Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Holland

Katharine Hepburn 01This brief look into the life of one of our greatest actresses was written in association with the Biography television program and it has the feel of that breezy show as it reduces a great life into a few cogent points, concentrating instead on the mention of her films and stage appearances.

Hepburn was certainly an enigmatic personality.

Although her birth date remains in doubt to this day, it is reckoned that she was born in either May or November of 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut to Dr. Tom Hepburn and Katharine Houghton (of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing firm and Corning Glass Works).  Her father was a very strong conservative figure, who encouraged his children to take risks, but it was almost impossible to gain his good graces.  Her mother was rather liberal and was involved in the women’s rights movement in America from the earliest stages.  Kate grew up torn in two directions.

Her family had a history of suicides and biographer Holland hints that it may have been due to heredity, although the rigid, emotionless aspects of her father certainly hints at rebellion against convention.

Her older brother Tommy committed suicide while on a trip to New York with Kate, but the whole family glossed over it, almost as if it didn’t happen.  Kate’s family believed that you should never dwell on the past, but always look ahead to the future.  Planning and working were the things that you got you through life and that partly accounts for her optimistic views, healthy lifestyle, and prodigious work right up until her death in 1996.

Katharine Hepburn 02Much is made of her relationships, specifically with director John Ford and actor Spencer Tracy.  Likening each of these men to father figures, the book ponders whether her lifelong obsession with pleasing her father didn’t spill over into her love life.  Both men were married and yet each carried on a 30 year love affair with Kate.  Tracy, it is stated, was the love of her life, but he would not divorce his wife because of his strict Catholic background.  He comes off very badly in this biography, as a bully who ruined Katharine’s career by insisting that she be at his beck and call.  When he went on drinking binges for days at a time, she would wait outside his door and tend to his needs.  Apparently, he did not live with his wife, but spent many years living in a Los Angeles hotel before retiring to guest house on George Cukor’s estate.

Many people may not realize that Katharine Hepburn had an extensive state career and was a failure at stage acting for many years because she always appeared to be so manic.  In middle and late years, she began to act Shakespeare, touring and playing a variety of roles, relaxing in her celebrity and doing very well.  She was a big hit in the Broadway musical Coco, even though she couldn’t sing.

During her career, she won four Academy Awards for Best Actress, even though critics constantly complained that she only played herself.  That is not unusual at all, even now, when most film actors don’t really act.  Since the early days of silent film, audiences have flocked to the theater to see the personalities, not to see them disappear into their characters.  Spencer Tracy did not even want to have any make-up applied at all.  But even though these celebrity actors play themselves, they are still able to carve out excellent performances from the force of their character and Hepburn did that in a great many of her films.

Katharine Hepburn 03She remained a health nut, swimming in icy Long Island Channel into her 80’s, cooking her own food, and staying true to herself.

Her films will certainly remain as classics long into the future.

Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen by Marc Eliot is a spare and generalized biography that focuses on the films made by the iconic actor. While the films are examined in some detail, Eliot spends the rest of his time detailing McQueen’s life outside the set.

The actor was a troubled child who was moved around the country and dropped off with various relatives for extensive blocks of time. His father left them when he was still an infant and his mother could not maintain a steady relationship throughout his life. Steve spent a lot of time running with gangs on the streets of Los Angeles and spent stints in the boy’s reformatory in Chino, California and in the United States Marine Corps.

His last trip to New York City, saw him hooking with up an aspiring actress and following her into various acting studios. With his chiseled good looks, he was a natural to follow Marlon Brando and others into the Method school of acting.

From the time he was old enough, he went from one woman to another until he finally met Neile Adams, fell in love, and married her. He went quickly from off-Broadway plays into the live television scene that was hot in New York. When his wife got a job in Los Angeles, they relocated and he translated his career from television to film. Although they had two children, Neile had to put up with his constant infidelity. He also began using drugs, first pot, then coke and finally hallucinogenics. With his monster macho ego, he began spending his earnings on fast cars and motorcycles, even racing with professionals.

After sixteen years of marriage, he forced his wife to admit that she’d had an affair. Even though he had slept with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women, he was enraged and beat her up. He practically isolated his second wife, Ali McGraw, in their home and he hit her once before she filed for divorce. And he was married a third time, very briefly before his death of mesothelioma, lung cancer caused by excessive exposure to asbestos. (He was exposed while in the Marines, where he worked in the engine room, cleaning and repairing asbestos covered pipes and he was also exposed throughout his adult life to asbestos coating inside race cars.)

His filmography includes such classic films as The Blob (1958), Never So Few (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), and The Towering Inferno (1974).

The book moves very quickly, an easy and engaging read. Even though Eliot presents a very unbiased narrative, I have to admit that I went into the book admiring McQueen’s acting and I left it absolutely hating him as a human being. Of course, he lived in a different era, but that is still no excuse for the way he treated other people. He was like a hurt child who never, ever grew up to take responsibility for his actions. And he died with no remorse at all for what he did to his first wife. In spite of the hefty list of good films and good performances he left behind, Steve McQueen was ultimately far less of a man than the “King of Cool” he presented