No one could accuse Katharine Hepburn of being just another angular face. She's been a troublemaker from the beginning but, then, some of the best people are. In a public TV tribute to Hepburn tonight, director and longtime Hepburn cronie George Cukor recalls of her arrival in Hollywood, "She was like nobody we'd ever seen -- for better or worse."
"Starring Katharine Hepburn," at or near 8 tonight on Channel 26, concentrates on "for better" and delves barely at all into Hepburn's private life. But there are enough Hepburn film clips to satisfy aficionados and while Hepburn herself is not interviewed, friends and co-workers are. Cukor, who has known Hepburn for 50 years and directer her in 11 films, is the most down-to-earth and least gushy. "She didn't mind giving her opinions whether asked for or not," he says.
One would like to think that Hepburn herself, now 72, would be uncomfortable with all the encomiums. Writer John Miller even falls back on an unforgivable '80s banality: "She is, in short, a very special human being," narrator Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is called upon to say. Jane Fonda, with whom Hepburn will soom be seen in the film version of "On Golden Pond," calls Hepburn "the least soggy person I've ever met"; former costar Peter O'Toole marvels at her "brittle femininity" and producer John Houseman says, "There is no reason in the world why she can't go on forever." h
Producer-director David Heeley's two-hour retrospective is by no stretch as engaging or satisfying as his laudation to Fred Astaire, seen on PBC last season. Two hours of Katharine Hepburn putting her foot down is simply not as enjoyable as two hours of Fred Astaire putting his feet down. Nor have the clips been assembled with as much sophistication and finesse. Still, it's good to see Hepburn again in some of the roles which she throttled into submission.
As Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night," she smashes dishes and crockery and shouts "I hate doctors!" during a dinner-table explosion; Cary Grant demonstrates a back flip-flop for her in "Holiday"; to a bigot in Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" she says, "Now, get permanently lost"; and in the domestically unreleased children's film "Olly Olly Oxen Free" she hangs, the narrator says, 100 feet in the air from the anchor of a balloon, and she was 70 when the film was made.
In the margins are some of the show's rarer sights: a 1934 color-lighting test for a film never made, Hepburn as Shaw's "Saint Joan" (a still is on page 96 of Ronald Haver's ultra-wonderful movie book, "David O. Selznick's Hollywood"); and excerpt from a Disney cartoon in which Hepburn's clenched-jaw speaking style is caricatured, and, in newsreels, Hepburn bounding off an airplane on location for "The African Queen" with Humphrey Bogart.
Hepburn presents a dilemma for those who would use her as a feminist rallying point. While she has apparently always been a tough and assertive storm trooper, she was considered "box office poison" until producers started teaming with her with strong leading men, who in her better films took her down at least one peg -- costars like Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Bogart. Her career might never have amounted to peanuts were it not for the humanizing comedies ("Bringing Up Baby," "Philadelphia Story") that took some of the starch out of her and made her seem a supremely good sport.
Near the program's end, Henry Fonda, also to be seen in "On Golden Pond," recalls, his voice cracking with age and emotion, how Hepburn gave him "Spencer's favorite hat" -- a treasured keepsake from her most ideally matched costar and beloved companion -- and how touched he was by this kindness. Hepburn's success may have been a fluke considering her eccentric and often chilly screen persona, but such fortuitous flukes made Hollywood what it was and movies what they were.
We can hardly be blamed for wanting to look backward at such times as these.