STARTING this weekend, and continuing through July 7, film buffs and ordinary folk starved for good entertainment will have an opportunity to watch the films of two people whose life's progress has taken them from actors to stars (when the word star, like the dollar, had value) to icons of our culture.
The Biograph is presenting "Kate and Cary: A Touch of Class," a series of double features of the films of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The series will include the four films they made together and 19 individual samples of their work. The years covered are from 1932 (a marvelous double feature of Grant and Marlene Dietrich in "Blonde Venus" and Hepburn and John Barrymore in "Bill of Divorcement") to the mid-'60s.
Roaming around through the careers of these two, as the Biograph series allows us, you get a chance to watch the lines form in their faces. You can see Grant, lean, sleek and handsome, fencing with Mae West in "She Done Him Wrong," become full in the face and torso by the time he is working with Doris Day in "That Touch of Mink." Then you can watch in jealous amazement as Hepburn retains her youthful figure and suberb jaw line right into "Lion in Winter." But better than that is the chance to watch two high-spirited, attractive young people become more worldly and perhaps even wise.
Whether you first discovered Grant and Hepburn at the movies or, as I did, on television, you will see that the virtues of a film like "Philadelphia Story" (playing this weekend) hold up against the shifting tides of taste.
I first discovered Cary Grant on a Saturday afternoon when the Philadelphia Phillies had been rained out and the TV station filled the gap with "Gunga Din." I was perhaps 9 or 10. "Gunga Din" enthralled me. The battle scenes were pretty neat and Cary Grant. . . well, he was the kind of wise guy I could relate to. I was a little too young to appreciate the suave, romantic quality he possessed.
Katharine Hepburn came to my attention the same way, although my discovering her did not lead to immediate appreciation. (That would come later.) I found her one dreary Sunday afternoon, when the only thing on TV besides "Meet the Press" or Larry Ferrari at the Organ was "Little Women." Throughout my childhood and early adolescence, "Little Women" always seemed to be shown on dreary Sundays, and the film has become forever linked in my mind to my family's anxiety about my unstarted English term paper due the next day.
In the spring of 1980 I appeared in the American premiere of "Mary Barnes" at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. As the play's run was winding down, I began to sense that my career was coming to an end as well. I had been working for a while but was getting less and less Satisfaction from the work. My auditions for my next job had been bad.
It was a Saturday matinee, the first of two shows that day. Saturday afternoon performances were viewed as warm-ups for the evening. Actors with large parts paced themselves; the show was sometimes wonderful and sometimes competent. A lot depended on the audience. This particular audience was a perfectly polite but unresponsive group that seemed unable to give back to us a sense that our work was either liked or disliked. This particular play, about a woman's journey through the depths of madness to a kind of health in R.D. Laing's "antipsychiatric" commune in the '60s, needed some sort of response to take off.
About midway through the first act a young tech worker came breathlessly into the men's dressing room to say that Katharine Hepburn was in the audience. From that moment on the performance began to take off. I ran my scene over and over in my head. I stopped outside and did vocal exercises. mI made my entrance fueled with the sweet nausea of stage fright, an emotion I thought I had become too bored to feel. Time stopped, the way it should when an actor is totally involved with being another person. Then my one scene was over. And I knew I had been good.
After the performance, in the long, cinder-block dressing room, eight men in various stages of undress waited. "Miss Hepburn likes to leave quickly and avoid the crowd," we had been told. There was a knock, and a mad scramble to pull up pants and zip zippers. Then the door opened. She stood there in black trousers and a dark jacket, her hair piled on top of her head as in "The African Queen." The famous cheekbones, the cheekbones that have been the envy of women for 40 years, were the red of a person who spent much time out-of-doors, crisscrossed with a latticework of veins.There was the slightest tremor of her head as she spoke. I stood nearest the door and I entered a timeless state for the second time that afternoon, as she briefly thanked us for our work.
I have not performed since. Not all my memories of the theater are pleasant, but at least I was able to give a little bit back to Katharine Hepburn.
The films at the Biograph are:
May 17-18: "Sylvia Scarlett" and "The Philadelphia Story"; May 19-21: "The African Queen" and "Gunga Din"; May 22-24: "Bringing Up Baby" and "Topper", May 25-26: "Little Women" and "Alice in Wonderland" , May 27-28: "Blonde Venus" and "Bill of Divorcement", May 29-31: "To Catch a Thief" and "Suspicion"; June 1-2: "Long Day's Journey into Night"; June 3-4: "An Affair to Remember" and "Summertime"; June 5-7 "She Done Him Wrong" and "Pat and Mike"; June 8-9: "Morning Glory" and "Stage Door"; June 10-11: "Mary of Scotland" and "Alice Adams"; June 12-14: "The Awful Truth" and "Adam's Rib"; June 15-16: "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "The Rainmaker"; June 17-18: "Indiscreet" and "Break of Hearts"; June 19-21: "Woman of the Year" and "His Girl Friday"; June 22-23: "Without Love" and "Monkey Business"; June 24-25: "Notorious" and "Night and Day"; June 26-28: "North by Northwest!" and "Suddenly Last Summer"; June 29-30: "Desk Set" and "That Touch of Mink"; July 1-2: "The Lion in Winter"; July 3-5: "Holiday" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"; July 6-7: "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and "I Was a Male War Bride."