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The hidden Hepburn

Kate The Woman Who Was Hepburn William J. Mann Henry Holt: 624 pp., $30

October 01, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography" and "The Essential Chaplin."

KATHARINE HEPBURN'S public life breaks down, conveniently enough, into three acts. In the 1930s, on-screen she was pretty much what she was in life: well-bred and high-spirited, a visibly spunky young woman determined to bring fresh air (and airs) to variously musty, generally upper-class, settings. In the latter part of the decade -- we can conveniently date it from the divine "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) -- she began playing either career women or heiresses in serious need of taming by sensible, plain-spoken men generally of a lower, more obviously democratic, caste. "The Philadelphia Story," a play she commissioned and then packaged for the screen (1940), is possibly the most widely beloved of those films, but the best comedies she made with Spencer Tracy ("Woman of the Year," "Pat and Mike," "Adam's Rib") surely rank close to it in the public's affection.

In her very long third act (beginning in 1952 with the success of "The African Queen"), she essentially became the nation's spinster aunt, still capable for a while of sexual gestures but more admired for other qualities -- her flinty independence, her outspokenness, her ability to keep working in significant projects at a time when most of her peers had declined into Grand Guignol and episodic television. She lived long enough to see feminism take forms more abrasive than the kind she had learned at her mother's knee, and she was dubious about some of its more modern forms even though she allowed her life story to be conflated with the movement's aims and even became one of its heroines. But in her final decades she was pretty much a harridan; as early as 1969, the director (an old friend) of her stage musical "Coco" was saying she belonged in "Bellevue Hospital in a straitjacket" -- and she still had 34 years to live.

This career arc is discernible in William J. Mann's too long, soberly presented biography, "Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn." But its pursuit is not his principal business. What most concerns him is her hidden life -- in particular, her relationships with men and women. In essence, what he's saying is: The rumors about her lesbian connections were true, and they were more extensive than anyone may have thought; that her relationships with famous men (Howard Hughes and John Ford prominently among them) were only briefly, if at all, sexual; that her famous love affair with Tracy was of that character and was broken by long separations hidden from the press and public. And, finally, her tearful recollections of what went on between them -- so important to the late-blooming affection in which she was generally held -- were heavily fictionalized.

These revelations -- most but not all of which are quite believable -- will, I suppose, be regarded as bombshells by people who continue to hold the lives of dead movie stars in high and sentimental regard. It is hard for fans to abandon images as carefully nurtured as Hepburn's. Doubtless many of them will reject the evidence Mann so earnestly sets forth. I am, I think, less susceptible to his revelations than they are: I yield to no one in my love of gossip, but I also think that, in the end, our only legitimate interest in actors must lie in their work and how it catches in our minds over the long haul. In that regard, Hepburn was a unique and original presence during her first two decades on-screen, offering, in high definition, an upper-crust snootiness that could be turned into a nice, slightly tomboyish good nature once someone or something knocked her off her high horse. But she was ever more presence than actress, and I think her latter-day spinster and grande dame impersonations were hooey -- God-awful exercises in self-regarding, sentimentally stated bravery.

Hepburn's chin might have been up, but it was always atremble. Dorothy Parker's immortal wisecrack about Hepburn running "the gamut of emotions from A to B" has never been disproved; in the end, her career may belong more to the annals of celebrity than performance.

That point may, however, require an asterisk: Mann argues that Hepburn was averse to "skin-to-skin" sexual contact and was particularly resistant to the "hard, penetrative" attentions of men. But if one searches her filmography in vain for passionate passages, we surely get the impression that love mattered to her and that she could fall into an affectionately bantering version of it with men like Cary Grant and Tracy. Which may mean she was a better actress than we knew.

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