(above: Katharine Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement - George Cukor, 1932)
How is a cinephiliac moment inherited? The very notion seems weird; cinephilia is supposed to be about unearthing singular, sensuous presences others might have missed – a gesture, a movement, a detail that has struck you. Inheriting, by contrast, involves picking up a certain something that has passed through many other hands. But one may be dependent on the other. Case in point: one of my treasured film moments actually seems to have been beloved by nearly everyone who has seen it. But this does not dilute its impact on me, even though all that can be unique about my experience with it is not the fact of it – since many have registered it – but the writing I produce from out of it, the subject “I” that emerges in the particular words I inscribe as I re-view it, and as I offer it to you to think about again.
In George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (1932) Katharine Hepburn’s character is saying goodbye to her mother at the door. She closes it and retreats back into the house. In most films this would be the end of the sequence. But Cukor defers the ending, and cuts to another shot, a narratively unnecessary one, inside the house, following Hepburn as she moves into another room. Hepburn’s walk starts out slow as she begins to circle the room; free of story – all the other important characters have left the house – Kate is now free to move about as she pleases. She languidly scratches her head as she walks into a living room, then yawns. A half-heartbeat later she lowers her arms with a little burst of energy that slices the air around her body, as if drawing it in towards her. She then circles around to a sofa on which she finds two pillows, and swings around to the rug in front of a fireplace, plopping the pillows on the floor. She is now ready to perform the most enchanting performance of prostration I have ever seen in movies: facing away from the pillows, she lowers herself backwards, hands first, knees up, onto them; then, dropping her head on the edge of the first pillow, she runs her hands through her hair again, juts her torso up twice to reposition her midsection slightly on the pillows, all before exhaling, unbending her knee, and crossing her right foot over her left.
Cue a dissolve.
Semiotics would say the actor has successfully conveyed the sign ‘tired.’ And this is what is more or less going on: Hepburn’s character wants to take a nap. But the nap has next to nothing to do with the story, so what delights me in Hepburn’s movements and gestures is the fact that they tell me everywhere she is not really tired – that is, what delights me in the performance is precisely what works against what the character, if she and the fictional world she lives in really existed, would actually be seen to be doing. No truly exhausted, ready-to-take-a-nap presence could produce these little gestural delights I have tried to describe. They can only be generated by an active, alert cinematic intelligence, in the form of an actor, who was responding to the presence of the camera through an assertive declaration of her own gestural distinction. Do not forget that this is Hepburn’s first movie, and that it was often a self-conscious challenge for theatrically trained performers of the period to prove themselves adequately subtle or magical for the camera lens. So this shot from A Bill of Divorcement is not “narrative” or “performance” in any conventional sense of the term; it is proof.
A dismissive response to my pleasure in this moment would simply call it an actor fetish, and it certainly does not take a cinephile to fetishize an actor (our dull cult of celebrity is more intense than ever). But I would contend – forcefully against the dismissal that I am merely another love-struck fan and politely against certain cinephiliac scholars’ investments in the concept of the fetish – that it is not a fetish at all, if we take “fetish” to mean, as Keathley takes it to mean in his cinephiliac study, a delight in “repressed materiality.” Far from repressed, Kate’s contortions in this scene have had salient presence in the material receptions of the film since its very first screenings. David O. Selznick himself reports that “very early in the picture there was a scene in which Hepburn just walked across the room, stretched her arms, and then lay out on the floor before the fireplace. It sounds very simple, but you could almost feel, and you could definitely hear, the excitement in the audience” (quoted in Anne Edwards, Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman, 2000, p. 94). So my delight in the material sensuousness produced through the collaboration of Kate, Cukor, and camera, far from unearthing something repressed, is part of the body of a larger material tradition, a confirmation of the ongoing vitality of a widely available moment many others have loved, and will continue to love. Rewind the film, and watch Kate move again.
Steven Rybin is assistant professor of film at Georgia Gwinnett College, and co-editor of Lonely Places, Dangerous Ground: Nicholas Ray in American Cinema (SUNY Press, 2014). He is currently working on a book on the performance of courtship in some classical Hollywood movies. He blogs at www.stevenrybin.com.