Wednesday, 11 May 2011

On Any Other Year: Vivien Leigh vs. Katharine Hepburn

The 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire would live and die on the actors chosen to portray Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Plenty of stage adaptations have faltered by casting a Stanley who wasn't raw and animalistic enough. Many more have suffered with a Blanche who lacked a unique enigmatic and alluring quality. The film adaptation nailed its casting.

On Any Other Year will focus on Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski in the next post, but today Filmstubs is looking at the 1952 Best Actress category. Just a year after the award was presented with an extraordinary array of competition, two of the era's greatest actresses went into direct competition in the category. Vivien Leigh had perfected Blanche DuBois in Streetcar. In a film filled with career defining performances, hers was the most extraordinary. Blanche is incredibly difficult to get right, but Leigh's charm and fragility, along with her portrayal of a woman beginning to lose her sanity, was utterly convincing.

As remarkable as the performance was, Leigh's Oscar was no foregone conclusion. She was up against an acting titan who the Academy loved like no other; Katharine Hepburn had just put in one of her most memorable performances in The African Queen. Like Leigh, Hepburn was playing a woman who finds herself placed in a situation with a man she believed was beneath her; a classy lady stuck with a slovenly and unkempt alcoholic. Whilst the chemistry between Leigh and Brando is raw and destructive, the equally engaging combination of Hepburn's Rose and Humphrey Bogart's Charlie is reluctant and classically love-hate.

Charlie is not the brute that Stanley Kowalski is, nor is the initially frigid Rose a Blanche DuBois, so their relationship in far more restrained and slow-burning. The chemistry is there for all to see, however. The African Queen is made great by the interplay between Hepburn and Bogart, who spend long stretches of the film alone together on the boat. Only great actors can carry a film in such a way, and Hepburn and Bogart's charisma shines through.

Ultimately, we were left with two greats of the golden age, both Oscar winners already, competing for the ultimate prize again in 1952. Vivien Leigh won, I would say deservedly so, but 1952 was a ceremony that pitted two extraordinary women at the peak of their powers against each other. It was a rare and great moment for the acting community.

Tomorrow, I will look at the same ceremony, this time focussing on the Best Actor category and the two men who played opposite Leigh and Hepburn that year - Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart.

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