Performance of the week: Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

Katharine Hepburn received her ninth Oscar nomination for playing Mary Tyrone in the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Before I talk about her performance, let me just say that like the other film adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s other play Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), this movie came pretty close to driving me crazy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a well written story about failed dreams (and by the way I am a sucker for dysfunctional family dramas), but like Mourning Becomes Electra, the infinite dialogue in this movie was both a blessing and a curse. The way the characters bicker over their failures and crushed hopes is interesting, but it goes on for WAY too long and literally feels like a whole day’s journey into night time.  It would have been a great stage production, watching each of the lengthy scenes play out in the theatre setting but on film it feels a bit awkward. I guess Sidney Lumet couldn’t decide which part of the play should have been left out so he just retained everything on camera, hoping that the brilliance would transfer over. The actors were fine though; I didn’t think Ralph Richardson was as bad as people say, although I agree that his performance was probably more suited for stage. It feels like he is shouting his lines at times, even during the normal conversations. Jason Robards and Dean Stockwell were both very good as well. Still, none of the performances match up the central leading lady’s work.

As I mentioned in my post about her performance as Mrs Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, I consider myself a huge fan of Katharine Hepburn. Nowadays, there are always criticisms about her playing variations of herself in different roles, which I both agree and disagree. She has some very strong and distinct mannerisms in all her performances that may result in people not being able to “see through the actress” or whatever they call it, but at the same time I feel that she inhibits the roles so well that I find myself actually buying that the mannerisms came from the characters and not her. What I love about her is her unique, one-of-a-kind personality that she injects into her performances, without making it seem repetitive (to me). In short, she was a terrific actress whom I really enjoy watching in general.

Hepburn’s comfort zone as an actress comes from playing, well, spinsters (I haven’t watched a lot of her spinster roles to be honest) as well as manipulative, borderline insane women. Personally, I love the latter performances because I just get this kick out of watching her deliver the sarcastic one-liners while simultaneously exposing the vulnerable side of these characters. That being said, Mary Tyrone is very different from these usual “Hepburn characters”, which I assume is the reason why this was her personal favourite performance. There isn’t that trademark arrogance and strong façade that she is so used to displaying on screen. Another way of looking at it would be that Mary Tyrone is an extension of Violet Venable after the end of Suddenly, Last Summer. It’s like reality has finally set in, and she’s this broken down ghost who constantly reminisces about her past and happy memories. What is surprising about this performance is that she doesn’t really get as much screen time as her male counterparts, although this may have been the intention. The way Mary Tyrone is written and described is as though she was meant to be this ghost of the past; the way the other characters claim they hear her footsteps at night, the way she descends from the stairs etc. Simply put, Hepburn astonishingly lives up to this part, outshining her co-stars even though she isn’t the central focus of this story.

Mary Tyrone is one damn difficult role to play; she’s this morphine-addicted matriarch who is borderline insane, and yet still aware enough of what is happening around her.  Under a lesser actress, the whole thing would have seemed ridiculous and hammy but Hepburn nails it, making you believe that this woman is seriously whacked. She has A LOT of delicious monologues about her broken dreams that she delivers flawlessly without making it feel repetitive (what I feel about the other actors). There’s always this element of surprise, be it her sudden “I HATE DOCTORS!” outburst, or the way she weirdly collapses on the floor while talking about how she first met James Tyrone. Yet, despite the crazy ramblings, you can sense the immense sadness coming from the character, and you realise that whatever she’s saying actually have truth in them.

To me, the only fault with the performance is how limited her screen time is, which is totally not her fault of course. Towards the end, a great portion of the film is dedicated to the confrontation between James and Edmund, followed by Jamie and Edmund, and Hepburn disappears throughout this entire segment. However, when she returns for the final scene, she breathes life back into the film again with her monologue about how she used to be a nun, which sounds strange here but works incredibly in the context of the film. This is a fantastic performance by a truly great actress that is worthy of all the praise it deserves. No wonder people call 1962 one of the strongest years for best actress.

Anyway, since this is one of the rare occasions that I actually watched all the best actress nominees in a single year, here is my ranking of the 1962 actresses:

1)      Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (5/5)

2)      Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (5/5)

3)      Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker (5/5)

4)      Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth (4.5/5)

5)      Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses (4.5/5)

p.s. wordpress just became majorly weird with its new settings and I am still trying to figure out my way around here, like adjusting the picture size. Annoying

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