Romantic-Comedy — Cute-Zany
I’ve never laughed aloud at a film as much as I did the first time I saw The Philadelphia Story. With physical comedy, Katharine Hepburn’s sass as leading lady, and an oddball diva child driving her hungover uncle in a miniature horse trap — it’s my kind of rom-com. What struck me as I read Sianne Ngai’s text is how “cute-zany” describes conditions of womanhood that are prevalent in many of the cultural products that I particularly enjoy watching. Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story is one example (both her character within the film and the conditions of production and celebrity that surrounded it), and my favourite TV show – The Nanny – is another.
In the case of The Nanny there is an obvious affinity with the aesthetic of zaniness that Ngai outlines. The show could be seen as a 90s successor to Ngai’s example, I Love Lucy, and as a show that centers around the lives of domestic servants (the two “zaniest” characters are a live-in nanny and butler) its zaniness “calls up the character of a worker whose particularity lies paradoxically in the increasingly dedifferentiated nature of his or her labour.” The central tension of the show is the blurred line between Fran’s work and play as a nanny — an occupation that is by nature domestic, affective and social. Over the show’s six seasons, Fran moves from being “the nanny” to being the wife of the man who employed her and mother to the children she cares for.
The show not only explores the increasingly blurred emotional demands of Fran’s work and the “uncertain status of performing between labour and play” — its joke-a-minute style (physical gags and spoken zingers) also demonstrates that “the aesthetic of nonstop acting or doing that is zaniness is hot: hot under the collar, hot and bothered, hot to trot.” The show’s central tension could also be read as a questioning of whether or not Fran is a “good” nanny – an unanswerable question, the ambivalence of which Ngai would locate in the underlying questions of labour and production that are manifest in the show’s comedy: “Yet for all its spectacular displays of laborious exertion, the activity of zaniness is more often than not destructive; one might even describe it as the dramatization of an anarchic refusal to be productive.”
While zaniness can be performed by anyone (e.g. Charlie Chaplin), it is female zaniness that commonly manifests, perhaps because of its implication of the domestic and affective spheres that are traditionally associated with women. In the case of The Philadelphia Story, the conditions of affective labour and social relationships depicted are even more blurred and heightened. On the surface, there is no obvious “labour” in the conventional sense — Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a divorced socialite about to remarry. But the socialite, while being jobless in one sense, is expected to cultivate her desirability while playing to particular social pressures that carry economic and social consequences — this is a labour of its own. Additionally, the love-quadrangle that Hepburn’s character finds herself enmeshed in presents her with three suitors who represent the possibility of three domestic spheres, and correspondingly, three options for the type of lifestyle and social labour that she will be expected to perform as a married woman.
Hepburn’s “sass” in this film is a performed female independence that, in the film’s surprising conclusion, turns out to be somewhat compatible with the gender expectations of the time. But what is also noteworthy in The Philadelphia Story is the double labouring that its zaniness represents. It was Hepburn’s comeback vehicle, rescuing her from a string of failures that had her labeled as “box office poison.” So desperate was Hepburn to return to her position at the top of Hollywood’s social system, she acquired the rights to the film (with help from her partner at the time, Howard Hughes) and convinced MGM to buy them from her for a discounted rate, provided she could choose the cast and crew. This ensured that she could play the starring role, which she did with an absolute commitment that included performing her own stunts. Hepburn’s desperation (performance of zaniness) thus blurs the distinction between on-screen and off, between actor and character — more exaggeratedly than usual. It could be argued that Hepburn’s high level of involvement with film’s production onscreen and off results in a sort of peak-zaniness; the ultimate performance.