I love you, Katherine Hepburn

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Day one of Kate/Duplikate: Summertime

To watch Katherine Hepburn in Summertime (1955)  is to have a dream-undream realised.  There is the simple pleasure of watching her arrive in Venice – alone (unless you count her camera-companion), in love with the idea of being on her own, and worrying that she won’t like the city.

Sitting next to a man on the train, she asks him, even if her attention at this point is really on the city unfurling outside the window –‘Do you think I will like Venice?’

She follows the porter carrying her luggage out of the railway station with the briskness of a free woman chasing her dreams, with the stubbornness of Rani in Queen who wouldn’t let go of her bag.

She is not going to let anybody ruin this for her, not even herself. Even so, despite the joy she brings to her face, and ours – when she swallows the city with her eyes, she is also sincerely vulnerable in the way we are when we find ourselves companion-less in strange cities. No matter how much we have longed to be there, how much we have fought to finally be on our own, sometimes the silence of empty chairs next to us is too loud.

When I was 25, I took myself to Goa – alone. It was better than I thought it’d be. I was happy: I ate, I drank, I read and wrote, I watched Magadheera in Hindi on Sony Max. Everything was great – except on the last day at lunch, when the only other occupied table next to mine, paid their bill and left – I felt so abandoned that I began to cry.

I couldn’t understand it. They were total strangers and I was perfectly alright the next moment and before it but I still blame them for leaving me alone when I was still only half- done with my prawns.

I should have known then that Katherine Hepburn had a solution. Hepburn’s Jane Hudson deals with the silence of an empty chair as if it were not an empty chair – but an ‘extra’ chair. She puts it to sleep by making it lean on the table uselessly. This may have been done out of desperation to not feel alone, yes. Still, what we see is a woman fiercely straddling between alone-ness and companionship – not knowing how to ask for either.

One particularly lonely afternoon, she finds the courage to ask a young married couple if she could join them for drinks – the man declines. She’s heartbroken but takes herself out to lunch where she sees this couple strolling with another couple. At this point, she puts the ‘extra’ chair next to her asleep.

When the man who has been waiting to woo her shows up, she is happy but he sees the sleeping chair, thinks maybe she wants to be left alone, and excuses himself. Hepburn’s hand reaches out to stop him but it’s too late. She can’t reach him and neither can her hand. When she breaks down, we are humiliated on her behalf. But we don’t know if she is.

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Two is good number, she says somewhere else in the film. But when she becomes two, she just wants to be one again.

Why? Because despite it all, and despite herself – she is the first to say ‘I love you’ to him, after resisting-letting go-resisting his kisses. She doesn’t know what she wants, which is perhaps the one thing that independent women are wholeheartedly compassionate about. We root for her when she’s in love, we root for her when she doesn’t want to be in love and we root/hoot for her when love pushes her into a canal.

It is charming to watch Hepburn resist love. She does it unwillingly and we watch it willingly. She tells the man a story from her past – the only story he and we know so far. And it takes us a while to realise that we actually know nothing about her – except that she’s from Ohio and that she’s a ‘fancy secretary’.

The only other story we are allowed is that she always wanted to wear gardenias. Later in the film, she gets a gardenia if only for a while before it falls into the canal, and when he rushes down to catch it – it is obviously out of reach, just like he was a few scenes ago. I was left wondering and then knowing that had she gone after the gardenia instead of he – she would have got it.

But that perhaps is the beauty of finding and not keeping the romance that one stumbles upon in strange cities. This idea of them being just as out-of-reach as you are. Jane Hudson never gets to keep the gardenias that men buy for her. Either they are too late or she loses them and they become unreachable. The only things that remain hers are the things that she buys – shoes, a dress, a glass, a somewhat sisterly affection for a small boy (not bought but given)

In the middle of a passionate kiss with the man, I worry that she will drop her shoe (which she is holding in her hand) The shoe is frighteningly close to the balcony and just when the kiss climaxes, it falls gently inside the balcony. I needn’t have worried. It was a shoe – not gardenia. She bought it with love while in love. It is hers to keep.

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She loves looking at birds that fly over the buildings in the city. She likes to see the bells ringing, she won’t just be having the sounds, no thank you. She will see them. She will carry cigarettes but won’t smoke them, she will down a glass of bourbon mixed with something else. She will cry when she wants to. She will ask for company when she wants to.

There is something spectacularly ordinary about Hudson when she tells the man why she’s leaving.

All my life I’ve stayed at parties too long because I don’t know when to go. Now with you, I’ve grown up, I think I know when to.

I know that in the years to come, I will come back to this moment again and again because it’s the most extraordinary lesson you can learn on your own. No one can teach you and we get to witness this as she learns to recognize it.

Twelve years later, Joan Didion will say something similar about New York in this essay. 

***

I was grateful that he comes to say bye to her (despite her request) — when she’s leaving – leaving forever – on the train. I was grateful if only because she was expecting him. I was even more grateful when their hands never meet.

And again, the final gardenia that he brings for her –  she cannot touch, because it is still, after all this time out of reach. But that’s alright – I write this bearing in mind that all the things she bought in Venice are neatly packed in her many blue suitcases.

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