mind rather than a number, chiefly an affair of not caring only for money and status. This claim is deeply implausible as a matter of social realism, since everything about Hepburn and her role in the film – clothes, accent, assurance, assumptions – spells money and status. But then here as in so many Hepburn movies the plot doesn’t quite say what it seems to. Her rebellion, like the rebellion of Cary Grant in the same film, is not against wealth or comfort but against an idea of work that is more a religion than an ethic, a mentality that abolishes the very notions of leisure and fun. Both of them lack what the Grant character calls ‘the reverence for riches’, and when Grant appears for the first time in the ludicrously colossal family mansion, Hepburn says to her sister: ‘Do you realise that life walked into this house this morning.’ Life in this movie, as the title suggests, is defined by the ability to know what a holiday means, and how to have one. Grant’s motto in this work nicely matches Hepburn’s career: ‘Retire young, work old’. Except that ‘retire’ here means play while you’re working.

Play is an essential feature of Adam’s Rib too, also directed by George Cukor, as were eight other Hepburn films. The director’s touch here is as light as it was in the earlier work, but darker questions surround the practice of play. There isn’t any real holiday from work, and marriage itself is a matter of performance. To put it rather lumpily, the film is about whether jokes can go too far, and what happens when they do. Spencer Tracy, Hepburn’s partner in this film as in many others, is a great accomplice in the articulation of this worry, but it is on Hepburn’s face, with its multiple ages, that we see most of the action occur.

Hepburn and Tracy are married, both are lawyers. As assistant district attorney in New York, he is given the job of prosecuting a woman who shot at but failed to kill her husband and his mistress – the would-be murderer is played by the brilliantly dotty Judy Holliday, a character so confused that the very ideas of guilt or innocence seem to belong to a world she doesn’t know. Hepburn decides to take the case for the defence, not so much, she thinks, to tease or attack her husband as to ‘dramatise an injustice’, the general injustice, that is, of men’s dominion over women. Things get a little awkward, as we expect, and the plot brings Hepburn to the point where she feels she is going to ‘win the case and lose my husband’. She does win the case and almost loses Tracy. The question, though, is how, and this question has nothing to do with the general injustice – until Cukor or Hollywood, getting cold feet, pulls the unruly issue back into line.

The whole film circles round two tricks, two moments of humiliation – or moments that one party at least feels are humiliating. In the first Hepburn gets a lady circus performer to lift Tracy up and carry him around the courtroom – the ostensible point is to prove how strong women can be, the practical effect is to make him look silly. In the second moment Tracy, who has left home, reappears with a gun and threatens Hepburn, who is absent-mindedly tolerating the champagne-assisted passes her neighbour is making at her: the situation replicates, with the sexes reversed, that of the woman Hepburn defended. Except that Tracy doesn’t shoot, can’t shoot, because the gun he holds is made of liquorice, which he demonstrates by eating it. Now it’s Hepburn’s turn to be outraged at being made to look silly.

Our responses to all this are going to depend a lot on our mood when we see the film. The tricks are funny, and we could think the point is that the targets of jokes are not usually very good at laughing along: men and women, husbands and wives, just as stuffy as each other. This is probably the accepted reading. On my last viewing, while I was still laughing, I couldn’t shake off a sense that a kind of cruelty was being modelled: how far will we go to win a point? This take is to some extent confirmed by the movie’s two endings. In the first ending, Hepburn and Tracy are in a lawyer’s office sorting out the details of their divorce. They talk about the payments on their place in the country, both begin to think about the old idyll, and Tracy starts to cry. Hepburn is moved, they forget about the divorce, and abandon the lawyer to his bewilderment. This looks like the end of sexual discrimination: big boys don’t cry but big men do. The dramatised injustice was only apparent, and the marriage of true minds can resume.

In the next scene Tracy explains that the tears were a calculated act, that he can cry at will, and knew exactly what he was doing. He demonstrates his ability: he looks, once again, hopelessly distraught. He wins, she loses. It’s too late in the film and too early in the day for that feminist stuff about equality. Hepburn looks aghast, but presumably is not going to revolt. She does love him after all, as he loves her; both of them would rather be together than apart. A curtain closes on their presumed sexual union, and the film is over. In a strangely elegant way it now seems that both parties were right. Hepburn was wrong to want to defeat Tracy in a courtroom or anywhere else. He was always going to win, sooner or later. That is what gendered power is about. But of course the film’s anxious display of his victory suggests something else: that she was only wrong to think she could defeat him, since the game is rigged and the film will conspire to make her look as dotty as Judy Holliday. This is where Hepburn’s face, and indeed her whole performance, contradict the story. She can’t be fooled, as her character is. Tracy thinks he has to explain to her what the phrase ‘Vive la différence’ means. As if she hadn’t always known. Scott Berg, thinking of a later Hepburn movie, makes a fine, understated remark: ‘It was ultimately difficult for an audience – to say nothing of the star herself – to accept Katharine Hepburn as somebody who had truly lost her mind.’

The Philadelphia Story (1940), another Cukor film, is at the centre of the BFI’s season. We meet the rich girl again, and we are closer in time and spirit to Holiday. The Hepburn character has been married to the fallible Cary Grant, and now is about to marry, as almost all women are in movie comedies of this period, an impeccably boring fellow. Fortunately, a semi-romance with James Stewart teaches Hepburn that she is fallible too, and she returns to Grant. Like her counterpart in Holiday, she is intrigued by the idea that some people have to earn a living – ‘a room and food’, she muses – but doesn’t need to bother about it herself. What she does have to do is seem to make her own life rather than have it made for her, and in an ending which in many ways foreshadows the old-time sexual politics of Adam’s Rib, she gives up being, as she says, ‘got out’ of things only to be got out of them in a different way. She extricates herself from the mistaken mess of the marriage to the bore, but her declaration of independence is dictated to her by Grant as he stands just behind her, the puppet-master as husband-to-be. This is not a mess, it’s a happy ending, as long as you like submission. But then Hepburn’s carefully cultivated manner, her continuing over-impersonation of a member of an affected upper class, makes you wonder about the promise of revolt a supposed act of submission might hide.

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