This post is my contribution to the Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon, hosted by How Sweet It Was. I wanted to write about Katharine Hepburn’s TV movies because it was one of these acceptably-cheesy afternoon movies that introduced me to the actress. Check out all the other entries here.
It’s not surprising that Katharine Hepburn chose to finish her career on the small screen. unconventional to the last, she embraced the diverse roles that these lower-budget productions afforded, proving that the ‘made-for-TV’ moniker doesn’t have to be synonymous with ‘made-for-the-bargain-bin’. As Douglas Sirk had proved in the 1950s, melodrama could be done with artistic flair and integrity, and Hepburn – along who a host of equally distinguished co-stars and directors – set a new standard for small screen movies.
The first TV movie Hepburn appeared in was The Glass Menagerie (1973), directed by Anthony Harvey. Based on Tennessee Williams’ four-character memory play of the same name, it’s an intense but well-crafted drama. Hepburn played Amanda Wingfield, an ex-Southern belle who’s abandoned by her husband and finds herself longing for the ‘Old South’ she remembers from her youth. There’s an excellent chemistry between the four actors and although the action centred around a small apartment and there’s not much physical movement, each one plays off the other beautifully.
Apparently, the actress wasn’t keen on the part initially, but was persuaded to take the role for the opportunity to work with Harvey again – in 1968, the pair had made The Lion In Winter together. It was a bold decision for Hepburn to take, but it was one that paid off. At the heart of the play (and indeed the film) is an interplay of anxiety and tenderness, and Hepburn is, by turns, outrageous, humorous and melancholic. Although she might not have rated herself as an actress, and perhaps there’s always something of ‘Hepburn’ in the roles she played, she inhabits Wingfield, calling on her own personality when needed. The faded Southern belle is independent but intelligent, eccentric yet grounded – all adjectives that could be used to describe Hepburn herself.
Costume fact: the dress that Hepburn wears in The Glass Menagerie is actually the same one she wore for the 1939 stage version of The Philadelphia Story. Designed by Valentina, Tracy Lord’s wedding dress was an elaborate affair – pink silk organza, chiffon and crepe de chine, a fusion of modern and romantic elements – and personified a contemporary Southern socialite. Hepburn saved the dress in her personal collection, and bought it out of retirement in 1973, adding a corsage and a neckpiece. Because the actress had retained her slim figure, the waist only had to be let out slightly.
Hepburn’s second TV outing is probably her best known. Set in Victorian London and co-starring Laurence Olivier, Love Among The Ruins (1975) tells the story of a wealthy widow (Hepburn) who is sued for breach of promise by a (much younger) fiance. Oliver plays the respected barrister hired to defend her case. The film was a success at the Emmy Awards, where the two actors picked up awards for Outstanding Performance, and director George Cukor won the gong for Outstanding Directing. Emanuel Levy suggests that the film itself was born during Hepburn’s 1972 interview with Dick Cavett. When he asked her if she regretted never having played opposite Olivier she commented “Well! Neither Larry nor I are dead yet.” It took a letter from Hepburn and Cukor to persuade the actor into the role, but the audience should be grateful they did, as the duo are a perfect small screen pairing.
The actress would go on to make six more TV movies, including The Corn is Green, Mrs Delafield Wants To Marry and The Man Upstairs. Each time she declared that the performance was going to be ‘her last’ but every time, she was persuaded out of retirement – one suspects she might not have needed much persuading. Her last role was in One Christmas, which was released in 1994. Based on a short story by Truman Capote, the film is set in 1930 – in some ways it seemed like the Hepburn had come full circle, back to the era where her career started. Back then, the publicity department had been keen to play up her ‘quirks’ (think: wearing slacks, not posing for pictures and ‘female companions’), in 1994 it was time to play up her legacy; who would’ve guessed how far she’d go?
There are lots of reasons why Hepburn made a great small screen actress and why she was able to keep working for so long, but in my opinion, her lack of sexuality played an important part. The exact opposite of a femme fatale, she never played for looks, and her inherent stubbornness meant that, although she (almost) always got the boy, you had the feeling she was ambivalent to him. In the entire range of her movies, it’s difficult to recall (with the exception of Woman of The Year and The Philadelphia Story) an unembarrassed clinch or sexual situation (and don’t forget about the cold showers she reputedly took). Because Hepburn was never tied to her looks, incredible though they were, she was able to transcend them and embrace other forms of typecasting. Her authenticity and sense of self reflected in her ‘natural’ characters; she could make an audience believe whatever she wanted – it wasn’t screen-dependent.