Other Notable Performances: Margaret Sullavan (The Good Fairy), Greta Garbo (Anna Karenina), Bette Davis (Dangerous), Sachiko Chiba (Wife, Be Like a Rose!), Miriam Hopkins (Becky Sharp), Carole Lombard (Hands across the Table).
Katherine Hepburn gave one of the most touching and nuanced performances of her career as Alice Adams. Her natural range brought the necessary depth for a successful performance of Booth Tarkington’s discontented heroine. The role of Alice is tough – Hepburn needed to play sympathetic while also acting snobby and lying to make a handsome rich man believe her family is wealthy and, in turn, she is worthy of his affection. She pulled off the balancing acting marvelously. We watch her foibles and insecurities undermine her ambitions and we truly feel for her, something only an accomplished actor like Hepburn could have pulled off.
Since we can see through the upper crust artifice she assumes, we can’t help but feel sorry for her. This isn’t an icy gold digger, but a sweet girl dazzled by the promise of a life with money. This is especially harrowing during the ill-fated dinner she has for Arthur with her family. Slowly her pretence of wealth crumbles and her face becomes increasingly dejected (see the photo above). One thing after another – from a surly hired maid (wonderfully played by Hattie McDaniel), to the obvious humble furnishings, to food ill-suited for hot weather – betrays Alice and her family as an ordinary middle class family. Alice’s mortification becomes our own because Hepburn’s characterization is so charming and relatable that we understand why she lies and, even as we know it’s wrong, we forgive her. All we want is for her to be happy at whatever cost.
She partly builds the audiences sympathy in scenes where she exhibits fierce loyalty to her father. One of the best scenes of the picture is when Alice confronts her father’s former boss, Mr. Lamb, after he has done his best to financially ruin his former employee. Her indignation and pain bubble up into a passionate tirade in defense of a good and honest man. A lesser actress could have flubbed this moment and misled the audience, making us believe her anger stems from the realization that her family will never have the wealth she feels she needs for the life she wants. Hepburn, however, hits all the right notes, never betraying our confidence or sympathy. We know she is angry because her father is hurt; her own concerns are secondary.
Hepburn plays scene after scene like this and should have won the Academy Award that year. Bette Davis won for Dangerous but that was really the Academy making up for their oversight of her stunning work in Of Human Bondage the year before. Davis delivered a fine performance as an alcoholic actress in Dangerous, but even she acknowledged that Hepburn should have won for Alice Adams. She was right.