In the spring of 1995, I was a budding young high school actress. Our theater department was small, but dedicated. (The budgets and the actual theater itself were even smaller.) All of us were eagerly anticipating the announcement of the spring show and one Friday afternoon our director came into the Advanced Drama class carrying this:
Nerdship, let me tell you that the word spread like wildfire. Everyone wanted to know what this play was. And since this was in the days before googling was a thing, I went to the LIBRARY. When I looked up the title, there were two entries: the script, which the Washoe County Library did not have, and a movie version, which was available to check out on VHS.
I immediately sprinted to video room and snatched up the lone copy before anyone else could beat me to it. I went home that night, made some popcorn, arranged my pillows for maximum viewing comfort and hit play.
Two hours later, I rewound the tape and watched it again. And again.
Here’s a quick summary of The Philadelphia Story, if you’ve never seen it: Wealthy Philadelphia socialite, Tracy Samantha Lord (Katharine Hepburn), is getting married to a self made man, George Kitteridge (John Howard). Sidney Kidd, editor of Spy Magazine, wants exclusive coverage of the wedding and so, aided by Tracy’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), he sends in reporter Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey) as old friends of the family so they can get him the story. Tracy sees straight through this ruse, but allows Mike and Liz to stay after Dexter tells her that it’s the story of her wedding or Sidney Kidd instead runs a salacious story about Tracy’s father and his affair with a young dancer in New York City.
On the night before the wedding, Tracy gets drunk for only the second time ever. She convinces Mike, who it turns out is actually writer and only works for Sidney Kidd to pay the bills, to take a midnight swim with her. On their way back to the house, they run into both Dexter and George.
Dexter thinks the entire thing is hilarious, but George is deeply offended and storms off, letting Mike take Tracy upstairs.
The next morning, he calls Tracy to demand an explanation and offended by his lack of trust in her, breaks off the engagement. Dexter arrives to bring her a cure for her hangover and they reminisce about their own marriage and why it didn’t work.
The house is filled with wedding guests and Tracy doesn’t know what to do. In order to help her save face, Mike offers to marry her, much to Liz’ distress. Tracy, knowing that Liz and Mike are quite in love with each other, declines.
And because nothing I could say would do justice to what happens next, I’m just going to let you see it for yourselves:
Nerdship, I can’t tell you how much this movie changed my life. I’d seen Katharine Hepburn movies before – Bringing Up Baby, Adam’s Rib – but in this, she was luminous. She ought to have been, since Philip Barry, the playwright, wrote Tracy with her specifically in mind. Her film career was in ruins, she was box office poison, when she went back to Broadway with The Philadelphia Story. Howard Hughes helped her secure the film rights and she went to her longtime friend, George Cukor to direct.
The movie was originally released in 1940 and went on to be nominated for 6 Oscars, winning two, including Jimmy Stewart’s only Oscar. It turned Hepburn’s career around and after signing a contract with MGM, she went onto to star in several films with Spencer Tracy, who turned out to be the love of her life.
As much as I love this movie, I equally love what it represents. This movie is a product of a strong, independent woman who thumbed her nose at her detractors and at a studio that had turned its back on her and remade her career on her own terms. To me, Katharine Hepburn wasn’t just an icon to me as an actress, but as a woman. Her fierce spirit and determination to never let anyone tell her what she could and couldn’t do is something I aspire to every day.
Full disclosure: In the end, I wasn’t cast as Tracy in our production of The Philadelphia Story – I played Liz instead. But I like to think I’m living a Katharine Hepburn life.