Jul 042003

Of the numerous cyber-eulogies one of the best is Colby Cosh’s, describing her beauty as “harsh,” which is exactly right, and the sense she gave of being “bound by no known rules, certainly not those of fashion or politesse,” which is true but incomplete.

Watching Hepburn in comedy is like watching a great athlete. Kobe, Jordan, Gretzky, seem to occupy some interstice of time, inaccesible to the rest of us, that gives them an extra half-second to decide what to do. Hepburn, in the same way, always seems to buzz in some strange interstice of social relations, as if she already knows what someone is going to say, pronounces herself bored with it, and goes off on a tangent before he even opens his mouth, leaving him gasping for air. (I’m thinking of Bringing Up Baby and, especially, Holiday.) The conventional characters call her dizzy, when in fact she is dizzying.

Colby also amusingly cites a report from a local AM station that Audrey Hepburn had died, for the second time. Well, I used to know someone who thought there were three Hepburn sisters — Audrey, Katharine, and Tracy.

Speaking of Tracy, I have to take issue with Colby’s parenthetical remark that he could be “trusted to be big-hearted enough to slump back in his chair and enjoy the show. He seemed perfectly comfortable in the presence of a female superior.” This is exactly backwards. No male lead could be perfectly comfortable in Hepburn’s presence, and Tracy least of all. The comedy, on the contrary, derives from his acute discomfort, from Hepburn’s awareness of it, and from her futile attempts to mollify him, like her disastrous essay in making breakfast in Woman of the Year. Tracy and Hepburn always make up in the end, of course, but it is an uneasy alliance, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? gives a nice picture of what their marriage might be like, twenty years on.

Of her male leads it is Cary Grant, not Tracy, who is, if not exactly comfortable with Hepburn, at least insouciant and urbane. He makes a few half-hearted attempts to restore sanity to Bringing Up Baby, but about halfway through decides to throw up his hands and just watch the show, and by The Philadelphia Story he has stopped trying altogether. Grant is a peculiarly affectless male lead, always giving the impression that sex would be fine, only it’s so much bother and he might muss his hair. This lends a certain chilliness to his collaborations with Hepburn, brilliant as they are, and is why they will never be beloved, as Tracy’s are. He is only outrun, while Tracy, the endearing palooka, is outclassed, but neither one could keep up with her. No one ever could.

  8 Responses to “Kate and Spence”

  1. Me, I love "The Philadelphia Story", Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn all together, and all delightful–it’s one of my favorite movies.

    I understand that while it was still a successful play, with Hepburn as the leading lady, she bought the film rights. She knew it would be a movie some day, and she wanted to be sure she got the lead. Kudos to her.

  2. Will, I’m with you: I prefer Bringing up Baby, Holiday, and The Philadelphia Story to any of the Tracy-Hepburn vehicles. But I’m pretty sure that’s a minority taste.

  3. I’m not so sure you guys are in the minority. I think Bringing Up Baby is one of the funniest movies ever. And African Queen is a classic.

  4. For heaven’s sake read the summary biography of KH in this week’s (July 14/21, 2003) New Yorker. Haunted, wandering, noble I suppose, the contrast of her roles and the stoic horror of her life is instructive about our tendencies to project impossibility onto those moving images and Glamour Ourselves To Death. Though granted the comedies strike a pose that is robustly amusing. But at what human price?

  5. Clearly, you are not a woman, Aaron.

    Cary Grant over Spencer Tracy? Not in my fanta–er, dreams.

    Best non-Hepburn Grant comedy was Arsenic and Old Lace.

    Best tribute to him was Alan Sherman:

    "All day, all night Cary Grant/What can he do that I can’t?"


  6. Well, Meryl, you found me out. But I’m afraid I can’t take Arsenic and Old Lace over His Girl Friday in a million years.

  7. you seem to have made the fantastic error of confusing the ACTOR with the character being portrayed. this along with the clear adoration of Hepburn only undermines your premise. All one has to do is find ONE person who was at ease with Hepburn( the actress or the character she played ? ) to destroy your entire thesis. try again

  8. Mark, are you quite sure you read the piece? Where exactly do I say anything about Hepburn (or Grant or Tracy) personally, as opposed to the characters they played in their movies?

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