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Vive la différence! – On George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib by George Cukor, 1949

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“Vive la différence!”, the phrase with which Adam Bonner “brings the curtain down” to signal the end of the ronde in which he and his wife have been engaged, might seem incongruous in a film about equality, and one that plays on continually reversed positions: of accusation and defense, the provoker and the provoked, the desire to separate and the desire to reconcile, the one who flees and the one who pursues (in this physical game the film gives a nod to Pat & Mike, the film that followed it, and to sport as a site where ‘the difference’ is exposed). If we think about the climactic moment of the closing argument by Amanda, defense lawyer for the woman accused of attempted homicide, Adam’s Rib is a film about appearances, role-play. A film in which women wield guns, take their coffee to bed, kicking the door closed, read the paper before their husbands do… A film in which men struggle to get out of bed in the morning and end up faking tears to soften up their wives. A film about couples who don’t mince their words, nor shrink at physical retaliation. The difference is not that of the sexes: if there is one thing that barely interests George Cukor, it is precisely that “little” difference to which Bonner refers.

As is well known, Adam’s Rib was scripted by one of the most brilliant and progressive couples in Hollywood cinema, “the Kanins”. The story, inspired by a news item, was written with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy specifically in mind; they were one of those Hollywood couples whose public and private image create a curious dramatic tension (Garson Kanin’s memoir, Tracy & Hepburn, was about their relationship, never officially acknowledged, as Tracy remained married until his death). The script relies on the unique relationship between the two actors, but also has a political element, intent to expose – albeit in a comic register– the persistence of inequality between the sexes. Cukor joined the project once it was already set up and ready to go. He didn’t even have much input to the choice of Judy Holliday to play Dora – although he subsequently made several of his most successful films with her. It was Garson Kanin who first expressed a desire to cast her, and then Hepburn took up the baton, her iron resolve managing to convince a reluctant Harry Cohn. Dealing with a rich, provocative and very wordy script, Cukor worked in his usual manner: to serve the material. I say, as usual… and yet, under his direction, both script and the cast ended up embodying what is one of the most limpid manifestations of Cukorian art. Little by little, in a process of distillation as slow as it is inexorable, the marriage, the courthouse, the distinctions between the sexes, simply evaporate. Much more than a felicitous representation of how a couple ought to be, or ought to function, Adam’s Rib becomes like a training manual in the art of performance, that art of creating emotions to provoke reactions, using all possible means to achieve its ends, that plays the audience, apart perhaps from offering a way to understand that it is all nothing but illusion.

George Cukor is not a director to impose his own world view, as if in boldface and emphasized via dialogue exchanges or expressive camera movements; his art is subtler, because it is based on less apparent differences. Cukor has a unique ability to instill doubt, to suggest that things are not as they appear (or as they are written), that between how we are and how others see us there is always a slight, but essential, difference. And opting to deal with this topic – one that runs through all his films – with a limpid, transparent, objective style makes the outcome even more fascinating. The differences I mean here regard choices as to the length rather than the angle of a shot, aiming to the center of interest slightly, and to make what could be a virtuoso altercation between two such brilliant actors close to their roles in real life into real theater. One has only to consider the role played by the other characters in the film. First of all, Dora Attinger, the accused, who often occupies the screen space (see the memorable long, one-take interview in the prison) and then Kip, the neighbor intent on seduction, who can be read as a parody of the traditional narrator (see the home-movie scene). The differences also regard the inflections that give the dialogue an irresistible tone and add something to Cukor’s innate bravura, playing on the rhythm of the repartee. There is a touch of melancholy that is introduced between the protagonists that differentiates the film from pure screwball comedy. And it is also perhaps the result of wanting to shift the emphasis from an exchange between two players to a more vibrant triangulation, where, however, it is not a matter of seduction, but precisely the distance exists between the characters. “I don’t recognize you any more”, Adam says to his wife. And it might well be that the film is fundamentally about precisely those little differences that make the characters unrecognizable, above all to themselves.

Carlo Chatrian

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