Is Katharine Hepburn Irrelevant in Love Affair (1994)?

When a movie legend's career comes to an end, you wish them to go out with a bang.

Deanna Durbin left her career on top - having always played the lead after her first film. James Dean's abbreviated career left behind the epic movie Giant.

In the case of movie star Katharine Hepburn, after a ten year absence from theater releases, the 87-year old legend was coaxed onto the big screen again, for a classic movie remake - Love Affair (1994).  Though she filmed the occasional TV movie, and would complete another small screen story later that year, Love Affair would be her last role for a major film.

Unfortunately, Ms. Hepburn's role in her cinematic swan song is made irrelevant.

Love Affair (1994) is a remake of two earlier films -Love Affair (1939) and An Affair to Remember (1957). It's the story of two strangers who meet on a trip and flirt, but are engaged to other people.

In all three movies, the couple's budding relationship receives a nod of approval from a matriarchal figure -a grandmother in the first two films, Aunt Ginny (Hepburn) in the latest film. This authoritative figure is in place to engender audience approval, so the heroes won't appear egregiously unfaithful to their fiances (even though they actually are cheating).

But there are two significant differences between Hepburn's role in Love Affair '94 and that of her predecessors.

Because There is Little Scandal, Aunt Ginny's Blessing is Irrelevant in Love Affair '94 

In Love Affair '39 and An Affair to Remember, infidelity to a fiance is treated as a battle:  societal norms vs. personal feelings. To avoid gossip, the couple takes care not even to be seen dining at the same time in the cruise ship's restaurant. Their reputation in the world means a lot to them.

However, in Love Affair '94, infidelity to a fiance doesn't really bother anyone so there's very little tension. This is not the grand battle between society's expectations and individual desires as it is in the first two films. In this movie, society at large doesn't care what the characters do. Plus, their fiances are perfectly serviceable alternatives who remain friendly throughout and don't give ultimatums.

Thus, in Love Affair '94 there is little at stake (and nothing for Katharine Hepburn to do).

Should our heroine Terry (Annette Benning) chose the attractive guy (Pierce Brosnan) who has loved her for so long, or the new attractive guy (Warren Beatty) who is also willing to devote himself to her exclusively?

Who cares? Do whatever you want. Without broad-based social scandal in the mix, the leads in Love Affair '94 cannot lose with either decision, making their story a completely isolated, internal and insignificant tug-of-war. 

Watching them mull over their decisions is like being in line behind someone at Starbucks. Just choose something, already! Your options are all about the same and I'm getting restless enduring your indecisiveness.

In the earlier two films, the decision to throw caution to the wind and finally pursue each other is weighty and dramatic, making the elder woman's "benediction," as the New York Times calls it, a necessary boost to the couple's plans. In Love Affair '94, the fraught drama isn't there, making Ms. Hepburn's role and Aunt Ginny's blessing superfluous.

Does Aunt Ginny Actually Approve?

Since Aunt Ginny mostly serves one function in this story - to approve of her nephew's relationship with this new love interest- the elder relative must make her approval clear (or at least implicit) otherwise there is no point in her existence in the plot.

However, there's a problem with tone in Aunt Ginny's scenes. Since they share only about 10 minutes of movie time, Aunt Ginny and Terry must establish a rapport and a life-long bond quickly.

What do we get instead?

The New York Times critic describes Ms. Benning's Terry as "usually peevish."  It's arguable that this character is a part of the times. 1990s movies are overflowing with cynical, biting and no nonsense female leads, which are quite fun to watch. It's just a style.

However, for the scenes of female bonding with Aunt Ginny, it's not necessary to be aggressive. In fact, it's detrimental. Terry is not easy to like in these scenes.

Meanwhile, Aunt Ginny isn't helping. With elbows on knees, she absently slaps her hands together, trying to think of conversation with her guest. It seems she's ready for Terry to leave. (You're burning up precious bonding time, Aunt Ginny.)

No one -not the director, not Ms. Benning, not Ms.Hepburn- allows Terry and Aunt Ginny to like each other. The words are there but the expressions and gestures are that of people enduring each other.

Come on, movie! I want to like you. I want to love you. I want to point to you and say, " See, all you doubters? There is a decent classic movie remake after 1968."

But I can't.

Is Aunt Ginny necessary? No. The script has forced the older woman to become obsolete, a relic left over from the earlier films. Further, the tone of her scenes makes visiting Aunt Ginny unpleasant.

Except for showcasing what a nice guy the nephew is towards women in his family, Aunt Ginny's presence is, at worst, detrimental to the film, at best,superfluous. This is one of the great Katharine Hepburn's last roles; it's a shame that the character is irrelevant.


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