British film director Ken Russell ("Tommy," "Aria") was once asked by a magazine writer to name a truly "bad" actor. Russell astonished the interviewer by answering, "Paul Scofield," who had not only won an Oscar for his role in "A Man for All Seasons," but had been referred to by no less a heavyweight than Sir Laurence Olivier as "the finest actor in the English language." Talk about street creds.
But Russell's reasons for singling out Scofield were simple and compelling: "I can see the man physically performing," he said. "And when you can see the actual mechanism at work -- see the actor acting -- it ruins the effect." Which brings us to the late Katharine Hepburn.
Although I've always admired Hepburn's feminist philosophy and personal courage (a consummate professional, she once, reportedly, chewed out Nick Nolte on the set of "Grace Quigley," calling him a lowlife degenerate and scolding him for showing up unprepared), her acting skills have never impressed me. In truth, I've never been able to watch her without cringing.
The problem, unfortunately, is that, like Russell with Paul Scofield, I can't help but notice her "actress tricks." By my count, Hepburn used three regularly: 1) projecting a theatrical feistiness and stagy, faux nobility; 2) an uncanny ability to fill her eyes with tears whenever she wished, right on cue, at the drop of a hat, always the same way and with the same practiced intensity; and 3) jutting out and slightly elevating her chin to appear earnest or spunky.
Actually, that chin was remarkably adaptable; it could jut out in defiance, as it did in "African Queen," indignation ("Lion in Winter"), resignation ("On Golden Pond") and even weirdness ("Suddenly, Last Summer"). In any event, when you strip away Hepburn's assortment of "props" -- the faux nobility, those tear reservoirs and that reliable chin -- what are you left with? Florence Henderson.
Arguably, the worst of her films was the mawkish "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), for which she won the Academy Award, beating out, among others, the excellent Faye Dunaway ("Bonnie and Clyde"). Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play the parents of a daughter who wants to marry a black man, played by Sidney Poitier, who never looked handsomer or more dashing. Hepburn and Tracy spend virtually the entire movie swapping high-minded platitudes.
Never mind that love eventually wins out; the movie pulls its punches at every turn. By making Poitier not only a brilliant, successful physician and humanitarian, but also an articulate, courteous, loving, sweet, mature and impossibly thoughtful and caring man, they pretty much sanitize the core controversy. I mean, what's not to like? By the end of the picture, I wanted to marry him myself.
Still, if Hepburn's craft is based on little more than a collection of stagy contrivances, as charged, how do we explain her success? Well, the answer could be as simple as serendipity: the ability to get cast in great roles in marvelous movies. Being along for the ride, so to speak.
Just as Jane Wyman or Paulette Goddard could have been plugged into the Ingrid Bergman part in "Casablanca" without damaging in the slightest an otherwise classic film, so could Glenda Jackson or Vanessa Redgrave have played the female lead in "Lion in Winter" or Joanne Woodward in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." And so forth.
The difference between Katharine Hepburn and nimble actresses, such as Meryl Streep or Julianne Moore, is versatility. A simple exercise: Picture Katharine Hepburn in every movie she ever starred in and ask yourself if she's not playing, essentially, the same part over and over. The only variable is tempo.
Think about it. The speeches she gives in "On Golden Pond," for example, are given in the same manner as those in "Dinner," which are identical to those delivered in "African Queen." Now put her on a horse and she's doing her same bit in "Rooster Cogburn." Icon or no icon, let's not confuse a truly fascinating and unique woman with a superior actress.
David Macaray is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and playwright.