It’s been a month since I saw this, I forgot to write the essay. Fortunately Philadelphia Story struck a chord, and I remember the plot fairly well, but mostly what I remember is a long scene in the third act between Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn as a pair of young, drunk, reluctant lovers doing the kind of hushed verbal dance by the pool late at night that people with the most glittering crushes tend to do at the ends of perfect evenings.
Both actors have shown real talent on the List but hadn’t really stolen me away yet with performances (Stewart was charming in Destry Rides Again, Hepburn drove me nuts in Bringing Up Baby). This scene feels, though, like the apex of what critics are talking about when they speak of chemistry between lead palyers in a romance (although Stewart’s is technically a supporting role). The dialogue plays out like a sparring match but it’s not distractingly witty, like in Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday, and their delivery makes for one of those world-silencing moments of perfect romantic tension.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Arthur (1981), starring Dudley Moore in the title role and co-starring Liza Minelli, and apart from being just really compelling and funny and romantic, Dudley Moore gives the greatest performance of a drunk I’ve ever seen on film: brazen, self-deprecating, quick to laugh but also tender and vulnerable and kind.
(A bad movie that deserves a mention here is The French Connection 2. There’s a really long miserable scene where Gene Hackman, after being kidnapped and shot fulla heroin for days, is suffering withdrawal in a French jail cell. The whole movie might be worth watching just for Hackman’s exhaustive performance here of a junkie having a kind of flashback to his baseball days.)
To be fucked up on a substance is of course never something to celebrate but there is a jolly kind of drunkenness, a kind of delicate middle ground of responsible surrender, that, when played just right, feels like life being amplified, touched up at the corners with neon. This long sweet segment shared by Hepburn and Stewart is played with a gorgeous, enviable, relatable wonder that I suspect is a big part of the movie’s enduring charm. But I also love it for the way it addresses my own kind of romantic ideal.
I’ve only had two or three nights like it. The most recent one was a couple years ago. Bob and Lynda’s wedding. We were 25 and it seemed like the age where everybody is in a serious relationship and has a serious job, and I had neither. So I was feeling a bit lame.
It was the first time I’d been to a wedding for somebody my own age, and the guest list wasn’t just comprised of peers but, in lotsa cases, people I’d grown up with. And really smart people, too. The people I’d always regarded as having the best prospects in life. It was intimidating.
Everybody was bubbly after the reception and we all sat for dinner under a massive tent on the ten-acre citrus grove where the bride had grown up. I was seated for some reason next to a woman I’d known since early high school. Her name’s Amy and she’s a veterinarian now but I think she was still in school at the time, interning, or doing a residency if veterinarians do that.
Amy and I were both single and we’d only ever had passing small talk at one party or another, or in the halls at school, but I’d always had a bit of a crush on her. Neither of us knew anybody else at the table and so we got to talking. Talked about her classes and internship and I asked her about the viability of that urban legend you sometimes read about on the internet concerning a woman’s pet python who normally sleeps in a tight coil but, one night, lays himself out beside her lengthwise. So the lady gets worried and takes it to the vet. Vet tells her the snake was sizing her up to see if he was big enough to eat her yet.
Amy tells me no, it’s probably not true. Says, “You have to imagine a python in the wild wouldn’t get much eating done if he had to always crawl up beside his prey and measure it.”
Someone in black pants comes around to pour us champagne. We start drinking and talking about dogs. Amy’s a dog lover but doesn’t have one of her own, isn’t sure she’ll ever have one, in part because of the slippery slope where you start by bringing one dog into your house but then find it so fulfilling that the next week you’ve got a second dog and then a third and so on, but also there’s the stress of indecision: where do you get your, how do you chose among them…?
“Do you have a favorite breed?”
She does this indecisive thing with her shoulders and says that if she were to get a dog she wouldn’t want a purebred. Maybe not even a dog with any distinguishable lineage. She says that when you look at pictures of wild dogs they’ve got strange beautiful coats with random patches, and all different styles, and their tails are thin and whippy or maybe slightly corkscrewed. They’re the product of natural breeding and so, apart from being largely free of the myriad illnesses inherent to the inbreeding of purebreds, there’s just something honest about them and she’s compelled by it.
We talk like this for a while, occasionally shouting over the music, and then suddenly the meal is over and we go off to mingle in different directions. Pretty soon we’re together again with a group of mutual friends for a toast to the couple and to ourselves, to the enduring friendships, and among the throng Amy and I make eye contact and click our glasses and then eventually we’re sitting together again at another table, listening to someone tell a story, our shoulders touching, and we’re drinking. We separate and then wind up together again and we dance for a minute, separate, repeat.
I was drinking more than she was so my sense of things after a certain point isn’t so reliable but eventually I ask if she’d like to go for a quick walk through the grove, where we can both see it’s a bit darker and private, and I’m nervous to be asking but she agrees and when finally we stroll to a dark space way out between the trees, where the wedding sounds are just ambient noise in the same kinda mat background as the stars and occasional traffic, I kiss her, and she kisses me. I remember it being nice and hope that she does too. She says afterward that “this wouldn’t work” cuz she lives in another city. I agree with her. We walk back to the party, stopping one more time to kiss again.
And maybe she wasn’t so jazzed or impressed afterward, we’ve never discussed it, but the whole night stays in my memory like that mosquito trapped in amber at the start of Jurassic Park. I can extract a little life from it when I’m alone with a drink in some dim cozy place where, in some alternate timeline, I can imagine that maybe she and I are sitting together and the whole thing’s playing out again, the two of us a bit older, something like a whole evening to ourselves.