It's the new black.
“I actually think he’s the new Spencer Tracy,” said Aaron Sorkin.
Sorkin was describing Jeff Daniels, who had been called “the new Cary Grant.” I approved the reference, being quite the Tracy/Sorkin fan. And yet I wondered about the corollary to Sorkin’s claim, and wondered still after seeing Cate Blanchett’s performance in The Aviator the next week.
Who’s the new Katherine Hepburn?
Hepburn walks into a room and the timbre shifts. The harmony of dialogue takes on new intonations. To quote the blonde-haired bard, “sparks fly.”
Think about it: her chemical wit in Woman of the Year. Her semi-tragic giddiness in The Philadelphia Story. Her campaigning, complicated feminism in Adam’s Rib. Her disarming fragility in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Her vulnerable cunning in The Lion in Winter. And on, and on, and on.
And it is her aesthetic that sets me thinking. To talk about female movie stars is to talk about their bodies and the ways they use them, and Katharine Hepburn is no exception. Even in her day, her sex appeal was famously up for debate, her clothing unconventional, her personal life unorthodox.
On screen she played women who both pushed boundaries and succumbed to them while wearing pants and oversized jackets decades before Annie Hall. She walks onto a set and her posture has the same effect as a tossed glove: go ahead, try me. Her words were often marvelously scripted, but her delivery alone deserved Oscars: the curious articulation, the almost unplaceable accent that accomplished more than twenty typewriters.
Through that curious aesthetic immortality of movie stars she remains an inflammatory actor today, in that she lights her scenes, ever so casually, on fire.
Readers discover Dr. Seuss twice. The first time happens in childhood, when grubby fingers flick through the pages and marvel at the irreverent delight of the rhymes. It’s addictive: one fish two fish three fish blue.
The second time one discovers Dr. Seuss, it is usually in late adolescence or adulthood. You’re babysitting the neighbor’s little darling and you discover that The Lorax is an environmentalist’s manifesto. Hardly believing your eyes, you grab The Butter Battle and are aghast: an explication of pacifism. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas: the dangers of materialism. And one after another, Dr. Seuss is reinvented before your eyes and someone makes a meme about it.
Yet during both discoveries, it is usually the Seussian words that enchant us and not his drawings. The illustrations are fabulous fun, but not the real point of ignition.
Or are they?
If, as Hannah quoted Susan Sontag as saying, form is indeed inseparable from content, how does the Seussian aesthetic challenge our understanding of his message? Don’t the zany scenes of the Butter Battle prepare us to question the zaniness of real world confrontations? Doesn’t the Grinch’s ugliness prime us to consider the twisted nature of self-centeredness? Doesn’t the Seussian aesthetic serve as our visa, getting us ready to travel into the realm of allegory and question where “craziness” really lies?
So I wonder who the next Katherine Hepburn is. I wonder who challenges us with their aesthetic, with their tone of voice or their choice in wardrobe. I wonder who will challenge the Hollywood papparazzi structure or the dialogue about men and women. I wonder whether we have a Seuss of the screen or the page, or whether, being unique, it is too much to wish for a second chance with Ted Geisel or Katherine.
Maybe Aaron Sorkin knows. – Gabrielle