Saturday, May 05, 2007

In which Kate and Larry turn 100: two mini-reviews

This month sees the hundredth birth anniversaries of two iconic actors of the last century, both of whom also happen to be personal favourites. I became closely interested in the careers of Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn around 16 years ago, when I first started watching old American and British films. My interest in birth dates being just as strong back then, I knew Olivier was born on May 22, 1907, but I’d always thought of Hepburn as being a November-child and was confused by the subsequent revision of her birthday to May 12 (you expect actors to change years, not months!). There’s an explanation in the Wikipedia entry: apparently, for much of her life she passed off her long-deceased brother Tom’s birthday as her own and revealed the truth only recently.

Hepburn and Olivier were friends, or at least close associates (in fact Hepburn was the impromptu maid-of-honour at the hush-hush late-night wedding ceremony of Olivier and Vivien Leigh in 1940) and their long acting careers came close to intersecting on a couple of occasions, especially after Olivier overcame his initial disdain for cinema. However, they acted together only once, late in their careers, in a lightweight made-for TV movie titled Love Among the Ruins. It’s probably just as well; too much star power can cause film stock to ignite.

As expected, these centenaries are being celebrated with the release of special DVD box-sets (if only I’d had more time in that HMV store last week...) as well as screenings and festivals in many parts of the world. To mark the occasion in my own small way, here are notes on two cherished, dog-eared books.

Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir
by Garson Kanin

“We do not remember chronologically but in disordered flashes,” says playwright/screenwriter Garson Kanin in the Preface to this tender, wonderfully personal account of his long friendship with Hepburn and her favourite leading man Spencer Tracy. What Kanin achieves in this book is astonishing, especially considering that it isn’t a structured account of two lives. Instead, he hands the page over to his free-flowing memories of Hepburn and Tracy over a 30-year association with them. This results in a collection of seemingly patternless anecdotes that add up to much more than the sum of their parts, with the two giants coming alive in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in most conventional biographies.

As a friend and confidant, Kanin was uniquely placed to comment on the quirkier aspects of Hepburn’s personality, the things that made her a willing misfit among the media-savvy, politically correct movie stars of her time. (She was designated “The Most Uncooperative Actress of the Year” by the Hollywood Women’s Press Club a number of times, which, given the nature of celebrity journalism then as now, we can take as a high compliment.) This vantage point also allowed him to relate delightful little stories such as the one where she raises her hand dramatically and swears on her mother’s life while telling a blatant lie (to Cary Grant), and later coolly says to Kanin: “It’s an arrangement I have with my mother. She swears on my life too. All the time.”

What eventually emerges is a picture of an very private person living, usually on her own terms, in the public gaze; a maverick in the truest, most un-put on sense of the word – this was a woman who wore trousers and smoked on Hollywood sets (unheard of for an actress in the 1930s) without turning it into a statement – and, of course, an outstanding actress.

Laurence Olivier: A Biography
by Donald Spoto

But if we’re talking conventional biographies, they don’t come much better than Spoto’s comprehensive, well-researched but compact account of Olivier’s life and career. This book is equal parts a life history and a psychological profile of a very complex man who was always trying to raise the bar for himself and for his profession. Almost by default, it’s also an illuminating portrait of the English theatre (and, to an extent, Hollywood) in the 20th century, especially between the 1920s and the 1960s.

Spoto is particularly good at contrasting “Larry” with “Lord Olivier” – that is, setting the humbleness of Olivier’s origins against his eventual status as a revered public figure and a knight of the British Empire. In making this contrast, he captures the man’s deep-rooted insecurities about being under-educated (which led him to indulge in much grandstanding later in his life - making florid, often incomprehensible speeches at ceremonies under the belief that this was how a Peer was expected to talk), his obsessive need to be the very best in his field and his often churlish attitude towards his great rival John Gielgud, who was of more genteel stock.

In fact, Olivier’s unorthodox approach – spitting out Shakespeare’s words instead of reciting them mellifluously; interpreting Iago as a homosexual driven by his feelings for Othello – probably came from the need to defy the classical tradition that Gielgud was a flagbearer for. Here’s an account of the famous 1935 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which Gielgud (an established actor at the time) and Olivier (still the young upstart) alternated the roles of Romeo and Mercutio:
The settled tradition was to stress the poetic lyricism of Shakespeare’s verse. But from the first reading, Olivier spoke his lines as if they sprang from blunt feeling and were not lines of venerable iambic pentameter: he was clearly preparing to play Romeo as a hot-blooded adolescent seething with sexual eagerness. Cast and director heard the verse as if it were not verse at all, but a spontaneous rush of passionate desire, impossible to suppress. “He felt that I was too verse-conscious and exhibitionist,” Gielgud reflected years later. “Of course, he was a great exhibitionist himself, but in quite a different way – daring, flamboyant and iconoclastic.”
Rereading these books, I realised that this was what Hepburn and Olivier had in common apart from the levels of excellence they achieved: they were both nonconformists, both way ahead of their time. It’s hard to believe they would have been turned hundred this month, so fresh are their legacies and personal styles.

P.S. John Wayne was yet another Hollywood legend born in May 1907. I admired a lot of his work – especially in Red River, The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man – without being a big fan. Coincidentally, Hepburn’s only film appearance with Wayne (in Rooster Cogburn) was the same year in which she did Love Among the Ruins with Olivier. Wayne and Olivier never acted together – indeed, it would be difficult to imagine a film of any quality that could accommodate both of them, though they each appeared in bloated multi-cast war dramas late in their careers.


  1. I like both the Hepburns - Audrey (of the Roman Holiday fame) & dear old Kathy

  2. nice. btw, this year is also Barbara Stanwyck's 100 year anniv. Lane has a good profile in the New Yorker

  3. Venkat: thanks for the link. Lane always writes with such love and reverence about classic Hollywood, unlike his snarky reviews of contemporary films. I was a big Stanwyck fan too (had the hots for her way back when, which is disturbing considering she's old enough to be my great-grandmother), but I haven't seen any of her films in years.

    Jammy: Audrey okay, occasionally good. Kate incomparable.