There is something slightly wrong with the apparently impeccable Philadelphia Story. The film works so well for everyone – director, actors, audiences – that the flaw must be very slight, and perhaps even an advantage, a wrinkle that enhances the smoothness of the rest. But it’s there and it’s this. The heroine is bright, rich, funny, classy, but a little censorious – she can’t forgive her father’s philandering or her first husband’s drinking. The storyline is set up to show us and her that, deep down and in the end, she is just as human as the rest of us, flesh not bronze, as the movie’s imagery has it, a person not a goddess. ‘You have everything it takes to make a lovely woman,’ her erring father says, ‘except the one essential – an understanding heart.’ The understanding heart sounds a bit like the double standard in sexual affairs, but this is 1940. The heroine gets drunk and flings herself into the arms of a visiting reporter, a man who admires her in spite of her wealth and manners, not because of them. She may even have slept with him, for all she can remember, and her prospective second husband believes she has. The reporter says not, because there are rules about taking advantage of girls who have had too much champagne. He’s not a toff but he is a gent. It’s not clear what the first husband thinks has happened, only that he is delighted with the heroine’s lapse from sobriety and the mere chance that she may have lapsed from virtue, since they are what will bring her back to him in the end.
The snag is that the heroine can’t be just as human as the rest of us, because she is Katharine Hepburn. A goddess can be fragile, frightened and subdued, and Hepburn is. But not for long, and she certainly can’t be just another frail mortal. What’s more, the heroine can’t turn out to be merely human if she’s working on the case herself, as she diligently is. Stung by the accusation that she’s made of bronze, she’s out to prove she’s not. So the story doesn’t show she’s not a goddess, only that the goddess doesn’t like to be thought inhuman.
All movie stars bring their own stories with them, scraps and tilts of narrative which often play interestingly against the ostensible plot of an individual film. But the interaction is particularly intense in the case of the great female stars, such as Hepburn, Garbo and Dietrich. It’s as if the movies themselves, or the stock of available forms of story closure, the myth machine, wanted these women to conform at last, whatever licence they seem to have been given, and the women won’t do it. Or rather, they conform enough to preserve the peace and the plot, but also hint at a zone of independence which can’t be absorbed by the conventions. Of course, the nature of this independence is different in each case. With Garbo it’s a certain blankness, something even more elusive than secrets or privacy; with Dietrich it’s an elegant contempt for whatever mush surrounds her, even when she’s supposed to be falling for the mush; and with Hepburn . . . Well, this is what Scott Berg’s vivid and subtle memoir is all about.
Berg, the biographer of Maxwell Perkins, Sam Goldwyn, Charles Lindbergh and (in the works) Woodrow Wilson, first met Hepburn in 1982, when she was 75, and was a close friend until she died at the end of June this year. On his first visit, before they have properly met, she twice asks whether Berg has used the bathroom. He says he doesn’t need to, thanks. Hepburn insists, and he goes to the bathroom. ‘Good,’ she says. ‘You know my father was a urologist, and he said you should always go to the bathroom whenever you have to . . . and you see, you had to. So how do you do? I’m Katharine Hepburn.’ Berg says: ‘Yes, I know who you are.’ Later in the same visit he straightens a skewed picture, and Hepburn says, ‘Oh, I see; you’re one of those,’ and recalls the visits of Cole Porter, who would ‘straighten pictures for five minutes before he’d even sit down’. There are some fine set pieces. There is a Parcheesi game at Hepburn’s house in Connecticut, where Hepburn, who hates to lose, blames her defeat on having Berg as a partner, repeatedly calling him ‘a complete idiot’. Berg is unwise enough to think the game is easy, or worse still, just a matter of luck. ‘Seven-year-olds play this,’ he says. Hepburn, borrowing a turn from Groucho Marx, quickly replies: ‘Well, clearly you don’t have the brains of a seven-year-old.’ There is the dinner party for Michael Jackson at Hepburn’s New York townhouse, where the singer is silent on all topics except the pleasure he has in watching his pet boa constrictor eat small rodents. And there is the saga of Warren Beatty, with Berg’s help, recruiting Hepburn for Love Affair, a remake of Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr’s weepie An Affair to Remember. ‘Poor girl,’ Hepburn murmurs, thinking of Beatty’s wife, Annette Bening. Berg wonders what she means, remarking that they both seem in love. ‘Hmmm,’ Hepburn says. ‘With the same man.’
Berg has some sharp remarks of his own – of Howard Hughes he says: ‘He liked to act on the spur of the moment, but only after he had thought through the details of his action’ – and often sees himself as caught up in old movies. He comes to regard his dinners with Hepburn and her long-time companion as ‘my own personal production of Arsenic and Old Lace’, and when Hepburn reads him the draft of a screenplay she has written, he thinks he may have stumbled into Sunset Boulevard. We are not surprised to learn that The Philadelphia Story is Berg’s favourite Hepburn film. He is, in a way, playing James Stewart playing the admiring reporter, and at one point Hepburn introduces him to members of her family as her biographer. Berg says, ‘Whoa,’ because at that point he was only writing an article about her for Esquire (and indeed he says that even Kate Remembered is not a ‘full-scale biography’), whereupon Hepburn, herself alluding to The Philadelphia Story, says: ‘Think of him as “the man from Spy”.’
The difference is that James Stewart didn’t get to talk to the heroine of The Philadelphia Story over twenty years, and didn’t write a book about her, and much of the pleasure of Berg’s work is in the detail, and in the sense of time passing. He interweaves a direct and lucid account of Hepburn’s career, from early films such as Little Women and Alice Adams, through the comedies with Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, notably Bringing Up Baby and Adam’s Rib, to The African Queen and then Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and On Golden Pond, into the story of his many talks and weekends with her, and he has a great ear for her speech habits. ‘Oh, I see,’ is what she says whenever she hears ‘anything . . . a little otherworldly’. ‘Mmmmm’ – not to be confused with ‘Hmmm’ – means ‘she could easily agree but . . . the issue could be improved upon.’ ‘I’m terrifying,’ Hepburn says, ‘but I’m smart enough to know I’m terrifying.’ Speaking of playing a role in Shaw on stage, she says: ‘Now, I never really minded the bossy part, but I didn’t like her being so serious.’ And responding to the idea of doing a musical, she remarks: ‘I honestly don’t remember ever sitting through a Broadway musical. I certainly never thought I could sing my way through one.’
The same voice – Hepburn’s actual voice, no doubt, but all we have as readers of this book is Berg’s textual re-creation of it, and it would be easy even for someone who knew her well to fail to get this across – has shrewd things to say about life and death. ‘I don’t really believe in Heaven and Hell, but in the here and now, and that we are meant to live in such a way that we can hope there is always something better than what we currently have . . . And one day I’ll die, and that doesn’t frighten me. I think it will be fine, perfectly fine.’
It won’t be fine, of course (and she isn’t really terrifying); but the style is right, and it speaks the language of her independence. Neither Garbo’s blankness nor Dietrich’s contempt, Hepburn’s slightly brittle cheer refuses the stories that seek to enclose her, and refuses them in the name of an unfooled enjoyment of her own luck and gifts and dedication to hard work. In her movies she makes even settling down look like an uncertain adventure, and the wedding at the end of The Philadelphia Story is both an ending and an opening, a sort of charade which has nothing to do with the implied placidity of the lovely woman and her understanding heart. Of course there are Hepburn films where she plays less against the grain, and she herself changed quite a bit over the years. Howard Hawks’s Bringing up Baby manages to endorse Hepburn’s independence of spirit as a kind of choreographed craziness, a speed of mind which takes all accidents as invitations to entertainment. ‘Don’t listen to her,’ Cary Grant says at one point. ‘She’s making all this up out of old motion pictures.’ She is, but out of the wildest mix of pictures: gangster movies, westerns, and the very screwball genre she is in. But she doesn’t let on how thoroughly she’s making it up. There’s a revealing tale in Barbara Leaming’s persuasive biography of Hepburn (reviewed in the LRB, 6 July 1995) about the shooting of this film. Hepburn kept trying to indicate that she thought the antics of her character were funny, ‘that she knew it was all a lark’. Hawks got a veteran comic to show her how to do the scenes deadpan – that is, he copied her mannerisms, but dropped the self-awareness. Hepburn saw the point immediately, and said to Hawks: ‘Howard, hire that guy and keep him around here for several weeks because I need him.’ Her dizziness, in other words, had to look like real dizziness if it was to turn into something else. Only look like it, because a deadpan is not really dead, and this is a rather complicated proposition. The goddess as sheer goddess is not all that interesting, and there is nothing worse than a goddess condescendingly pretending to be human. So the goddess has to play human in such a way that we almost but don’t quite believe it, as we almost but don’t quite forget her divine status. In Adam’s Rib, similarly, Hepburn’s energy and wit run in parallel with the film’s plot and politics, although there is a quirky, uppity moment right in the middle of the happy ending when Hepburn pretends not to understand what ‘vive la différence’ means. There is a brilliant commentary on this scene (and much else) in Stanley Cavell’s Pursuits of Happiness, and somewhere among these thoughts about the goddess playing human is an answer to one of Cavell’s worries. ‘I sometimes feel Katharine Hepburn to lack a certain humour about herself,’ he writes, ‘to count the till a little too often.’ What Cavell has spotted is a tension between being witty and being dizzy, and the tension is precisely what makes up Hepburn’s movie character at its best. Sometimes she needs to hide her knowingness, as she does in Bringing up Baby; and sometimes to use it, as she does in Adam’s Rib. She is never going to be entirely free of it, or entirely successful if she can’t shed some of it, give herself a break from her own superiority. But there are all kinds of ways of getting the tension to work.
Berg has an astute remark about the failure of the film version of The Madwoman of Chaillot: ‘It was difficult for an audience – to say nothing of the star herself – to accept Katharine Hepburn as somebody who had truly lost her mind. She ultimately came across as more eccentric than mad.’ And if we look back at the earlier film Holiday, also with Cary Grant, where Hepburn is supposed to be an eccentric rich girl, we can take this line of thought a little further. She doesn’t really come across as eccentric there any more than she later came across as mad. Just as stylish, determined, and impatient with fools and bores. Bossy, as she might say, but not serious. The movie can’t contain her, but would be far worse off without her. Her screen presence is a reminder – and much of her life seems to have been the same – that she knew what she was talking about when she said we can hope there is always something better than what we currently have.