Honors for the late Katherine Hepburn
By Susan King , Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — Katharine Hepburn was always punctual. Sometimes a bit too punctual — which Joanna Miles learned as a young actress on location in London with Hepburn for the 1973 ABC movie version of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”
Save for Hepburn, the cast was living in a little town house decorated with window boxes. One day, Hepburn was supposed to pick up Miles for lunch.
“I had taken a nap,” Miles recalls. “I had set the alarm to wake up on time, but Katharine was always early. I heard outside the window ‘Joanna, where are you?’ I looked out the window, and she had climbed up on window boxes of other people’s homes looking in their windows for me.”
Hepburn had strict rules on set. “”If a fellow was reading a newspaper up in the rafters, he got fired because she wanted people to really concentrate on what we were doing,” Miles says.
It’s been four years since the four-time Oscar-winning actress died at age 96. There have been books that have offered revisionist views of her personal life, but her power as an actress remains. Some of her best films, including her Academy Award-winning turns in “Morning Glory,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “The Lion in Winter” and “On Golden Pond,” will be featured in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art celebration of her 100th birthday with a monthlong retrospective, “The Late, Great Kate,” kicking off Friday.
Hepburn loved to test directors and writers by challenging their authority. Anthony Harvey, who directed her to her third Oscar for 1968’s “The Lion in Winter” as well as “Glass Menagerie,” “Grace Quigley” and one of her last TV movies, 1994’s “This Can’t Be Love,” describes Hepburn as a great friend. But they didn’t quite begin that way.
Harvey recalled that he and Hepburn had a terrible first meeting. “I took her a bunch of roses, and she threw them on the floor,” he says. She said, ” ‘They’re ghastly, and they’ve got wires in them.’ “
Things didn’t improve between them when production began. “We had a big sort of difference of opinion about the scene in which she looks in the mirror,” Harvey says. Hepburn thought that her character, the embittered Eleanor of Aquitaine, never would let down her guard.
“I said it was the one chance for her to be vulnerable. She said ‘OK, we’ll try it.’ She did — it was absolutely terrific. She pushed a little bit of Kleenex under my door (after the scene) and it said ‘I hope the sun, the moon and the stars are with you. Come have dinner.’ That was the beginning (of our relationship).”
The actress also put Mark Rydell, who directed her and Henry Fonda to Oscars in 1981’s “On Golden Pond,” through a series of challenges. The filmmaker had rented a fire house on location in New Hampshire rehearsals. But Hepburn insisted that the cast rehearse at the house she had leased by a lake.
“I thought, ‘This is her attempt to kind of control things,’ but it seemed innocent enough, so we all met at her house,” Rydell says. “She brought out cookies, and there was a table that she had set up for everyone. She sat at the head of the table. I knew this was a significant moment, so I politely said, ‘Katharine. I think you are in my seat.’
“She looked at me kind of astonished that I had the temerity to insist on being at the head of the table. She got up and moved to the side, and we conducted the rehearsal. Henry winked at me. … “
Harvey and Rydell say that once you passed her test, Hepburn was a dream to direct. “I think like all great actors, she really longed to have direction,” Harvey says.
Duane Poole, who wrote and produced her last two TV movies, “This Can’t Be Love” and “One Christmas,” says Hepburn had an amazing sense of humor even at 87 and could poke fun at her own regal image. At one point while touring the garden of her New York town home on their second day of meetings, Hepburn took Poole by the hand.
“She was very short,” Poole says. “I looked down at her and she looked up at me and said, ‘Well, did you find me fascinating?’ “I realized she had been playing Katharine Hepburn. … She knew what people expected her to be like.”
By the time Hepburn made “So This Is Love,” “One Christmas” and her last feature, “Love Affair,” in 1994, she was frail and had to have her lines on cue cards because of memory problems, recalls Henry Winkler, who was in “One Christmas.'”
“We had several scenes together,” Winkler says. “I would hold up her cue card in front of my face and then lower it to say my line and then bring it back up. I did (my role) up and over cardboard. But I wouldn’t have changed a moment of that experience.”
Harvey kept in touch with Hepburn until her final days, visiting her practically every month at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn., with the late producer Robert Whitehead. “It was the least we could do,” Harvey says.