Enduring Legends

Their movie legacies live on -- sometimes in surprising ways.

In poignant, surprising, even troubling ways, these six screen artists left lasting impacts on the movies.

Film

Cover Story

December 14, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Americans and newspeople, and maybe most of all American newspeople, love marking "an end of an era" as much as they love declaring "the end of innocence."

The deaths of some of the major movie figures who passed away this year did mark the ends of eras: Katharine Hepburn of the first wave of American sound-film stars, Gregory Peck of the second wave that came in during World War II. As a movie personality, Bob Hope crested in the 1940s on his own innovation of bringing rapid-fire radio-style patter into big-screen comedy in a style so breezy it seemed improvised. And as a movie director, Elia Kazan, in films like On the Waterfront, brought dramatic improvisation to the fore, exploding conventional notions of stardom when he and Marlon Brando infused the movies with the unpredictable truth-seeking of Method acting.

But the ways these careers melt into each other suggests just how arbitrary era-marking can be. And artists or entertainment giants have legacies that transcend their most obvious spheres of influence; who would have thought, for example, that Kazan would leave as indelible a mark on John Waters as on Martin Scorsese (see below)? At the end of the year, what makes them heartening as well as poignant or troubling figures to consider is that, unlike the Fruit of the Month Club, their gifts really do keep on giving - often with shock, delight or surprise.

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn was the opposite of Everywoman, but her roles were so diverse that every woman could identify with her. With her slashing posture and piercing voice, she was as easy for nightclub comics to imitate as James Cagney, but like Cagney her hallmark was versatility.

By career's end she was often cast in spirit-of-America parts like the matriarch in On Golden Pond (1981), but what will make her last in memory is the astonishing array of roles she played in her six-decade career.

In Alice Adams (1935) she is both arch and lyrical as the upwardly hopeful daughter of an unlucky clerk; when Alice tries to put on airs, she makes you wince and laugh simultaneously. In Little Women (1933) she's the quintessential literary tomboy - she transforms adolescent feistiness into an offbeat allure. As the crazy-like-a-minx rich girl who turns everything upside-down, including a dinosaur skeleton, for paleontologist Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938), she's like Gracie Allen and the Graces of pleasure, charm and beauty rolled into one.

Playing the nonconformist sister of Cary Grant's hoity-toity fiancee in Holiday (also 1938) she makes nobility seductive - if at first you think, "What a sister," by the end you think, "What a woman!" The Philadelphia Story (1940) presents Hepburn in a manner calculated to sell her to a mass audience - she's a Main Line girl who loosens up. But when she upbraids her alcoholic ex-husband (Cary Grant), she is alternately irksome and hilarious, and when she melts before him, she's a heartbreaker. And, of course, as the drug-addicted mother in Sidney Lumet's harrowing 1962 production of Eugene O' Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, she is the standout in a cast of standouts; Lumet himself has described her performance - with its shivers of panic, and glassy-eyed resignation - as "the personification of tragic acting."

The teaming of Hepburn and Spencer Tracy had an elemental rightness. He was the salt of the earth; she was the pepper. But she forged equally miraculous partnerships with Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951), with Rossano Brazzi in Summertime (1955) and with Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956). And as a budding Broadway star in Stage Door (1937), an aristocrat who wants to make it on her own, she found just as deft a female sparring partner in Ginger Rogers as her streetwise roommate.

Apart from the comic wonders of Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952), the best-known Tracy-Hepburn movies are often uneven artistically and surprisingly retro in their sexual attitudes. But Frank Capra's underrated State of the Union (1947) is cutting-edge: Tracy plays a tycoon who goes after the Republican nomination (think Ross Perot as a charismatic hero) and Hepburn plays his spouse, who tolerates his flirtation with power and his affair with a king-making newspaper magnate (the sensual young Angela Lansbury). Hepburn imbues this stock role with warmth and pizazz: next to Jiminy Cricket, she's the most limber walking conscience in the movies.

Gregory Peck

Peck has been rightly celebrated for making sanity charismatic and paternal emotion engaging in movies like To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) and my own Peck favorite, The Yearling (1946). He was also more resourceful and multifaceted than he ever got credit for, bringing off such diverse roles as a seethingly sexual cowboy in Duel in the Sun (1946) and a sly, romantic foreign correspondent in Roman Holiday (1954).

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