LOS ANGELES, June 30 (UPI) -- The recent deaths of screen legends Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck push the vaunted "golden era" of Hollywood further into the distant past of America's cultural history.
At the same time, though, Hepburn and Peck will be remembered for playing significant roles in undermining the old studio system, which tied stars to studios for long-term contracts at wages that might not cover per diem expenses for today's top-paid stars.
Peck -- who was 87 when he died at his Los Angeles home on June 12 -- was one of the most notable Hollywood stars to operate independently of the studio system. He turned to producing with the 1958 Western "The Big Country," in which he also starred as a retired sea captain making a new life in the American West.
Long before that, Hepburn chafed at the studio system.
"She fought it all her life," said Mark Rydell, who directed Hepburn's Oscar-winning performance in "On Golden Pond" in 1981. "She hated the concept of being a studio contract actress. She was an individual and a pioneer of independence."
Rydell told United Press International that famed aviator-billionaire-producer Howard Hughes bought "The Philadelphia Story" as a star vehicle for Hepburn. Today, Hepburn might have been more likely to buy the property and produce her own picture -- as stars such as Jodie Foster and Reese Witherspoon routinely do.
If Hepburn were in her prime and working today, she might have little choice but to produce her own projects. Veteran screenwriter Fay Kanin said current trends in moviemaking would probably not be a very good fit for Hepburn.
"It would not be easy for her to find movies that she would enjoy doing," said Kanin. "And if I know Kate she wouldn't do one she didn't enjoy doing or didn't believe in."
It might be a cliché to say they don't make Hollywood movies like they used to anymore, but Kanin -- who will receive the prestigious Kieser Award at next month's Humanitas Awards in Los Angeles -- said she believes it is true.
"There are still a lot of people that I know who have a desire to do films that are quality films," said Kanin. "It's just that our whole society has changed. Respect for the bottom line seems to influence everything."
Kanin said she has particularly come to dislike the words "box office" and "numbers," because newspapers put so much emphasis on the bottom line in their coverage of the movie business. Papers also throw a spotlight on big money contracts given to actors who have proved the ability to open a picture -- that is, draw huge crowds to a movie's opening weekend.
It is no insult to Chris Tucker to observe that his Hollywood career will almost certainly never compare to those of Hepburn and Peck. In any case, Tucker could cry all the way to the bank -- where he will deposit a reported $20 million for "Rush Hour 3," the latest in a series of buddy-action pictures he has made with martial arts star Jackie Chan. It will be Tucker's 11th movie, and his first since "Rush Hour 2" hit No. 36 on the list of all-time blockbusters with $226.1 million in 2001.
When Rydell directed "The Rievers" in 1969, Steve McQueen's $1 million was headline news.
"Nobody got that kind of money," said Rydell. "John Wayne was paid less than $1 million for 'The Cowboys' (a Rydell-directed 1972 Western)."
Remarkably, said Rydell, Hepburn drew just $250,000 for "On Golden Pond" -- the same as her co-stars Henry and Jane Fonda. Of course they all got "a hefty piece of the back end" -- a share of the profits from the movie, which grossed $118.7 million in 1981.
Kanin -- who earned an Oscar nomination for the 1958 romantic comedy "Teacher's Pet" -- said it seems "a little odd" to her that an actor could earn $20 million for one movie, but she understands that top stars are benefiting from the law of supply and demand.
"If they get that, more power to them, but I'm still not going to see the movies I don't admire," she said. "But it's getting harder to find a movie I really want to see."
Rydell laments the transformation of the movie business from mostly privately held studios to a model in which studios are mere units of large conglomerates.
"I don't think it's fair to blame the sad state of the economics of the movie business on anything but corporate thinking," said Rydell. "The death knell, or at last critical cancer in the movie business, is the fact that MBAs are sitting in on the meetings now. Harvard MBAs who know nothing about how a movie is made are giving notes."
Kanin said corporate thinking is having a negative effect \beyond Hollywood as well -- but she is not ready to write Hollywood off.
"Hollywood is still there," she said. "Every now and then you still see wonderful movies. I like to think (Hollywood is) alive but asleep."
Rydell said he took it as a "hopeful" sign that the new movie "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" failed to meet box-office expectations with an opening weekend gross of just $38 million -- possibly less than the studio spent to market and promote the movie.
"Maybe people are getting fed up with hype," said Rydell.