Sunday, May 15, 2011


Turner Classic Movies, or TCM, recently had a wonderful three-part, three-hour interview from 1973 with Katherine Hepburn and Dick Cavett in Hepburn's very first television appearance. It was utterly fascinating. And not just because it was Hepburn, although the old gal is pretty damn fascinating all by herself. But because it's a 'test' interview. That is to say, Cavett had been desperately trying to land this coup and had been calling Hepburn incessantly, calling in favors from a myriad of famous friends, wooing her, essentially. Finally, after many months, she agreed to come in and do a 'test' interview, just to see if she was at all comfortable doing something like this. She schlepps in to the studio (it was done in NY) wearing what appears to be her gardening clothes, sandals, old khakis, a turtleneck, her hair amiss. Cavett, the old sly dog, tells the camera guy to turn his camera on and not tell her. Hepburn didn't notice. What happens is remarkable; an interview with Katherine Hepburn sans audience, being stunningly candid.

About halfway through the interview, Hepburn decides she's having fun and leans over to Cavett and says, "Oh, goddamnit, let's just do it. Turn on the camera." Of course, the camera has been on the entire time. At that point, she stops cursing so much (Hepburn cursed like a sailor) but is still magnetic and always surprising.

Word of the event spreads like wildfire and by the end of the three hours what had been an empty studio is now filled with people who have rushed over to see it from all over the building.

Personally, I've always been fascinated with 'old time' Hollywood. And Cavett has always made it no secret that he was, too. Later that same year he also managed to get Brando to sit down in his first ever television interview. He says the only other he tried to get on camera was Cary Grant, but it never happened. (I recall the famous telegraph that Jack Parr sent to Grant when they were trying to set up an interview a few years before that never quite panned out: "How Old Cary Grant," it said. Grant sent one back that said, "Old Cary Grant just fine. How you?")

Anyway, with Hepburn it becomes clear just how much she absolutely adored Spencer Tracy (remember, he had only died a few years earlier). Not only as the love of her life but as an actor. Of course, she wasn't alone in that respect. Every actor worth his salt genuflected to Tracy's astonishing ability to be honest on screen. Even Brando, who for the most part had no respect for the old time movie acting tradition, was in awe of Tracy saying, "He doesn't seem to be capable of not telling the truth."

Hepburn talks fondly of working with John Huston and Humphrey Bogart on 'African Queen,' "They were both drunks, of course." On Garbo: "The camera loved her like no one else, before or since." On Brando, "He is not limited as an actor, a brilliant actor. Limited, perhaps, as a person, but not as an actor." On Bette Davis, "I liked her. A wonderful actress." On Olivier, "Completely different approach from myself. Brilliant in his own way." On the difference between acting for the camera and acting on stage, "No difference whatsoever. It all comes down to concentration."

She is tremendously charming when she wants, exhibiting that odd mixture of supreme confidence and yankee dediation to hard work. She says of Tracy at one point, "He was better than I was, it's as simple as that." She drops little tidbits of history here and there saying at one point about 'Gone With the Wind,' "They sent the script to me first. But I knew I was never really in the running for it." About her inability to handle her own finances, "I sent my father all my money and he kept me on an allowance until his death in 1962."

Hepburn has always been considered our greatest film actress (with the possible exception of Streep now) and seems to be keenly aware of her own stature within the acting community. She's enormously competitive saying at one point, "I have, on occasion, taken a part simply to keep someone I didn't like from being offered the role."

And through it all her complete disdain for the public perception of her 'fame' becomes clear. She has no use for it. One gets the idea she'd rather play a few games of tennis ("I was never very good at it.") than suffer through a conversation about movies. On Brando's refusing to accept the Oscar ("Bullshit.") which was still a hot topic in 1973. On her own Oscar statues, "I never bothered to pick them up."

The interesting thing to note is that she still had a magnificent career in front of her. At the time of the interview she had already been in the business for some 41 years and she was just getting started. She had several great film roles in front of her at that point ('On Golden Pond,' Glass Menagerie,' 'A Little Romance,' 'Long Day's Journey Into Night').

Cavett is clearly in awe of her the entire time although he doesn't become a sycophant about it. His questions are on the money. The great thing about Cavett is he always had a knack for asking what other people might ask. He's clearly a fan and Hepburn's undisguised self-confidence amuses him no end.

'Twas a wonderful way to spend a lazy Sunday night. Katherine Hepburn is an icon. Not a 'made up' icon, but the real deal. And now, even after all these years, her work holds up. She wasn't a passing fancy. She was good. She was very good at what she did.

See you tomorrow.

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