It’s been mentioned here before how totally Hepburn becomes her character, Linda, in 1938’s Holiday, another Philip Barry play co-starring Cary Grant and directed by George Cukor, and how there’s nary a trace of Kate the iron-willed individualist that audiences have come to know. I was floored by how wonderfully vulnerable she was, yet with a nascent strength brought out by Cary Grant’s Johnny Case character. That film is a dry run for The Philadelphia Story, as all the main players are present: Hepburn, Grant, writer Barry, and director Cukor. Alright, so there’s precedent to The Philadelphia Story; everyone works well together…
Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The Philadelphia Story is widely considered her comeback role, after being branded “Box Office Poison” during the 1930s. As insane as that is to comprehend today; I find it more difficult to explain why I like Kate’s performance so much. Yes, it’s on the short-list of Hepburn’s career-defining performances and it’s a part the actress played on stage before bringing the play to MGM, so she had ample time to hone the Tracy character. In writing this assessment of Hepburn’s performance, I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to separate her role from the film itself, as The Philadelphia Story is truly an ensemble cast, and while Hepburn is undoubtedly at its center, her role can’t be easily described, at least by this blogger.
Kate’s Tracy is the focal point of The Philadelphia Story. It is her reactions to everyone else’s views of her that makes the story. She’s a symbol of strength yet possesses a hidden vulnerability that no one sees; she’s a vision of perfection and put on a pedestal. More than once she is referred to as a “Goddess.” Tracy holds those she loves to impossibly-high standards and when someone in her life doesn’t measure up—whether it is her ex-husband (C.K. Dexter Haven) or her own father—she casts them aside. Tracy's refusing to forgive Dexter's past weakness for alcohol was what caused their breakup, and her father's dalliance with a dancer is another point of contention leading to yet another strained relationship. And though her scene with her father misses the mark—Seth’s reasoning for his philandering is beyond belief---Hepburn and John Halliday sell the concept--at least on one’s first viewing of TPS, with conviction. It is this Goddess appellation and how she deals with it that is the center of The Philadelphia Story. Tracy has to forgive her father and her ex-husband in order to rid herself of the unwanted "perfection personified" label. That in itself is just one more aspect of this brilliant movie. She is conflicted, yet those who figure prominently in her life: husband, father, and even James Stewart’s Macauley “Mike” Connor—know this about her.
Katharine Hepburn is amazing here. While she's on the cusp of becoming her well-known onscreen personality, TPS captures her at this tremendous moment in her career. She inhabits her character so completely that I’m only vaguely reminded that she’s acting. Only her trademark accent gives her away. I’m never sure where the actress ends and the person begins but if Hepburn adheres to Jimmy Stewart’s remarks about acting: “You play yourself in deference to the character:--then that works marvelously. It also helps Hepburn and the rest of the cast that they have that wonderful Philip Barry dialogue to carry the story; and unlike the majority of plays turned into films, The Philadelphia Story never comes off as stagy—credit director George Cukor, who was and remains the master of this concept.
Trying to describe to someone about what's great about Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The Philadelphia Story is best remedied by watching the movie. Remember that the film is not a comedy or a straightforward drama but something fascinatingly in between. Like all great art, The Philadelphia Story defies easy categorization and is endlessly interesting. Every time I see it, there’s yet another aspect of it I discover, another layer to be enjoyed. “Constant, unfolding joy” is the term that comes to mind and Hepburn’s performance, while tremendous on its own merits, works best when viewed as part of the entire film. Hepburn’s is the most unselfish performance in the most unselfish film ever made.