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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

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5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

A. Scott Berg, longtime friend of Katharine Hepburn, and author of the wonderful and thoughtful biography Kate Remembered, once asked Hepburn, near the end of her life, why she thought she had flourished professionally for so long when most actors and actresses have only a good decade or two. He reports that this was one of the only questions he asked where Hepburn had to pause before replying. She thought a bit and then answered, “Horsepower.” It is not just talent that helps one succeed.

An acting teacher of mine once said, “Those who are successful are not the most talented. Those who are successful are the ones who are most fanatical about success.” Hepburn’s gifts as an actress are extraordinary. It is a sweeping career, with many facets and phases. But what really strikes me, when I try to look at it as a whole, is not her talent, not her artistry—but her “horsepower”. She had it from the start. She was always in this thing for the long-haul.

My “5 for the Day” focuses on that aspect of Hepburn. Rather than specific films or performances, I have chosen five anecdotes that show, to my taste, what it was that was so special, so positively great about this American icon.

1. In 1930, Harold Clurman, director, producer, dramaturg, big-wig at the Theatre Guild, then the most important theatre group in America, began to hold informal get-togethers for the New York theatre community. His interest was in creating new work, work that was relevant to the times (this became especially important after the stock market crash), as well as forming an ensemble along the lines of The Moscow Art Theatre. Clurman, a brilliant and verbose man, felt that commercial considerations were important, but that they also had the potential to kill really good work. Would it be possible to form a theatre group that could resist those pressures? The people he invited to join these informal get-togethers (which was really an excuse for him to expound on his theatrical theories—he apparently he could go on for hours at a time) were not just unknowns, but stars of the day. Producers, actors, playwrights, people appearing on Broadway at that time, young hopefuls who had shown promise in small roles ... Clurman wasn’t interested in a top-down organization, like the Guild—he wanted to create something entirely new. A collective. (And, eventually, he did. Along with Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford, the Group Theatre was born. It had a decade of success before folding. A few of the Group Theatre alums eventually went on to become some of the most influential teachers in American theatrical history: Stella Adler, Bobby Lewis, Sanford Meisner. And then, of course, there were folks like Elia Kazan and Clifford Odets who began with the Group.) Clurman’s ideas about theatre attracted many who were disappointed in the typical Broadway fare of the day. There was an economic depression on. Why wasn’t that fact being addressed by the playwrights of the day?

Katharine Hepburn, a young and unknown actress at the time, was invited to come to one of Clurman’s talks. She sat. She listened. Wendy Smith, in Real Life Drama, the encyclopedic book about the Group Theatre, describes the moment:

“The ideas Clurman propounded were intoxicating, but not everyone was convinced. An oft-told story concerns a pretty young understudy who attended a few meetings with her friend Eunice Stoddard. Asked what she thought of the Group Idea, she replied, ’This may be all right for you people, if you want it, but you see, I’m going to be a star.’ Then, as always, Katharine Hepburn knew what she wanted.”

It is not that her goals were better than theirs. They were as successful, eventually, as it was possible for them to be. It is that “know thyself” is one of the most important qualities an actor can ever have.

2. While rehearsing for Bringing Up Baby, it became quickly apparent (to Hawks, to Grant, and to Hepburn herself) that she was in a bit over her head. She was by now a star, but she had never before played a screwball comedy and wasn’t sure how to do it. She suffered beautifully as an actress—had the Oscar to prove it. But Susan Vance, the wacky insane heiress of Bringing Up Baby, was daunting to this seemingly undaunted actress. Cary Grant, whose sensibility was naturally comedic, had no problem submitting to the screwball nature of the thing. But Hepburn struggled. She was telegraphing to the audience, “I know that I’m in a comedy. Watch me be funny,” And it wasn’t working. In a sense, she was condescending to the material. Not out of any malice, but out of insecurity. She was used to drama with a capital D after all.

Grant was very close to Hepburn, so he was able to speak frankly to her. He said, “Listen, dear, every time I fall, I am just going to look more and more depressed.” Meaning: we don’t have to “act” how funny it is that I just fell on my ass. What is funny in the moment is how embarrassed I am, how devastated I am that once again I look so foolish. But Hepburn still wasn’t quite clicking in to the energy of the thing. Howard Hawks understood the problem and said later, “I tried to explain to her that the great clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren’t out there making funny faces, they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humor sprang from what happened to them ... Cary understood this at once, Katie didn’t.” [excerpted from Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, by Todd McCarthy]

So Hawks enlisted the services of a friend, Walter Catlett—an old vaudevillian warhorse who had major comedic chops. Hawks showed some of the rushes to Catlett, and Catlett immediately grasped what the problem was in Hepburn’s performance. Hawks wanted Catlett to talk with her about it, but Catlett hesitated. He said he would “coach” Hepburn, but only if Hawks set it up with her beforehand. Hawks set up a rehearsal with Cary Grant, Hepburn, and Catlett.

And here is the genius of Hepburn. Here is, for me, the reason that her acting and her work ethic touches me so much: Catlett, during this rehearsal, read through some scenes with Cary Grant, with Catlett playing Hepburn’s part. He was basically showing her how to do it. So many other actresses would balk at such interference. Not Hepburn. Within 2 or 3 exchanges between Catlett and Grant, the light-bulb went on over Hepburn’s head. Hawks describes what happened:

“Walter played a whole scene of hers out with Cary Grant, played it with every mannerism of hers, very serious, and she was entranced. She said, ’You have to create a part for him in the picture.’ And I did.”

Catlett played the buffoonish sheriff of the town who puts everybody in jail at the end, before being bamboozled by Susan to let them all out.

What I love about this anecdote was that Hepburn, a huge star, realized where she was lacking. She was still learning, and still open to learning. She could have been completely resentful of the “interference” of someone like Catlett, showing HER, the Oscar-winner how to play the scene. But no. She watched, agog, soaking it up, pores open, mind open ... and look at the result. Bringing Up Baby was not a hit at the time, but history has obviously vindicated everyone involved. The film is a classic. Hepburn allowed herself to be in the position of student—and she allowed people who “knew better”, people like Hawks, and Grant, and Catlett—to show her the way. This is a true survival instinct at work.

3. Another example of Hepburn’s willingness to learn, to take direction, is this anecdote from the chaotic bug-ridden filming of The African Queen. Hepburn, in her book The Making of The African Queen, describes her initial frustration with John Huston on that shoot, how he never wanted to sit down and talk about the script with her. She loved to have script conferences, to talk about the story ... but Huston was always putting her off, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll get to it ... tomorrow ... we’ll talk about the script tomorrow ...” Tomorrow then came and again it was, “Sure, honey, sure, we’ll talk about the script ... tomorrow ...”

Now at this point in her career, it may be assumed that she knew how to act. Of course she did. But what this anecdote shows is, again, her flexible mind, her willingness to give up her OWN idea about playing the part, and recognizing when someone has given her a gem, a “way in”.

After the first day of shooting, Huston came up to her. He obviously had a sense of HOW she was planning on playing this part, and he needed to gently steer her in another direction. Hepburn describes their conversation in her book. Watch how he handles her. And watch how she lets herself be led.

Excerpt from The Making of the African Queen, by Katharine Hepburn:

John came one morning to my hut.

“May I have a cup of coffee?”

“Yes, of course—what?”

“Well—I don’t want to influence you. But incidentally ... that was great, that scene, burying Robert. And of course you had to look solemn—serious ... Yes, of course—you were burying your brother. You were sad. But, you know, this is an odd tale—I mean, Rosie is almost always facing what is for her a serious situation. And she’s a pretty serious-minded lady. And I wondered—well—let me put it this way—have you by any chance seen any movies of—you know—newsreels—of Mrs. Roosevelt—those newsreels where she visited the soldiers in the hospitals?”

“Yes, John—yes—I saw one. Yes.”

“Do you remember, Katie dear, that lovely smile - ?”

“Yes, John—yes—I do.”

“Well, I was wondering. You know, thinking ahead of our story. And thinking of your skinny little face—a lovely little face, dear. But skinny. And those famous hollow cheeks. And that turned-down mouth. You know—when you look serious—you do look rather—well, serious. And it just occurred to me—now, take Rosie—you know—you are a very religious—serious-minded—frustrated woman. Your brother just dead. Well, now, Katie—you’re going to go through this whole adventure before the falls and before love raises its ... Well, you know what I mean—solemn.

“Then I thought of how to remedy that. She’s used to handling strangers as her brother’s hostess. And you ’put on’ a smile. Whatever the situation. Like Mrs. Roosevelt—she felt she was ugly—she thought she looked better smiling—so she ... Chin up. The best is yet to come—onward ever onward ... The society smile.”

A long pause.

“You mean—yes—I see. When I pour out the gin I—yes—yes—when I ...”

“Well,” he said, getting up to go. He’d planted the seed. “Think it over .. Perhaps it might be a useful ...”

He was gone.

I sat there.

That is the goddamndest best piece of direction I have ever heard.

4. The fact that at the top of her game, at the top of her film career, Hepburn decided to go back to the stage and “work on Shakespeare” is indicative to me that, with all her stardom, all her ambition, Hepburn was interested mainly in the work itself. Shakespeare scared her. Therefore, Shakespeare must be tackled! She toured with Shakespeare productions for years. She toured the world with As You Like It, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew. She writes in her autobiography (with the unceremonious title Me):

“Looking back on my notices, which I had not read at the time, I have the impression that I was irritating to the critics. They liked me in Philadelphia Story, but in Shakespeare—well—it was sort of ’she has a nerve to be doing this.’ Well, I don’t know. I did study and work hard and Constance [Collier] was a great help and it was exciting. At least I enjoyed it.”

Hepburn was a woman who made risk-taking part of the game. So many actors, when they become stars, begin to make choices based out of caution, and self-protection. Perhaps at the beginning they took risks, when they had less to lose, but once the peak is reached, some actors lose that fearlessness. They are afraid of being “found out”. Hepburn never gave a crap about all of that. Her entire career is a testament to that courage.

5. And I’ll end with yet another anecdote of Hepburn and a director. Sidney Lumet was at the helm of the film version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A young man, a phenom, he was not at all lacking in ego. But the prospect of directing Hepburn was a bit frightening to him. She was a legend. A grande dame. How would he handle her? Would she test him? Would she be difficult? At first she was. She struggled to dominate. She wanted to hold rehearsals at her house in Connecticut. She told him point-blank that she needed to know more about the script than he did. Lumet knew enough to back off at first. He writes about this experience in his book Making Movies.

These stories bring tears to my eyes. The bravery, the willingness to NOT KNOW, to still learn, to be okay with failing, to get up and try again.

Excerpt from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies:“During the first three days of rehearsal I said nothing to her about Mary Tyrone’s character I talked at length with Jason [Robards], who’d played his part before, with Ralph [Richardson] and Dean [Stockwell], and, of course we talked about the play. When we finished the run-through reading on the third day, there was a long pause. And then, from Kate’s corner of the table, a small voice called out, ’Help!’ From then on, the work was thrilling. She asked, she told, she fretted, she tried, she failed, she won. She built that character stone by stone. Something was still tight about the performance until the end of the second week. There’s a moment in the script when her youngest son, trying to cut through her morphine haze, screams at her that he’s dying of consumption. I said, ’Kate, I’d like you to haul off and smack him as hard as you can.’ She started to say that she couldn’t do that, but the sentence died halfway out of her mouth. She thought about it for thirty seconds, then said, ’Let’s try it.’ She hit him. She looked at Dean’s horrified face, and her shoulders started to shake. She dissolved into the broken, frightened failure that was so important an aspect of Mary Tyrone. The sight of that giant Hepburn in such a state was the personification of tragic acting.”

Sheila O’Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.