Tuesday, February 03, 2009

When I Grow Up...

...I want to be Katharine Hepburn.

Still. I've had a crush on Katharine Hepburn since I was a teenager. There was always just something about her--that voice, that vital face, the cheekbones, the defiance--the glitter of brilliance so nimbly hidden by that overwhleming persona--that awed me. My first movie poster was of "The Philadelphia Story." My favorite performance of hers is "The Lion in Winter." My favorite scene with her is from "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." I thought she was at her most beautiful in "Woman of the Year" when she met and fell in love with Spencer Tracy. She made me cry in "The Trojan Women" playing a bereft but defiant Queen of Troy. I think she was most like herself in "The Desk Set."

Yes, I own all of her movies--even some of the later, not quite as much fun ones. If I don't have them on DVD, I have them TiVoed. I adore her. I only wish I could have seen her on the stage.

I have biographies of her, an autobiography which is written just as she speaks--in short, jerky sentences, and am right now watching a fascinating interview Dick Cavett did with her in the seventies--a practice run. She absolutely did not want to do a television interview and Cavett persuaded her to do a trial run just to see if she'd like it. Unbeknowst to her, they taped it. So they did the show without an audience, and I was spellbound. Here it was, 1973, and she had to have been already in her late sixties and she was unleashed in all of her skittish glory upon the hapless Dick Cavett.

When I was younger, I cherished dreams of being an actress like her. Why not? I shared a lot of traits with her. The one trait I didn't share? That sparkle of vitality that shines through every nuance of her voice and glimmer of her eyes.

Now, my ambition is a bit different. I see something of myself in her now, a similarity that wouldn't have appealed to me as an actress but certainly does as a writer. She possessed a voice that was unique. Not just that smoky, Bryn Mawr through the teeth accent--that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about a narrative voice. She had a way to tell a story whether she was performing or not that was absolutely unique. You can see it in the unconventional way that she moves in her earlier movies, with her complete contempt for the glamour of Hollywood, with the certainty of her conviction in every word she uttered.

Her narrative voice wasn't lovely, but it was distinct. She narrowed the focus of her life to the simplest common denominator possible. Her wardrobe when offstage was the same--turtleneck, button down shirt (switching back and forth, one was always black and the other white) and khaki pants. She wore her hair the same way. She never bought a Hollywood mansion; she preferred to rent furnished flats so she could remain unimpeded. She spat in the eye of conventional wisdom from the time she first appeared opposite John Barrymore in "Bill of Divorcement" until the day she finally passed away--and through it all, she was the only Katharine Hepburn--she played herself daily and excelled at it. Now that she's dead, I can look back at her through her movies and her story and watch the development of that narrative voice.

She started out by striving to shock. At the age of six, she shaved her head and changed her name to Jimmy. She moved from that to defiance--like when the studio stole her pants from her dressing room to force her to dress like a lady and she walked across the studio lot in her underwear to get them back. From defiance, she transcended into power--like when she worked the deal for "Woman of the Year" which included blacklisted writers and creative control. From power, she waltzed into legend, all the while maintaining the only kept secret in Hollywood with her affair with Spencer Tracy. By the time she died, she was an icon--a stubbornly matter of fact icon who drove to the grocery store for ice cream every day and lived in the old family home with her brothers and sisters. And through all of this, she remained grounded--a Hollywood multiple Oscar winner who sent her money to her father and received an allowance from him for living expenses until the day he died in 1962.

I have to stop and ask myself: how was this amazing creature developed? What was it about her that so fascinated--and continues to fascinate--even to this day? It was only just this morning, watching this faux interview that was never aired and that she never realized was filmed, that I finally understood. Everything Katharine Hepburn did told a story--no matter what the situation, her unique and distinct narrative voice colors it to the point where you are compelled to pay attention.

So when I grow up, I want to be Katharine Hepburn. If I can just find a way to capture that effervescent individuality in my writing, then perhaps one day I can be Katharine Hepburn too.