A Movie Star Game for Two, Played by Kate and Hepburn

Read the title carefully; then read it again. Just about everything in this marvelous book has been weighed and assessed

Read the title carefully; then read it again. Just about everything in this marvelous book has been weighed and assessed more than is usual. William Mann doesn’t settle for the obvious, the given, the rubber stamp. And so, it seems to me, we’re being gently guided before the book begins. For if there was a phenomenon, a storm, a force or a myth that would be called “Hepburn” long before her death (and for how long afterwards we do not know), then is it possible that “Kate” was the girl, the woman, the body that bore up under the legend?

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There’s something rare and frightening about actors and actresses. It amounts to a kind of religious worship in which these figures are experienced, “known” by millions of strangers, “loved” by those who will never meet them, when they—the person inside, the person wearing the name and the legend—may sometimes realize, “Well, there’s not much left for me, is there?” You may remember that Katharine Hepburn called her own book (published in 1991, and emphatically not ghostwritten) Me, as if she had always had the fear of being left out. I can only add that if she’d lived to face Mr. Mann’s book, I think she would have put it down, dry-eyed but full of tears, and admitted, quietly: “me.”

There have been many books, some of them since her death in 2003 (Scott Berg’s memoir, Kate Remembered, self-serving and suspect, seemed to appear even as she died; it had evidently been kept back in anticipation of the event). I’ve read them all, and I don’t think there’s a dull book among them, though Barbara Leaming’s was a disappointment. The richness of those books is a tribute to Hepburn. She abhorred dullness and hated vanity—rather, let us say, she avoided dullness and hated to be caught in vanity.

That she was by turns self-centered and cold did not diminish the pleasure of her company, her wit or her warmth (this is not a contradiction). Those attributes, all professionally useful, merely confirmed what you gathered, and hoped for in advance: that she was a constant performance. She was being “Hepburn” and surely sometimes said, “The hell with Kate!” But here’s the point: Mr. Mann’s biography is not just the best on Hepburn—it’s a book that sets new standards in movie biography.

Sometimes it’s easy to think that some woman took up the theater and movies to escape a dreadful childhood—or circumstances that did not offer her enough “life.” That’s not the case with Kate. Her father a noted surgeon, her mother a suffragette, she was born in Connecticut and raised in a wise but idiosyncratic family and in houses she loved. She was educated at Bryn Mawr, and she was smart. Coming of age in the late 1920’s, in a context that believed in women, she could have excelled in so many other fields—medicine, law, politics, education. You can see her like that, in a worldly career. Yet there were flaws: A brother committed suicide, and her marriage to an amiable but rather vague broker—“Luddy”—ended after six years, though it never lost its friendship.

It’s in the matter of that brother, Tom, that you realize how serious and searching Mr. Mann is prepared to be. I call it a suicide, but the significance of the loss was that people—Kate included—were not sure. Tom had troubles: He was sexually uncertain, like his sister. He was strangled—but he might have been play-acting, or doing the real thing. Mr. Mann examines the shifts in opinion throughout the family, and he lets something very tricky emerge: that Tom for Kate was a mystery because they were close. It’s as if, with both brother and husband, she reckoned that terrain too close to her could hardly be inhabited.

She went out to Hollywood in 1932, in pants, with Laura Harding (an American Express heiress) as her pal. There was talk, and in her early films she gave every impression of being too smart and chilly for her own good—or to be a star. She did remarkable early work: Morning Glory in 1933 (winning an Oscar but not very likeable); Little Women (1933)—as Jo; Alice Adams (1935); Sylvia Scarlett (1935); Mary of Scotland (1936)—for a sweetheart, John Ford; Stage Door (1937); Bringing Up Baby (1938).

The latter, for Howard Hawks, with Cary Grant, is one of the greatest comedies ever made in America. She knew it was good, and she had to face the report—in Variety—that she was “box office poison.” America got the shivers when it watched her. This was the age of Crawford, Davis, Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy. You could be smart and classy, but a woman was expected to be sexy, and there Hepburn drew a blank.

But what about Kate? It’s the steady question of this book. Kate was romanced by Ford and Howard Hughes; she was one of the few MGM stars who got on with Louis B. Mayer (it may have helped that she was very close to Mayer’s daughter, Irene). Were these love affairs? Was there sex involved? Or was Hughes just another cerebral worrier who funded and helped manage her career? Hughes set her up with The Philadelphia Story (1940), and he was the secret lawyer in her very serious efforts to get the role of Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. The producer, David O. Selznick, refused her because he thought she wasn’t sexy enough, and Mr. Mann finally is not sure how much sex (heterosexual sex, anyway) really meant to her.

What’s fascinating in his account is the complete way in which Hepburn took charge of Kate around 1940, softening her looks, learning to be sexy, deliberately taking on roles where she was obedient to men—witness Woman of the Year (1942). The orthodox clincher in this buildup has always been “met Spencer Tracy,” and that did happen in Woman of the Year.

Tracy was, in some ways, the man’s man she favored. But he was also an alcoholic wreck—no book has made that more clear than this one, even to the point of exposing Tracy’s rather maudlin gay life. Kate was gay too, to be sure, but it was the strongest, most private part of her. Hepburn took advantage of Tracy because she realized how “perfect” they were onscreen together—indeed, that ease was a mercy to both of them as they grew older.

There’s a lot of new stuff in this book, plus a very shrewd account of how far Garson Kanin’s book, Tracy and Hepburn (1971) helped shape and deepen the legend. The truth was much more complex and not nearly as sentimental. Readers in the course of William Mann’s thorough and generous narrative can discover it for themselves. It’s no small point that the writing here has a subtlety and a forgiveness such as these untidy lives require.

Finally Kate died, and now Hepburn has to make her way alone. At this point, the only person left alive who was a big movie star in the 1930’s is Olivia de Havilland. The great ones of that generation changed our lives. But do kids respond to them now—kids who hardly knew them? No one can be sure, so we must keep our museums large and open, if that’s where Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Susan in Bringing Up Baby, Amanda in Adam’s Rib (1949) and Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story must live. Yet maybe that great myth is not enough. Maybe you have to have been alive with Kate as well as Hepburn to feel the game the two of them played.

In history, a “great actress” can turn as stuffy as Bernhardt, Rachel or Sarah Siddons. Of course, film helps the moment live. But if you want to remember the sudden mischief and the flaring face of Jeanne Moreau, Anna Karina or Katharine Hepburn, you had to be there and stand in line for their new movies when they were fresh.

David Thomson’s most recent book is Nicole Kidman (Knopf).

A Movie Star Game for Two,  Played by Kate and Hepburn