Grace Quigley

April 3, 2012

Some movies have such a tumultuous production history that the actual film itself, when finally released, seems an afterthought. Grace Quigley, as Katharine Hepburn’s latest film is finally titled, is one of those movies.

The original title of the film was The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, and that’s how the film was known all through shooting—which took place a good two years ago. But the production, a pet project of Hepburn’s, ran into trouble almost immediately.

For one thing, the subject matter was a little dicey. Hepburn plays an aged Manhattanite who goes into the mercy killing business, with a little help from Nick Nolte, a professional hit man. Naturally, it’s a comedy.

Hepburn and Nolte plan to remove a number of elderly people who are eager to shuffle off this mortal coil. These victims are perfectly willing—in fact, they conduct business in a professional manner, even paying Nolte an agreed-upon sum for the privilege of being rubbed out by him.

Now, the euthanasia comedy is a fairly narrow genre. There haven’t been too many successful entries, and the Cannon Group, which bankrolled the film, got understandably nervous about this oddball project.

They had director Anthony Harvey (who, once upon a time, directed Hepburn in The Lion in Winter) reshoot the film’s ending, so that now Hepburn and Nolte seem to realize the error of their ways and everything ends happily.

And Cannon changed the title from the Ultimate Solution, with its vaguely fascist overtones, to just plain Grace Quigley.

Given the evidence of the final product, it’s hard to believe the film was either harmed or improved by the changes. It’s a weird duck, without much faith in its black humor and without much flair for delivering that humor.

There’s an attempt to make the victims’ desire for deliverance understandable and even sympathetic, as when Hepburn’s neighbor (William Duell) tries to talk a reluctant Nolte into killing him.

“My family wanted to send me to a little furnished room where I’d die in front of a TV set. That’s too slow,” he tells Nolte.

Such moments give the film an uneasy mix of pathos and gallows humor. Much of it doesn’t work, and there’s a particularly incoherent subplot involving Nolte’s psychologist (Chip Zien, who deserves his name).

But Grace Quigley is, to be fair, not as awful as one might expect from its troubled history. Nolte does his usual pro job, and Hepburn dodders with the naivete of someone who innocently wants to do good.

But their efforts are finally undercut by Harvey’s uninspired direction and A. Martin Zweiback’s uneven, shapeless script. And, of course, by a solution that ties things up in a neat bundle, without ultimately resolving anything.

First published in the Herald, September 19, 1985

Chip Zien has had a healthy career since this cheap shot at his name. I interviewed Shirley Knight on stage once, and she talked about how Anthony Harvey had been hired to direct her 1967 film Dutchman, his directing debut, based on his skills as a technician (he’d edited Dr. Strangelove); according to Knight, he had no idea how to direct actors, so she and Al Freeman directed their performances while Harvey took care of setting up shots. The movie won attention for its acting, and Harvey got hired for The Lion in Winter because the production was looking for a good actors’ director. Go figure.