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Retro Review: GRACE QUIGLEY (1985)

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GRACE QUIGLEY
aka THE ULTIMATE SOLUTION OF GRACE QUIGLEY
(US - 1985)

Directed by Anthony Harvey. Written by A. Martin Zweiback. Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Nick Nolte, Kit Le Fever, Elizabeth Wilson, Chip Zien, Christopher Murney, William Duell, Walter Abel, Frances Pole, Truman Gaige, Paula Trueman, Nicholas Kepros, Harris Laskawy, Denny Dillon. (PG, 87 mins)

On the basis of its strangeness alone, the largely forgotten GRACE QUIGLEY should be better known, even if it's for the wrong reasons. It's not every day that one encounters an offbeat, dark comedy from Cannon about elder suicide that offers the unlikely buddy-movie teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Nick Nolte, with songs by The Pretenders. This was a long-gestating pet project for Hepburn going back to 1972 when, according to legend, screenwriter A. Martin Zweiback (whose credits include 1969's ME, NATALIE, notable as Al Pacino's film debut, and 1980's GORP) tossed a copy of his script over the security gate at director George Cukor's house when Hepburn (star of several Cukor classics, among them 1933's LITTLE WOMEN, 1940's THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and 1949's ADAM'S RIB) happened to be visiting. In its earliest planning stages, GRACE QUIGLEY was set to star Hepburn and Steve McQueen, with Hal Ashby directing, coming off of 1971's acclaimed HAROLD AND MAUDE. The project soon fell apart but was back in pre-production in 1979, minus McQueen but Hepburn managed to get the interest of Nolte, then the Next Big Thing. Again, it never came to be, and it was stuck in development hell until Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus came aboard and were only too eager to work with a Hollywood icon of Hepburn's stature, along with a bonus of Nolte being as bankable as ever following the blockbuster success of 1982's 48 HRS. With some pull that comes with being a living legend and following her Best Actress Oscar for 1981's ON GOLDEN POND, Hepburn got her old friend Anthony Harvey (who guided her to an Oscar for 1968's THE LION IN WINTER) to direct, and production got underway in NYC in the fall of 1983.






The initial result got a toxic response at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, where another Cannon prestige project, the all-star Agatha Christie adaptation ORDEAL BY INNOCENCE, was also crashing and burning. The bad press at Cannes prompted producers Menaham Golan and Yoram Globus to have Harvey recut the film, chopping it down from 102 to 87 minutes. No one was happy with that version either, and GRACE QUIGLEY only managed a limited release in a few major cities in the spring of 1985 before turning up in video stores a short time later. A third version exists, assembled by Zweiback (who was hoping to direct until Hepburn's friendship with Harvey nudged him out of consideration), and retitled THE ULTIMATE SOLUTION OF GRACE QUIGLEY, clocking in at 94 minutes. With some scenes reinstated and others shifted around, the ULTIMATE version played in even fewer cities than the GRACE QUIGLEY cut and is reportedly the best of the three variants, though it's only the universally-panned 87-minute version that's on Kino Lorber's new Blu-ray (because physical media is dead). A comprehensive box set with the three versions of GRACE QUIGLEY would probably overkill with little in the way of a target audience, but it would've been nice for comparison's sake, especially since anyone who's seen it seems to unanimously agree that the Zweiback-supervised cut is the way to go.


So that leaves GRACE QUIGLEY being rescued from obscurity in its least-liked but, relatively-speaking, most-seen version. In its 87-minute incarnation, the film is done in by its schizophrenic tone and choppy editing, looking every bit like the begrudging compromise that a disgruntled Harvey felt it to be (it ended up being his last big-screen directing effort). The subject matter demands that the film find the right tone, which it absolutely doesn't do. Relying solely on social security, elderly widow Grace Quigley (Hepburn) lives with her parakeet Oscar and is about to be evicted from her tiny, rent-controlled NYC apartment by her shady, shitbag landlord (Harris Laskawy). No sooner does she wish him dead than it actually happens, via a bullet to the head courtesy of neurotic hit man Seymour Flint (Nolte). Grace witnesses the hit from a park bench across the street, runs away in a panic and hides in the backseat of a parked car that happens to belong to Seymour. Despite her joy over the landlord being out of the way, Grace is still lonely and depressed (Zweiback's cut apparently mentions that she's also outlived her children in addition to being widowed), and having already survived two failed suicide attempts, offers Seymour $1000 to kill her. His lowest asking price is $2000, so she manages to talk suicidal neighbor Mr. Jenkins (William Duell) into forking over the money and making it a twofer in exchange for not turning Seymour over to the cops. Before long, all of Grace's aging friends and neighbors decide they're ready to pack it in and end it all, as she eventually talks Seymour into offing them--at a "group rate"--and making it look natural or accidental.







Director Anthony Harvey with
Hepburn and Nolte on the set
With some seriously dark shit brewing at its core, the idea behind GRACE QUIGLEY has some terrific black comedy potential, but it just never quite comes together. The more it goes on, the more chickenshit it gets, opting to tug at the heartstrings, and getting maudlin and feel-good as Grace and Seymour bond over the voids in their lives, starting with Grace encouraging Seymour to get serious with hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Muriel (Kit Le Fever) and culminating in a painful moment where orphaned Seymour asks Grace "Can I call you 'Mom?'" It even gets off to a bizarre start with periodically freeze-framed opening credits that seem to go out of their way to be as unflattering as possible to the 76-year-old Hepburn. Though Hepburn rode Nolte pretty hard about his excessive drinking and his wild ways during the shoot, they seem to be having a good time, with Nolte sometimes visibly in awe that he's working with Katharine Hepburn (he's never said anything good about the movie, but he wrote in his memoir they got along great and he loved working with her). To Hepburn's credit, she seems game for the subject matter and is even seen at one point eschewing a stunt double and riding on the back of a motorcycle sans helmet with Nolte. But there's just no sense of consistency with this version of GRACE QUIGLEY. It's filled with weird scenes that seem to come out of nowhere, like Muriel doing a striptease for Grace's elderly friends, several laborious sessions between Seymour and his prickish, twerpy shrink (Chip Zien, soon to provide the voice of the title character in HOWARD THE DUCK), or one embarrassingly heavy-handed bit where Grace talks Seymour into going along with the "suicides" by disguising themselves as doctors and touring a decrepit nursing home filled with depressed old people. GRACE QUIGLEY isn't very good, but any movie with Katharine Hepburn involved in a climactic hearse chase and earlier crouched on the floor of the backseat of Seymour's car while he flees a crime scene to the tune of The Pretenders' "Bad Boys Get Spanked" is simply too bizarrely surreal to dismiss. GRACE QUIGLEY would prove to be Hepburn's penultimate feature film appearance. She made several TV movies throughout the '80s and early '90s before returning to the big screen for a supporting role that saw her dropping an F-bomb as Warren Beatty's aunt in 1994's LOVE AFFAIR. Her final role came in the 1994 NBC TV movie ONE CHRISTMAS before her death in 2003 at 96.


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