Commentary: Hepburn -- a mind of her own

By ROLAND FLAMINI, UPI Senior Writer  |  July 1, 2003 at 2:44 PM
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WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- Improbable as it may seem, Katharine Hepburn was briefly considered for the role of the sexual, coquettish Scarlett O'Hara in the movie version of "Gone With the Wind." Her screen test showed she wasn't the woman who could keep a man like Rhett Butler interested for the length of the Civil War. However, the Wardrobe Department had squeezed her into a tight dress and applied body makeup where it mattered to make her look busty. After viewing the footage she sped to Wardrobe and exclaimed, "You darlings, I love you all. You've given me cleavage. Me! With cleavage!"

People want what they don't have. For young "Kate" Hepburn it was a case of the bra being greener on the other side. She used to wish she had what Lana Turner and, later, Marilyn Monroe, had. But her whole film career was based on being neither blonde nor a bombshell.

Hepburn was pre-war Hollywood's WASP woman. There were enough WASP men -- or male stars that could pass for WASPs if the film script required it, but no other female star conveyed New England old money, good education, and an accent that said "raised by English nanny" with the same conviction as Katharine Hepburn.

Her own background was actually more upper middle class than patrician. Her father, a doctor in Hartford, Conn., was her hero. She would quote him in interviews -- "Father had a great affinity with the strenuous life. 'Accept challenges!' 'Never give up!' 'Don't brag about what you've done!' We were encouraged to be individuals when I was a girl."

Holding on to that individuality was perhaps her greatest achievement in a town that through much of Hepburn's working life insisted on conformity and the appearance of respectability at all times. The studios frowned on extra-marital affairs: if discovered they were bad for the box office. Hepburn and actor Spencer Tracy -- a married man -- enjoyed what she once called "20 years of perfect companionship with that man among men." Such was the studio system's control on information about their stars that the public only heard about the affair years later.

And then there were her clothes. In a world that packaged and sold glamor for the masses, Hepburn's off-screen flamboyantly unisex uniform for nearly 50 years was her trademark wide, loose slacks: she did more for the fashion of women wearing trousers in the 1930 and 1940s than anyone else. With the slacks she usually wore a blouse, a man's shirt, or bush-shirt, and her usual footwear was chunky black walking shoes or battered sneakers.

She dressed that way, she used to say, so that she wouldn't have to waste time every day deciding what to wear. But in Hollywood it was assumed that she cultivated a reputation for eccentricity, and her appearance was part of it. The real gossips said she did it to cut costs, because she had a reputation of being rather careful with her money.

After meeting her, two things about her lingered longest in the memory. The first was her extraordinary voice. The words flew from her lips like full-jacketed, armor piercing, automatic small-fire, each bullet-syllable having a dead accurate spin. One flinched at first impact, but the continued flow had a soothing, almost hypnotic effect.

The second thing was her equally extraordinary energy, fueled by a regular intake of boxfulls of rich, dark handmade chocolates. You sat. She was in perpetual motion, walking, spinning round, squatting, climbing whatever happened to be climbable in the immediate vicinity -- furniture, movie scenery flats, ladders, you name it. And all the time she smoked. In her younger days especially she had the reputation of being one of the heaviest smokers in Hollywood.

British critic Kenneth Tynan described her as the Outdoors Garbo, because of her singularity as a woman and her obsession with long walks and exercise. Laurance Olivier said filming "Love Among the Ruins" with her in 1973 -- their only film together -- "passed like a lovely pink shooting star, memorable but quickly gone."

Olivier also said her acting style was hard to describe.

When she came to Hollywood in the late 1920s she was already well known as a Broadway theater star. But her skill as a film actress did not emerge in her first movie, "A Bill of Divorcement" in 1932, or her second. Time magazine's critic wrote of Mary of Scotland -- her tenth film, in 1936 -- that she was "like a Bryn Mawr senior in a May Day pageant." Dorothy Parker said Katharine Hepburn "runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."

Throughout a career spanning more than 40 movies, her range remained limited, but she shaped her high-pedigreed self-assurance into a film persona that slotted nicely into the 1930s social comedies. Then came the eight Hepburn-Tracy films. The critic Alexander Walker calls them "A happy collusion of apparent opposites."

Tracy was the gruff Irishman: Hepburn the restless, sophisticated patrician; theirs was a mutual affection based on healthy disrespect. They captivated audiences from "Woman of the Year" through to "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Tracy died two weeks after filming of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was completed.

In later years, when she was less hostile to the press, she would say in interviews that her luck was that she came to Hollywood at the right time. Amen to that.

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