A lion, even in winter

Remembering Katharine Hepburn

The death of Katharine Houghton Hepburn on Sunday, June 29, was big news everywhere, but in my part of the country-the Hartford area of Connecticut-it felt as if a goddess had undergone apotheosis. The headline of the city paper proclaimed “HARTFORD’S HEPBURN,” and the first sentence of the page-one article read, “She is gone.”

She. For the last forty years in her home state, there could be only one She. Shades of H. Rider Haggard’s She, an African white goddess who compels love and dutifulness from all within her reach and who seeks immortality by bathing in dangerous mystical flames. Hepburn’s immortality was secured when the actress bathed in the nonmystical klieg lights of dangerous Hollywood. Like any actor, she helped perpetrate much rubbish, but a dozen major and minor masterpieces will be with us as long as movies are with us. These wonderful entertainments-Little Women, Bringing Up Baby, Alice Adams, Stage Door, Adam’s Rib, Pat and Mike, The African Queen, Long Day’s Journey Into Night (to itemize only the first tier of wonderfulness)-were directed by meticulous craftsmen named Cukor and Hawks and Stevens and LaCava and Huston and Lumet, yet were all Hepburn (or Hepburn-Tracy) movies. Several of them were written for her, and the ones that weren’t are so infused by her personality that she must be counted as coauthor.

Personality. There are those who deny greatness to actors who don’t disappear into their roles as Olivier, Guinness, and Paul Muni did. But to complain that “she (or he) is always the same!” is to take too narrow a view of acting, especially film acting. Some actors absorb a character into themselves without much external transformation yet remain true to the role as written. Cary Grant never used false beards or well-researched accents, but pop Gunga Din and then Notorious into your VCR. Is there any basic temperamental resemblance between the Cockney hothead in the first and the chilly CIA agent in the second? Hepburn worked the same way: minimal makeup, maximum acting. Watch her in Alice Adams and, from the same period, Bringing Up Baby, and you’ll see what I mean.

She made her most daring swim into unfamiliar emotional waters by taking on Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and she knew the risks. (“I want to do it. I’m fascinated-but I’m terrified. It’s so great.”) A critic as intelligent as Stanley Kauffmann could pronounce her performance a failure because “the whole tenor of Miss Hepburn’s being-her Yankee accent itself-is unsympathetic to this lace-curtain part.”

For me that Yankee accent defines the difference between the convent finishing-school-bred Mary and her husband, the shanty-born James Tyrone (Ralph Richardson). Mary was early made into a lady when being a lady (in nineteenth-century New England) entailed being a Yankee, while James, even after shedding his brogue to act Shakespeare, remained earthy, striving, grasping, and pronouncedly hostile to Yankees. Hepburn’s acting technique operated at full throttle here, but it was her personality itself, with its encompassment of radiance and flintiness, emotional hunger and imperious demand, that plucked into high relief a particularly poignant thread in Eugene O’Neill’s design: the clash of genteel, hearth-loving wife against rough-edged, barnstorming husband.

Kauffmann was right about Hepburn being a Yankee. As the obituaries made clear, she wasn’t just a favorite daughter but a representative daughter. But exactly what in Yankeedom did she represent?

If you visit the “Old Manse,” the home at various times of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other luminaries of Concord, Massachusetts, the docent will take you to an upstairs room where the Reverend William Emerson once looked out his window at British soldiers trading fire with colonial rebels at Concord bridge. It is the same room where, seventy years later, the minister’s grandson, Ralph Waldo, wrote the essay “Nature.” Thus, the docent may tell you, this is the room that witnessed both American Revolutions, the political one and the spiritual one. I’m no expert about transcendentalism or its theological cousin, Unitarianism, but I take it that the “second American Revolution” completed the transition of Calvinism into a state of mind and heart that positioned God not as a stern though loving judge on high, looking down on a human race that “hung from a slender thread” (Jonathan Edwards), but as the spirit that “becomes conscious in man” (Fichte, a German philosopher who influenced the transcendentalists).

n the 1933 film version of Little Women, Jo March (Hepburn), the high-spirited but dutiful daughter of a minister, enters a friend’s luxurious house and beholds for the first time how the rich live. She throws her arms wide and shouts, “Christopher Columbus! What richness!” There’s no envy in her voice and not the faintest note of materialism. It’s an exultant cry of pure discovery. So this is what life can be! In all the previous scenes, Hepburn indelibly etched an ideal nineteenth-century New England maiden, full of intellectual vim and social vigor and protofeminism. When, in the course of the Alcott story, Jo gets her sisters to give up their (meager) Christmas feast and donate it to a poor immigrant family, Hepburn validates this sacrifice without a vestige of treacle.

This girl knows more than enough about poverty, pain, and death. (The Civil War is on and her father is caught up in it.) Like Jonathan Edwards, she knows that life hangs from a slender thread. Her dutifulness is not by rote but in conscious respect of New England Calvinistic humility, wariness, piety, and social concern. Yet there is something in Jo that hungers for “richness” and leaps up in joy when she sees it. Yes, she took righteous pleasure in feeding the poor, but now the splendor of a mansion feeds her soul, and her spirit gorges. Ralph Waldo Emerson, friend of the Alcotts, would have approved. Hepburn’s Jo, many of her other characterizations, and her offscreen persona, presented a glamorization of the “second American Revolution.”

This persona reached its zenith in her portrayal of The African Queen’s Rosie Sayer, a stiff-backed, pious, duty-bound, monumentally judgmental missionary, who finds herself mismatched with a drunken rogue of a river pilot (Humphrey Bogart) on a patriotic mission down African waterways. Of course, animosity yields to romance, most of it rendered as comedy but, to me, the most memorable aspect is the way, for Rosie, sexual attraction and compassion are indivisible. There is a moment when the utterly depleted Bogart, hauling his boat on a rope and waist-high in stagnant, leech-infested waters (everyone who has seen the movie remembers those leeches!), realizes that he has come to the end of his strength. Rosie finally reaches down from the boat, practically drags her lover aboard, and insists that he lie down and rest. Their bodies pressed together, they surrender to sleep and fate. Through all this, the look on Hepburn’s face-maternal, sexual, despairing-becomes a study in how a mind can go to the end of its tether without losing one ounce of grace or compassion. Rosie’s love for the raffish Charley Allnut is both a desperate grab at carnal joy and a manifestation of agape.

The high cheekbones, the Bryn Mawr diction, even, alas, the palsied head-shaking of later years-these have long been the fodder of caricaturists but they were part of her actor’s instrument and, therefore, when she was at her best, they were the materials of her art. Although it is amusing to learn from A. Scott Berg’s recent and hugely readable book, Kate Remembered (G. P. Putnam), that she was as similar to her screen persona as we always guessed she was, and that the affair with Spencer Tracy was just as nourishing and as devastating as it was rumored to be, the art will outlast the rumors, and our admiration will outlast the caricatures. end

Published in the 2003-09-12 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

Also by this author
Dappled Thing

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads