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21.02.2015 Oscars 2015: Is Meryl Streep any match for Katharine Hepburn?

Meryl Streep could equal Katharine Hepburn's 4 Oscars this weekend if she wins for Into the Woods
Meryl Streep could equal Katharine Hepburn's 4 Oscars this weekend if she wins for Into the Woods
If Meryl Streep is named Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards tomorrow – for her heavily made-up turn as a singing witch in Into the Woods, no less – she will match Katharine Hepburn’s record haul of four Oscars. But which one deserves the title of our greatest actress?

KATHARINE HEPBURN

by Hannah Betts

Anyone who imagines that Katharine Hepburn could ever be eclipsed is – to use Hepburn-esque language – a fool. She was simply awesome, as the thousands currently flocking to the BFI Southbank’s Hepburn season would passionately endorse.

Hepburn may have won four Oscars over her 60-year career, but attended the ceremony only once, to present a gong to someone else – a typically Hepburnian gesture. In 1999, she was named the greatest star in Hollywood history by the American Film Institute, and so she remains. Meryls may come and go, but Kate towers immortal.

A class act as an actor and a human being, Hepburn was a born grafter. When her career took a nose in the late Thirties, she engineered her own triumphant return in The Philadelphia Story (1940), designed to reveal the tender side of her patrician persona.

Her on-screen wrangling with her partner of 26 years, Spencer Tracy, introduced a new kind of woman into the world: the “modern woman”, no less – spirited, assertive, proto-feminist. At an age when her peers were going into retirement, she took on epic professional challenges: Shakespeare seasons, performing her own stunts, and the near-death experience that was The African Queen (1951).

As an individual, she was no less bold. The public was forced to learn to love her for her bluntness, standoffishness, and boyish style, and love her they did. Hepburn was the woman who wore the trousers, literally and metaphorically. Even if Streep does win her fourth Oscar tomorrow, she will not – and could never – come near.
 

First screen role

The melodrama A Bill of Divorcement (1932).

 

Breakthrough film

See above. Variety declared: “She has a vital something that sets her apart from the picture galaxy.” Her performance secured her instant stardom and a contract with RKO.

 

First Oscar nod

Morning Glory (1934), the story of a naive young actress’s journey to stardom.

 

Greatest Oscar moment

Didn’t pick up her own gongs, only attending in 1974 to present an award to MGM producer Lawrence Weingarten. Flew in the face of convention by winning three of her four Oscars in her sixties and seventies.
 

Should have won for

Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The African Queen (1951), according to BFI curator Hannah McGill. Hepburn herself would have said she deserved a gong for Sidney Lumet’s version of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962). Little girls of all ages would cry: “Jo March in Little Women (1933)”.

 

Most iconic role

The Philadelphia Story, the vehicle she devised to win back America’s heart, in which haughty heiress Tracy Lord auditions a pack of admirers while revealing her softer side.

 

Best on-screen chemistry

Sparring with real-life love Spencer Tracy, with whom she made nine films, including Woman of the Year (1942) and Adam’s Rib (1949).

 

Greatest scene

Her Oscar-winning performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968) – an icon embodied by an icon.

 

Greatest look

Looking divine in a virginal white robe as Cary Grant deems her a chill goddess in The Philadelphia Story. That said, as McGill notes: “Her best look was off-screen – slacks, mannish shoes and a big smile – and always utterly elegant nonetheless.”

 

Unlikeliest moment

The closing scene of Woman of the Year (1942), rewritten to her immense disapproval to make her character seem submissive to her husband. Closely followed by turns as an uneducated mountain girl, Chinese peasant, comedic Soviet pilot, and the lead in a musical life of Coco Chanel.

 

Greatest off-screen line

On being introduced to Jane Fonda on the set of On Golden Pond (1981), Hepburn declared: “I don’t like you.” Fonda recalled: “It was a terrible moment… someone only a notch below God was damning me.”

 

Most feminist moment

Not only did she regularly kick male co-star ass, she played a female aviator, a suffragist (like her mother), dressed in boy-drag and kissed a woman. When a studio had her slacks confiscated in an effort to persuade her into a skirt, she stalked the set in her underwear until they were returned.

 

Harshest critic

Dorothy Parker on Hepburn’s Broadway appearance in The Lake in 1934: “Katharine Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” When Hepburn vied for the role of Scarlett O’Hara, producer David O Selznick remarked: “I can’t see Rhett Butler chasing you for 12 years.”

 
MERYL STREEP by Tim Robey


 

“‘Meryl Streep was nominated for a Golden Globe’ is a fancy way of saying ‘It’s December’,” quipped some wag on Twitter when her first awards attention for Into the Woods was noted.

After 19 Oscar nominations, it’s easy to take Streep for granted: we all know the woman can act. Her genius for it is some kind of given, so much so that she faces an uphill struggle to prove each performance worthy of the latest laurel, rather than merely being an additional instalment of Streep-adulation in generalised form.

Around her nominations for Doubt (in 2008) and Julie & Julia (2009), the talk was all of whether and when Streep would take a third Oscar, adding to her existing trophies for Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and Sophie’s Choice (1982). She deserved a third, many agreed, but maybe not for those. Maybe not even for The Iron Lady (2011), though she got it.

These are the standards Streep has set herself, by being one of the few film stars of modern times – Daniel Day-Lewis, Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman are others – whose stardom feels built on a what-next quality in their acting, a serial flaunting of their formidable technique. Like the shark that has to swim constantly, Streep must keep transforming and outdoing herself, or her star may risk slipping in the firmament.

In the UK, we have our dames, Helen Mirren and Judi Dench. Streep is Hollywood’s dame – legendary as the only woman over 60 with the box-office draw to commandeer vehicles and ring the tills. Something like a Devil Wears Prada can be built around her, but only on the condition it lets her strut her stuff, whip up something next-level, add a vital new portrait to the gallery.

Some complain of Streep “doing a Streep”, as if it only required a switch to be flipped. But there’s both wild largesse and minute calibration to her best acting. She can be subtle and monumental, powerhouse and pointillist, all at once.

 

 

First screen role

Streep appeared in a terrible wig and way down the bill of Julia (1977), a biopic about Hollywood radical Lillian Hellman, played by Jane Fonda. Most of Streep’s scenes were left on the cutting-room floor.

 

Breakthrough film

She played opposite Robert De Niro in the harrowing Vietnam epic, The Deer Hunter (1979).

 

First Oscar nod

She received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Deer Hunter, but lost out to Maggie Smith (in California Suite). She triumphed the following year, winning Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs Kramer.

 

Greatest Oscar moment

In recent years, Streep – for four decades a hallowed presence at the Academy Awards – has been thanked in other people’s acceptance speeches more times than God. She namechecked the Lord herself when she won Best Actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, saying: “I want to thank God – Harvey Weinstein.”

 

Should have won for

Well, take your pick - she’s been nominated a record 19 times: Silkwood (1983), Out of Africa (1985), Bridges of Madison County (1995). However, she was inexplicably overlooked for The Hours (2003), playing a modern-day Mrs Dalloway opposite Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, who won for her Virginia Woolf.

 

Most iconic role

She wowed baby boomers with Sophie’s Choice (1982), about the trauma of Holocaust survival. Generation Y-ers, however, think fondly of her goofy performance in Death Becomes Her (1992), a black comedy about eternal life in which Streep ends up wearing her head back to front.

 

Best on-screen chemistry

Supremely comfortable in mid-life romantic comedies, she and Tommy Lee Jones sizzled (eventually) in Hope Springs (2012), about a long-married couple who seek marriage guidance to learn how to be intimate with each other again. There were alsparks between her and Alec Baldwin in It’s Complicated (2009).

 

Greatest scene

For all her serious roles, Streep was never more devastating than in the “blue sweater” scene in The Devil Wears Prada, when, as the demanding editor-in-chief of a high-fashion magazine, she delivers a deadly monologue about why the fashion industry is a serious business (“What you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean…”).
 

Greatest look

The midnight grey cloak she wore to standson the Cobb in Lyme Regis, looking out to see, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). That, or her Prada power-dressing in Devil Wears...

 

Unlikeliest moment

Her cliff-edge rendition of The Winner Takes It All in Mamma Mia: The Movie (2008) is unexpectedly affecting; she recorded her vocal in one take, too. Take that, Agnetha.

 

Greatest off-screen line

“It’s amazing how much you can get if you quietly, clearly, and authoritatively demand it.”

 

Most feminist moment

Her 2014 podium tribute to “the entirely splendid Emma Thompson”, in which she took swipes at Walt Disney’s dislike of women and the male-domination of Hollywood.

 

Harshest critic

Katherine Hepburn, who, according to her biographer, called Streep her “least favourite modern actress”, saying her performances are so calculated you can almost hear the “click, click, click…” as the wheels turn inside Streep's head.

20.06.2015 16:01:27
kabby15
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