Release Date(s)1985 (July 16, 2019)
Studio(s)The Cannon Group (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
Katharine Hepburn stars as the title character in Grace Quigley, a 1985 film that might have been ahead of its time with its darkly humorous take on a serious issue.
Grace, whose family has been dead for years, is an elderly woman living alone in a dreary apartment in Manhattan. She’s just been threatened with eviction when she sees a hit man shoot and kill her cold-hearted landlord (Harris Laskawy) practically in front of her. She runs away and hides in the back seat of a car that happens to belong to the hit man. She finds an envelope with the man’s address, escapes when the car stops, and subsequently pays him a visit.
The hit man is Seymour Flint (Nick Nolte). Grace tells him she witnessed the murder and promises to keep quiet if she can hire him to kill her. She tried to commit suicide twice and failed. She’s lonely and has nothing to look forward to except getting older and sicker. Seymour is perplexed by the offer. He can use the money, but he’s not accustomed to being hired by his victims.
An odd bond forms between Grace and Seymour. He feels sorry for her, and she has a motherly way with him. Grace introduces him to a number of elderly folks who would like to end it all and want to avail themselves of Seymour’s expertise. She believes that Seymour will not be committing murders; he will be performing acts of mercy.
Grace Quigley is an early example of dark comedy. Director Anthony Harvey centers the film on euthanasia, making light of it while simultaneously bringing out the sadness of older people who feel they’d be better off dead. The old folks – played by character actors Elizabeth Wilson, William Duell, Walter Abel, Truman Gaige, and Frances Pole – play their roles with enthusiasm and happy anticipation that their troubles can come to an end painlessly, without lingering illness and further bodily deterioration. Collectively, they make a bittersweet ensemble illustrating how heavily aging weighs when there’s little in life to balance it.
Director Harvey made two previous films with Katharine Hepburn, The Lion in Winter, for which Hepburn won a Best Actress Oscar, and the TV film The Glass Menagerie. He handles the humor well, though the subject matter is initially jarring. Because Grace is so matter-of-fact about her request, the film nearly takes on the tone of a screwball comedy, though never is as exaggerated as that classic genre.
Grace is a departure from Hepburn’s other screen roles. Hepburn read the script by A. Martin Zweiback back in the 1970s, loved it, and used her influence to get it made. Her performance ranges from pathos to dizzy comedy as she collects unwanted clients for Seymour. She doesn’t rattle off one-liners, but plays the absurdity of the situation as if it is merely a negotiation between an ordinary service provider and his clients. Grace is about 50% Grace Quigley and 50% Kate Hepburn, which will probably be OK for fans of the actress. The mannerisms, the voice, the high cheek bones, the piercing eyes, and the distinctive vocal cadence are all here. Hepburn’s Parkinson’s disease is quite apparent as her head shakes uncontrollably.
Despite her presence and a first-rate supporting cast, the film never hits its stride and comes off more as a series of episodes than as a connected whole. Scenes between Seymour and his therapist, Dr. Herman (Chip Zien), fall flat and a couple of brief scenes between Grace and a rude cab driver seem gratuitous, though they are likely intended to show the moral dilemma of mercy killing versus revenge killing. The film starts well and grabs the viewer with its unorthodox narrative, but it falls apart in the third act, which appears rushed and erratic.
The PG-rated Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The color palette varies considerably from the opening winter street scenes on location in New York’s Upper West Side to the indoor sequences, which are sharper and more detailed. Color in the exterior scenes is almost desaturated, with grey skies, sidewalks covered with snow, and the only bright colors being the yellow cabs that come close to hitting Grace as she indifferently crosses a wide, traffic-filled avenue. In close-ups of Hepburn, softer focus is used to blur wrinkles. Nolte’s blue eyes are especially striking in close-ups.
Audio is DTS-High Definition Master Audio 2.0. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Zweibeck's dialogue is uniformly distinct and the cast of veteran actors, many with years of stage experience, deliver it naturally. Hepburn’s voice wavers, but actually works for the elderly character. The actress’ agility is evident in a scene where Grace darts away from a murder scene, running up a long staircase two steps at a time.
Bonus features on this 87-minute Region A release include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer provides background on the film, director Anthony Harvey, and stars Katharine Hepburn and Nick Nolte. Kremer’s fascination with Harvey began after he saw Richard’s Things. He then sought out other films of the director’s, noting the “themes pulsing through all of Harvey’s films.” Harvey built a career making films about royalty or celebrity or people in the public eye. His first major film was The Lion in Winter, starring Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. Harvey started as an editor and worked on Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Grace Quigley is described as a “Dr. Kevorkian comedy” because its plot deals with euthanasia. Directors who worked for Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of The Cannon Group were given a lot of creative control. The screenwriter of Grace Quigley is A. Martin Zweiback (Me, Natalie, The Mad Room). He wrote a treatment called The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley and passed it over the gates of George Cukor’s estate in Beverly Hills where Hepburn was staying. She read the treatment, loved it, and set out to have the film made. It was originally slated to co-star Steve McQueen, but he passed away and the role was reassigned to rising star Nick Nolte, who had received good notices for his performance in North Dallas Forty. The project was at Columbia Pictures in the late 70s but went into turnaround and was picked up by Cannon. Grace Quigley premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984 in a 102-minute version. It was not put into competition and received a tepid reaction. Director Anthony Harvey re-cut it to 87 minutes for the 1985 general release. The film languished at the box office and received mostly negative to mixed reviews. Weekend at Bernie’s, a wilder dark comedy made four years later, would achieve popular success. In 1984, “Hepburn was winding down and getting ready to go into permanent retirement.” She appeared only once more in a theatrical film as the grandmother in Love Affair, starring Warren Beatty, in 1994. According to Hepburn, “Tony [Harvey] is a real English gentleman and a brilliant director – one of the best I’ve ever worked with.” Katharine Hepburn died in 2003.
Trailers – Six theatrical trailers are included:
1. Grace Quigley (starring Katharine Hepburn, directed by Anthony Harvey)
2. A Delicate Balance (starring Katharine Hepburn)
3. The Lion in Winter (starring Katharine Hepburn, directed by Anthony Harvey)
4. They Might Be Giants (starring George C. Scott, directed by Anthony Harvey)
5. Jefferson in Paris (starring Nick Nolte)
6. Mulholland Falls (starring Nick Nolte)
– Dennis Seuling