JULY 28, 2003
The obituaries for Katharine Hepburn that I saw, in print and on
television, were oddly gratifying. She was ninety-six, so there had
been plenty of time to prepare those obits, and without being in
the least eager, I had for a long time been curious about what they
would say. In the event, they were in general pleasantly ecstatic.
Hepburn had been in films for sixty-two years, longer than any
other American female star. In tone and temper she was unique. At
the start her individuality, her arched-neck air, had not always
helped her. Early in her career The New Yorker ran a cartoon of two
fillies in a pasture looking at another filly in the background.
One of the two in front says to the other about the third, "Oh,
there's no talking to her since someone told her that she looks
like Katharine Hepburn."But Hepburn triumphed over this sort of mockery, partly in a way
that she herself might not have foreseen. Like Glenda Jackson and
Emma Thompson, and unlike any other American actress, she made
intelligence sexy. (Well, there were shades of it in Rosalind
Russell and Irene Dunne.) Then, too, Hepburn's beauty was, like her
temperament, unique. When Hollywood improved the way it dressed and
coiffed and lighted her, her beauty became a revelation--startling
rather than seductive.
But, as one who saw (almost) all her films as they came out,
beginning with A Bill of Divorcement in 1932, I noted that the
obituaries scanted a peculiar quality of her success, her triumph
over matters that would have sunk another actress. First, her
accent and voice. Despite the help of coaches along the road, she
never really modified her upper-class New England accent, even when
she was playing an Ozark native (Spitfire) or a Chinese villager
(Dragon Seed). As for the voice itself, she was well able to
maneuver through the general reaches of drama or comedy, but
sometimes the high moments of a role left her flapping. Even in the
obituary film clips, there were occasional stretches of six or
eight seconds when, to put it candidly, she sounded like a duck
quacking. I chuckled. Such sounds might have capsized a lesser
career, but Hepburn almost flaunted them.
The negatives of her success reached their apex in the most
demanding role she ever attempted on screen. (Her Shakespeare and
Shaw on stage don't figure here.) She was diametrically miscast as
Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night. New England Yankees
were exactly the species that O'Neill slashed in that play and in A
Moon for the Misbegotten, yet here his Irish-American Catholic
protagonist was played by one of that hated species, a
quintessential Yankee. In my view there were further reasons to
criticize Hepburn's performance, but few questioned her very
presence in the role.
Hepburn not only survived this miscasting, she advanced through it,
because she was especially armored. She was, as far as an American
can be, an aristocrat. Girl-next-door stars are plentiful, as are
stars who have glamorized themselves by various assets. Hepburn was
a born royal, and no one more dearly loves a lord--or a lady--than
democrats, if that royal person can nourish private fantasies.
(Remember Princess Di.) Her implicit lofty status protected her.
Still another aspect distinguished Hepburn. All film stars, male and
female, can be divided into two groups. In one of those groups, the
star's professional persona and private persona are quite distinct.
What did we know or care about the private lives of, say, Joan
Crawford or Betty Grable or Robert Taylor? But in the other group,
the professional and the private personae merge and strongly color
each other. John Wayne is a chief example. Some people thought he
really was a war hero: a medal was discussed. Marilyn Monroe, as a
person rather than as an actress, evoked book-length caroling from
Norman Mailer. Hepburn is certainly in this second group. As the
years went by, audiences felt more and more strongly that she was
herself the person that she played in films. In the course of time
playwrights and scenarists began to promote her personal
characteristics in the roles they wrote for her. The outstanding
instance is obviously the role that Philip Barry created for her in
The Philadelphia Story. (Oddity: the woman was named Tracy Lord,
and this was several years before Hepburn was linked with Spencer
Tracy.) This blending is also apparent in many of her later films.
So thorough is the mixture that in those television obituaries,
where clips from her roles and from her interviews were interwoven,
sometimes I mistook one for the other. When two stars of group two
are together, like Hepburn and Wayne in Rooster Cogburn, the
picture takes on the feeling of a home movie made by them for their
The prime example of Hepburn's victory over the usual prescripts was
her long affair with Spencer Tracy. In 1940 she began living with
Tracy, a married man, and they were together (more or less) until
his death in 1967. The relationship was too well known to be called
an open secret, yet--as far as I can recall--puritanical outrage
was virtually mute. During that very same period, when reports came
along in 1950 about Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini (both
married to others), this country steamed with fury. Some groups
strove to boycott Bergman's pictures; sly jokes about the affair
were current; tabloids yelped. But I can remember no such fuming
about Hepburn and Tracy. It was as if the public thought
Hepburn--and, to be sure, Tracy-- incapable of indecencies. In
fact, four years after Tracy's death Garson Kanin published a book
called Tracy and Hepburn that was a bestseller. Many of the
obituaries referred to the affair reverentially. Canted though it
is, that reverence was, in America, a low bow.
I saw Hepburn on stage only once, in a musical about Coco Chanel.
Many, many times in my life I have regretted after a performance
that the theater is ephemeral, but this was not one of those times.
Fortunately, most of her adorers know her only through her
pictures. Her obituaries demonstrated a special blessing of film:
it allowed Hepburn to soar over her shortcomings by the power of
Descend now to mortals. The Cuckoo is an allegorical drama, written
and directed by Alexander Rogozhkin, a Russian, set in northern
Finland in September 1944, a short time before Finland withdrew
from its alliance with Hitler. A Finnish soldier is shackled to a
rock by his fellows as punishment for lapses in martial spirit. Not
far away, a Soviet captain is under punishment for his laxness
about the war, and escapes in an accident. Both men, who have been
enemies, are sheltered by a young Lapp widow who has a rough hut
nearby on a place where she raises deer. The three people speak
three languages. (The Lapp language is called Sami.) There are
difficulties of communication. These do not stop each of the men
from eventually sleeping with the woman, at her invitation: still,
misunderstandings and near murder do mar matters.
The message of the picture, which might have been made by the late
tractarian Stanley Kramer had he been Russian, is clearer than
clear. If all the people on earth could only understand one
another, there would be no war. (The small matter of civil war is
not touched.) And if we all only lived as simply as the Lapp woman
does and nursed one another back to health with home remedies,
paradise would be closer. The ending of the picture, ten or so
years later, confirms the lesson in a way that I won't reveal, not
to preserve the surprise but to avoid the risible.
Rogozhkin's hard, hands-on directing technique and the physicality
of all three actors are--or could be--impressive, but they are
swamped here in a sea of ideological mush.
By Stanley Kauffmann