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Spinsterhood and Cradle-Robbing: A Tale of Two Hepburns

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In the 1950s, Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with Katharine Hepburn. Of course, there were a lot of things Hollywood didn’t know what to do with during that decade: television, actual Communists, suspected Communists, black actors except for Sidney Poitier, etc., etc.

Hollywood thought it knew what to do with waifish, talented Audrey Hepburn, who was just launching her film career during this period. Hollywood’s solution for Audrey was to pair her with its Golden Age male stars, several of whom were years—in some cases decades—her senior. Perhaps these May-November romances didn’t seem so creepy at the time, but in retrospect they can make me squirm in discomfort.

But let’s get back to Katharine Hepburn, who seemed to present a special problem for 1950s filmmakers. Some would say she always had been both—special and a problem. Today, in considering her most productive period (the 1930s and '40s), we are most likely to remember her triumphs: the self-dramatizing, tomboyish Jo in Little Women, the high-flying yet down-to-earth aristocrats of Stage Door and Holiday, the blithely relentless pursuer of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, culminating in the tailor-made Tracy Lord of The Philadelphia Story. (Her pairings with Spencer Tracy, which began with 1942’s Woman of the Year, were special in their own way—more on them later.)

Yet these now-classic films were interspersed with more than enough strange near-misses and outright flops for Hepburn to be labeled “box office poison” late in the 1930s. Even the now-beloved Bringing Up Baby was a flop in its first release. Today it has its legion of admirers, although many see it as more of Howard Hawks’ win than Hepburn’s. Hepburn saw which way the wind was blowing and the parts she wasn’t getting, and she beat a retreat to Broadway, which is where she and playwright Philip Barry helped engineer her triumph in The Philadelphia Story. She also cannily captured the movie rights so that she would have a ticket back to Hollywood should the play succeed. It did, and she did, and the rest is—still a very checkered, though remarkably long and varied, film career.

The late critic Walter Kerr, in a 1970s-era survey of Hepburn’s career, pinpointed her dilemma in his discussion of the 1935 Alice Adams, a film that’s still surprisingly funny and surprisingly painful at the same time. Hepburn is a pretentious, somewhat silly but basically nice small-town girl from a lower middle-class family who is trying way too hard to get in with the “right” crowd—which of course sees through her every move. The pivotal scene is a dance where Hepburn is ignored by everyone (except the least attractive man in the room), and she does the smiling-through-tears, trembling-lip thing as well as anyone.

Kerr notes that the scene doesn’t make any sense—Hepburn is ravishingly beautiful and, despite her character’s reputation, there’s no way she would be a wallflower—but that it works nonetheless because the audience still didn’t know quite what to make of her at this point in her career (three years after her film debut in A Bill of Divorcement). She was so independent, so melodramatic, so intense. Men may have been excited by her but they also saw her as a challenge—maybe too much of a challenge. Let someone else knock her down a peg and then maybe I’ll take a run at her. Kerr sums up the scene, and much of Hepburn’s career, beautifully: “She’s the girl we didn’t dance with, and don’t we wish we had?”

Down the River and Up a Creek

By the 1950s—not a good time for strong, independent women, on the screen or off—Hepburn had to accommodate the combined fascination/discomfort she elicited in audiences by playing at least three variations on the same character: the prim, nearly dried out spinster. The most famous member of this trio is her Rose Sayer in The African Queen. You’ll remember that she’s the homely (!) sister of the missionary/minister (Robert Morley), who joins Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on a foolhardy trip down a wild African river so they can torpedo a German warship with their aging, leaky 20-foot launch. He’s gin-sozzled and resentful, she’s a Bible-reading priss, so of course they fall in love, brave rapids, bugs, and fever to make it down the river, torpedo the German ship, and escape to a happy ending. Any one of these plot developments is improbable; in toto, they are mathematically impossible. Yet John Huston’s direction and the performances of Hepburn and Bogart make it all seem as logical and inevitable as A, B, C.

The African Queen sees the spinster awakened by sex and redeemed by love, or maybe it’s vice versa. Less happy fates await Rose’s sisters in virginity, Jane Hudson in Summertime (1955) and Lizzie in The Rainmaker (1956). Jane is literally a plain Jane, a single, lonely secretary on an extended vacation in lush, sensual Venice (which looks fantastic under David Lean’s direction) who falls in love with Italian hunk Rossano Brazzi. He also falls in love with her, but inconveniently he already has an Italian wife and children. He opens her up but she eventually gives him up, satisfying the Production Code that still frowned on unpunished adultery.

Yet even if there had been less enforced piety, one gets the feeling that this relationship would never be much more than a trans-Atlantic fling. Happily-ever-afters don’t seem to fit this “girl.” Perhaps she is too complete on her own to be credible as part of a couple. Or perhaps the middle-aged Hepburn is finally paying the price for all her youthful independence—and serving up a neat little lesson to budding proto-feminists in the audience at the same time.

The “lessons” about what it takes to catch a man are laid out even more baldly in The Rainmaker. Perhaps these dispiriting messages are more obvious here because Hepburn is so miscast, as a Depression-era small-town Oklahoma rancher’s daughter. Even for a “spinster” part she looks too old, and she also looks like she’d like to catch the first train back to Connecticut. At the film’s beginning she’s stuck keeping house for her widowed father and two brothers, because—you guessed it—her intelligence and forthrightness intimidate the men in this hidebound little one-horse town, and she’s not conventionally attractive enough to counterbalance her supposedly abrasive personality.

Only the Rainmaker of the title (Burt Lancaster, grinning that grin and attacking the con man role with his usual gusto) sees through her façade. He gives her sex and she gives him her belief in him, ending the drought that has paralyzed both the town and Lizzie. He even offers to take her away to join his exciting, vagabond life, but she chooses—the sour, literal-minded, taciturn sheriff who has been there all the time. So here’s the ostensible happy ending: Starbuck, the Rainmaker, gets the freedom of the open road and the chance to remake himself in every new town he visits; Lizzie gets a home of her own, children, and (presumably) love. It’s what she’s wanted all along, and she chooses it, but there’s much more a sense of limits tested but not broken, plus a patriarchal sigh of relief that she’s made the “right” choice.

Quite a comedown from the independent figure of her early films. But perhaps these characters’ fates have as much to do with the inevitability of Hepburn’s own aging—you can’t play the ingénue or the same type of leading lady forever—rather than the more conservative zeitgeist of the Eisenhower era. At least her characters get to experience sex, albeit premarital, extramarital, and fleeting. One could even call the Hepburn-Lancaster pairing a bit of “cougaring” avant la lettre, with the older-(looking) woman attracting the virile younger man.

Obviously, Hepburn kept some fires burning, even as increasingly conservative social conventions and less imaginative scripts threatened to douse her flame. And in an era when movie “sex objects” were increasingly cartoonish and childlike (Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, etc.), it might be considered a triumph simply to continue to play leading roles without being conventionally “attractive.”

Dirty Old Men

Another point in Kate Hepburn’s favor, at least as seen from today’s vantage point, is that her romantic/sexual partners are for the most part age-appropriate. Not so for Audrey. She starts with a relatively ick-free pairing, opposite Gregory Peck in 1953’s Roman Holiday, where she first won our hearts (and an Academy Award) playing a mature little princess breaking free of her responsibilities for the title holiday. Her grown-up quality, along with director William Wyler’s ability to get the normally stiff Peck to loosen up a bit, makes them seem like a possible if not a totally credible couple. (Duty forces her to give him up in any case.)

But in her two films for Billy Wilder—the 1954 Sabrina and especially the 1957 Love in the Afternoon—the casting of Hollywood Golden Age stars Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper opposite Hepburn seems like a perverse punishment, or the on-screen fulfillment of the casting couch fantasies of aging, increasingly backward-looking studio executives.

The cross-generational yuckiness is a little less gross in Sabrina, since the original object of Hepburn’s affections is William Holden (he seems too old for her as well, but at least he’s in the ball park). Hepburn is the daughter of the chauffeur for a rich family, in love with love-‘em-and-leave-‘em playboy Holden since childhood. Holden is supposed to marry a rich girl, with the union bringing business and tax advantages to the family, but he falls hard for a chic, made-over Hepburn. Bogart, playing Holden’s older brother, is supposed to woo her away from him for the good of the company’s bottom line, but of course ends up falling for Hepburn himself (who wouldn’t?).

According to Ed Sikov’s Billy Wilder biography Sunset Boulevard, Bogart was unhappy with Sabrina’s script, much of which was written, and rewritten, during filming by Wilder and Ernest Lehman. Perhaps he was sensitive about playing a role that mirrored some aspects of his own life, i.e. his marriage to decades-younger Lauren Bacall. While their union was by all accounts a happy one, it’s not hard to believe that this real-life couple’s age gap created some friction along the way.

It helps that Sabrina is played for light comedy, and that Bogart’s character is at least allowed to acknowledge how foolish he feels in the “role” of a romantic lead. Also, Bogart and Hepburn are good enough actors that it seems just slightly odd that she should end up with someone old enough to be her father.

No such luck just three years later in Love in the Afternoon, where Hepburn is the daughter of a world-weary private detective (Maurice Chevalier) hired to trail love-‘em-and-leave-‘em roué Gary Cooper, who looks as if he would rather be anywhere else than on this movie set—on a horse, in a saloon, getting a Botox injection. To make matters worse, Hepburn, a “good” girl who is nevertheless fascinated by Cooper’s numerous amours, has to go through humiliating stratagems to make him jealous enough to stay interested in her.

In real life (or in a better movie), a man his age would be begging for permission just to paint her toenails, à la Lolita, or he would be a more conventional sugar daddy trading baubles for blowjobs—so conventional a comic situation as to be a staple of New Yorker cartoons since the 1920s.

Let’s also note that the opposite situation—rich older woman keeping attractive younger man—is a source of tragedy in Wilder’s own Sunset Boulevard, narrated as a flashback by the corpse of the young man (William Holden) and detailing the decline into madness of the older woman (Gloria Swanson). In that 1950 film Wilder successfully mixed the satiric, the comic and the grotesque into a heady cocktail. But in Afternoon, with Wilder in a smirking mood and Cooper, a limited actor even at his best, it’s never credible that Hepburn should be sexually or romantically interested in someone old enough to be her grandfather.

The fact that Audrey Hepburn’s screen persona was that of a childlike gamine (a persona she never entirely shed) only accentuates the actors’ age difference. Compare Hepburn to Grace Kelly, another “classy” actress of the period who also played opposite older leading men: Cooper in High Noon (1952), James Stewart in Rear Window (1954), Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (1955). With Kelly, we don’t think “yuck,” we think “lucky them.”

Kelly projects a different kind of female strength than Audrey. She’s so capable and self-assured, it’s something of a surprise when she needs help after breaking into the murderer’s apartment in Rear Window. Audrey seems a bit helpless; she surprises us when she does prove capable of taking care of herself. Even her sophistication and promiscuity in Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems like a bit of play-acting, at least at first.

Audrey Hepburn eventually transitioned into more mature roles, after herself playing opposite the apparently ageless Cary Grant in the 1963 Charade (did Grant have a portrait of himself going to hell in some attic?). You can see the girl/woman split as late as 1967: In Wait Until Dark, she’s a blind woman victimized by drug-dealing thugs, bringing out the audience’s protectiveness even as she displays her own brand of strength. That same year, in the underappreciated, time-fractured Two for the Road, her age-appropriate co-star is Albert Finney, and she shows her character’s growth and changes, from schoolgirlish ingénue to unhappily married wife and mother.

But back in the 1950s, the younger woman-older man dynamic was still going strong. In Grace Kelly’s final film, she played Katharine Hepburn’s Philadelphia Story role in the musicalized version, High Society (1956). Kelly is tempted by young Frank Sinatra, but chooses his crooning predecessor Bing Crosby. Back in 1940, Kate had been tempted by James Stewart but chose—Cary Grant.

Actually, the younger woman-older man thing is still going strong, although at least we notice the disparity more today when leading men in their 50s and 60s play opposite actresses in their 20s and 30s. It’s also been supplemented by the Apatow Effect, where schlubby guys somehow land hot chicks (Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), or women are pretty much ignored altogether (Pineapple Express, I Love You, Man). And we wonder why some actresses go nuts, do drugs and have eating disorders? It’s a wonder they all don’t.

Equals Time

Even for Katharine Hepburn, the age gap between her and her most frequent co-star Spencer Tracy seemed to widen as the 1950s progressed. Yet their films of this era preserve some of the old Hepburn spirit, particularly the expertly crafted Adam’s Rib (1949) and the sloppier but still enjoyable Pat and Mike (1952). Interestingly, according to some accounts, Tracy and Hepburn’s off-screen relationship was more “traditional” than several of their on-screen pairings, if you put aside the fact that they never married each other. Hepburn apparently deferred to Tracy in many things, put up with his dark moods and alcoholic bluster, and essentially put her career on hold to care for him as his health declined in the 1960s. Love, or a “woman’s place”? Probably even Hepburn didn’t know for sure.

In Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike (both scripted by the husband-and-wife team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon and directed by George Cukor, an early and frequent Hepburn collaborator), Hepburn has jobs, intelligence, and talent. In Rib, her private attorney probably out-earns Tracy’s assistant D.A. As lawyers on opposite sides of an attempted murder case (Hepburn defending daffy Judy Holliday, who shoots errant husband Tom Ewell and his floozy Jean Hagen), she battles Tracy to a draw. Of note: he only “wins” in the end by playing a girl’s trick—crying on cue to woo her back to him.

In Pat and Mike, Hepburn has a job—teaching physical education at a college—even before she becomes a successful “lady athlete” under the management of tough-guy sports agent Tracy. Her physical adeptness rescues Tracy from gangsters’ threatened violence, and his palooka promoter character finally gives her the respect she deserves. She moves from unworldly, insecure pupil to equal partner. To make the point even sharper, Tracy discovers that her insecurity, and the attendant loss of her athletic skills, is only brought on by the presence of her smug, fatuous fiancé.

Depressing Domestication

Yet by the end of the decade, even Kate couldn’t escape the era’s creeping conservatism. It’s true that she has a job in the 1957 Desk Set—head of research for a TV network—while he’s an efficiency expert who is going to replace the research department with a room-sized computer (of course, the computer has a girl’s name). At the beginning of the film Hepburn is stuck in a long-term “understanding” with smug, fatuous Gig Young, an executive at the network. She’s the brains in the relationship yet he gets all the credit and the career advancement (actually that part is probably satirically accurate), and of course he takes her for granted—until Tracy becomes a romantic rival for her affections.

One can easily imagine the situation if Tracy, like Godot, never actually arrived. Hepburn would wait around and wait around until Young finally proposed, perhaps “accidentally” getting pregnant to shotgun things along (assuming menopause hadn’t caught up with her first). Or he might find a younger, prettier little thing to make his trophy wife, leaving Hepburn high and dry. There’s no indication Hepburn would see through Young’s hypocrisy and his dependence on her without the arrival of Tracy. She waits for something to happen rather than making it happen—the deadliest domestication of all.

It’s not a great movie (though it’s less depressing than I’ve described), but it has a number of interesting connections. It’s the first Tracy/Hepburn film in color, and the last until their final pairing a decade later in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It’s also scripted by Harry and Phoebe Ephron, married screenwriting partners and parents of future screenwriter/director Nora Ephron.

Like Summertime, Desk Set is based on a Broadway play that had starred Shirley Booth (Summertime’s source is Arthur Laurents’ The Time of the Cuckoo, which in the 1960s was turned into the Richard Rodgers-Stephen Sondheim musical Do I Hear a Waltz?). Yes, before she was nosy, nasal Hazel on TV, Booth was a Broadway baby. In fact, she and Hepburn had crossed paths before: she was in the original cast of The Philadelphia Story, playing the photographer/reporter’s girlfriend part that was taken in the film by Ruth Hussey.

Booth stayed busy on Broadway through the 1950s, appearing in Cuckoo and Desk Set as well as two musicals by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, but her signature role from this era was the dreamy, self-deluding housewife Lola in William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba. In one of the few stage roles she was allowed to re-create on film, Booth invested this sad little woman with enough trembling-voiced pathos to win an Academy Award.

I know what you’re thinking: Katharine Hepburn played Shirley Booth parts? It’s like George Clooney playing Jim Belushi parts. But theater makes it easier for actors and actresses to express different facets of their personas—this season’s fresh-faced young thing becomes next season’s femme fatale, this season’s dashing hero becomes next season’s snarling villain. Plays can also get by with less conventional “glamour” than movies: the excitement of sharing the same physical space with the actors makes up for the lack of conventional prettiness of a Shirley Booth or a Geraldine Page. (Page originated the Lizzie role in The Rainmaker, opposite future Kolchak the Night Stalker Darren McGavin). And perhaps it’s a comfort to plainer-looking audience members when less-than-perfect heroines get at least a chance at happiness.

Today, Katharine Hepburn’s roles in these films may be a disappointment to those who would want to see her carrying the banner of feminism even before Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug appeared on the scene. Yet her iconic movie star stature, plus her wit, glamour, and intelligence, to a certain extent counteracts their retro, get-back-to-the-kitchen-honey attitudes. This was a movie decade when females’ originality and rebellion were nearly smothered by the arrogance of smug conformity, or were stuffed into the grotesquerie of blonde, big-breasted sex symbolism.

It was the boys—Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley—who sneered, pouted, and shook their hips, shaking up America in the process. But hey, it only took another half century or so for a woman to win the Best Director Oscar. When another Kate, Kathryn Bigelow, stepped to the podium, Kate Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Eve Arden, and many more were looking down from movie star heaven and saying, “It’s about goddamn time! Fernando, get me another martini.”

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About Grinning Cat

  • Didn’t know there were 2 Hepburns. Well I wasn’t even born yet that time but I do have heard of Audrey Hepburn many times. I guess she was the more popular of the 2 sisters? 🙂

  • A Big Fan

    Brilliant, of course.

  • provocative, interesting, well written – thanks!

  • Not only is this a fascinating read, Adam, you’ve made me want to revisit most of these films. Thanks!