ADAM’S RIB (George Cukor, 1949)

Defense attorney Amanda Bonner, speaking for her gender, tells her husband, assistant district attorney Adam, “We don’t want advantages—or prejudices.” Adam is prosecuting Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday, sensational), who (with her eyes closed!) shot at her husband’s mistress but critically wounded her children’s father instead; exasperated by the unequal application of “the unwritten law,” Amanda is defending Doris, whose actions, because in defense of marriage and family, she argues, were justified. Their courtroom battles during trial wobble the attorneys’ marriage.
     Deftly written by the spousal team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Adam’s Rib is an hilarious comedy, and the best of the nine features starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, each of whom delivers a terrific performance. Indeed, Hepburn is close to sublime, her captivating face marvelously inflected, her fierce intelligence and feminism a match for Amanda’s. The sense of violation, outrage and deep emotional hurt that Hepburn projects when Adam delivers too hard a slap to his wife’s derriere astonishes and moves with each viewing. Hers is the best performance that Hepburn gave at M-G-M.
     George Cukor’s nimble direction gives equal weight to the marital comedy and its serious underpinnings, and adds riffs of slapstick to the comedic dialogue. During Amanda’s summation, Cukor recalls one of his pre-Tracy collaborations with Hepburn, the essential Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Amanda asks the jury to imagine the defendant, her husband and his mistress each in the opposite gender, and we see the results. Earlier, the couple’s sexually ambiguous across-the-hall neighbor and Amanda’s admirer, Kip, quips that Amanda’s success at trial has made him want to become a woman. Adam: “And he doesn’t have that far to go.”
     But my favorite line comes from Doris when she is asked how she felt after shooting her husband. “Hungry.”

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