(the 424th and final Best Actress nominee!)
KATHARINE HEPBURN IN THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire
Eleanor Parker in Detective Story
Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun
Jane Wyman in The Blue Veil
There’s so much more to say than I ever could about Katharine Hepburn and this film, and what they mean to me. This quest could only conclude with an all-time legendary character, actress, and film. What’s more, of course it had to finish with the story of an outlandish quest in and of itself, a journey that transformed all (characters and people alike) who took part. As I’ve mentioned before, this was a film that I’d been deliberately saving since 2005, a time by which I’d seen 95 or 96 of the (original AFI 100 Years…100 Movies list, and nearly exhausted the filmography of my heroine, Katharine Hepburn. Back then, I was so in love with the great movies on this and other lists that I feared there wouldn’t be any more great cinema to discover once they had all run out. I stowed the pristine African Queen away, until such a day (that might never come) when I could face finishing off the canon.
I’m finally ready to do so, now that I know that of course my own personal canon is endless. Big, popular lists like the AFI’s can only point you to big, popular films, never the intensely personal works that will resonate with only you. Those you have to stumble across on your own, off the beaten path, at a random screening or buried anonymously in a random checklist of films. I knew this all along, of course; I guess I just needed to really experience it a little before I’d truly be ready. Diving into a pile of mostly unfamiliar, unheralded movies on this Best Actress Quest, I uncovered brilliant works like A Woman Under the Influence, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, or Seance on a Wet Afternoon, all of which I’d barely heard of (if at all) when I took my vow regarding The African Queen. And of course, even the category of Best Actress cannot close the frontier of great leading ladies yet to be discovered, as my list of the category’s omissions suggests. So I’m glad to polish off The African Queen, the AFI list, and the Best Actress category and strike out for more adventures!
But as far as the film went, I was again so very glad that I saved a genuine crown jewel for the finale. This is a classic of such epic proportions that it deserves such a great first viewing: sitting smack-dab in the center of the stadium seating in the Egyptian Theater, absorbing the whole chromatic, humorous, and boldly unique experience. The lush cinematography by Jack Cardiff, despite the many limits of location shooting in the 1950s, seared a vivid streak through my memory of Technicolor film. I was of course reminded throughout of other films that touch (intentionally or not) on this one’s myth: Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo in the dreamlike travels through river and jungle; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (another Huston) and the yet-to-be-released Gravity as regards the man and woman engulfed in the wilderness, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Sunshine in the crazy suicide mission. I even caught a distinct whiff of Jaws in the final moments of the film. This is a universal story, formed by a legendary filmmaker around two of the most mythic actors in film history, godlike in their personality and presence.
The characters were of course unmistakably the creations of Katharine and Humphrey, though I disagree with the popular perception of them essentially playing themselves, bringing their unadorned personas to shine on the screen. They really almost play each other more than themselves: at the outset of the story, Bogie’s Charlie Allnut is practically a chatterbox, something that he never portrays onscreen, while Katharine’s Rosie Sayer is bestowed with a serene poise (you can feel the affinity with Bette Davis in the proposed 1930s and 1940s productions), seeming as if she knows from the beginning how all this is going to end. In this performance, she emerges fully formed, ready to inject Rosie with the unflinching confidence and astounding fortitude that could ignite the characters’ wild commando mission and keep it in motion. For all the musical biopics and maternal melodramas in the annals of the Best Actress race, Katharine is probably the only one who got there by pulling a boat by a rope, neck-deep in murky, leech-infested water.
This would of course become an era-defining mask for Katharine to wear, dictating the spinster character she would play, at least when it came to Oscar nominations, for the rest of the decade: Summertime and The Rainmaker, and even to a great extent Suddenly, Last Summer. Of course, she only wore this mask for a time, one in a series of archetypes that could have individually made stars of four or five separate actresses. Still, this is the role that breathed another act of her career to life, and Katharine embodies it perfectly. So does she get my vote for Best Actress of 1951? Well, she still has to contend with the breathtaking Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. The Davis-Swanson race from 1950 gets more attention, partly because of the dual comeback angle and partly because of the dark horse winner that forever set the two titanesses as equals in defeat. However, I think that this race deserves almost equal billing. At the end of the day I can’t deny Vivien’s equally legendary creation, and I’m glad to have Katharine there right behind her.