Adam’s Rib: Commercial Feminist Comedy–Part Two

Part Two

In “Adam’s Rib,” Cukor introduced to the big screen four promising stage actors: Judy Holliday from Born Yesterday, Tom Ewell from John Loves Mary, Jean Hagen from The Traitors, and David Wayne from Mr. Roberts.

Given their first chance, all four established themselves as good screen actors in the next couple of years.

Please read Part One

Cukor cast Tom Ewell and David Wayne as two different sides of masculinity. Ewell played Doris’s creepy and loutish husband, and Wayne Amanda’s gay sidekick Kip.

As a composer-neighbor, a Cole Porter type, Kip is Amanda’s ally, a character who possibly stands for Cukor himself. Kip sympathizes with Hepburn and, in marital feuds, takes her side against Tracy’s virile “straight” man. At the end, Adam resorts to he-man tactics, beating up Kip.

The (latent) homosexual character, one of the few in Cukor’s oeuvre, is a comic plot element that neither the Kanins nor Cukor bothered to develop. It could be that they were restricted by the Code’s demand–“There should not be even the slightest indication that Kip is a pansy.” It is also possible that Cukor’s realization, that Kip was based on himself and his friend Cole Porter, made him uncomfortable even talking about the character with the Kanins. It was the only element in the script he remained silent about.

Under Cukor’s guidance, Judy Holliday’s work turned out to be absolutely dazzling. The public was “prepared” for Holliday as during the shoot stories in the press stated she was stealing the picture from her two old pros. Curious to know who was planting the notices, Cukor found out that Hepburn had gone to MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling, and suggested this strategy. It was Hepburn’s personal campaign to get Holliday the Billie Dawn role in the upcoming production of Born Yesterday.

Cukor, the Kanins, and Hepburn all “plotted” to enhance Holliday’s part so as to persuade Harry Cohn to cast her in Born Yesterday, which she had played with great success on the stage. “The woman is a frump,” Holliday told Cukor when he approached her for Adam’s Rib, “when Harry Cohn sees it, he won’t let me do Billie Dawn.” But Cukor reassured her that she would look right as the picture progresses. Cukor helped Holliday score a huge triumph in this part. When Adam’s Rib opened, and Holliday got all the press, the critics claimed she stole the film, failing to realize the maneuvered orchestrations of her “willing accomplices.”

There were more subtle ways in which Hepburn helped Holliday. The scene in which Hepburn visits her in the detention house was long, but Cukor shot it in one take. Amanda’s interview of Doris, the most famous sequence in “Adam’s Rib,” runs over five minutes, but Cukor presents it without any cut or camera movement. In a medium shot, the center is empty, Amanda is at the left, and Doris at the right, describing her unhappy marriage and absurd crime. This sequence works largely because of Holliday’s stunning portrait of a wacky woman who is smart enough to know she is abused. By maintaining the shot’s spatial unity, Cukor gave Holliday the opportunity to create something special–and uninterrupted; Cukor used no action-reaction shots, as most dialogues scenes were filmed in Hollywood.

Not only there was no reason to cut away; they couldn’t move the camera in any case; the whole scene took place in a cell. It was Holliday’s first talking scene in the picture. In those days, there was a lot of chatter about “scene stealing,” but Cukor never knew what exactly was meant by that. “You can’t steal a scene in a movie,” he maintained, “because it’s all controlled by the camera and the editing. The most an actor can do was use little tricks, which he basically didn’t approve of.

Cukor held that it was not a matter of Hepburn being ultra-generous to Holliday, or of Holliday stealing the scene–it was her scene and the full shot had to be on her. Cukor believed that there was one perfect place to shoot from, where the scene falls into place, and that it was the text, not the director, which determined how a scene should be shot. There was no need to cut to Hepburn, as the audience knew her face. Hepburn, in fact, played the scene in profile, facing away from the camera. With her authority, she directed the audience to look at Holliday.