Dear Katharine Hepburn:
It took us (as in, yours truly) a long time to acknowledge your talent.
You see, you struck us as patrician and not a little self-important. We thought your manner and accent were affected, and we didn’t feel your performances exuded warmth. (Example: The Philadelphia Story.)
Admittedly, we had not seen many of your films, but we weren’t keen to explore your filmography. Sometimes we felt you were competing with everyone else on screen. (Example: 1933’s Little Women.) At times you seemed to compete with the scenery, for pete sake.
That’s how it seemed to us.
People would say you were one of the greatest film actors of All Time, and we rolled our eyes. We figured these folks needed new eyeglasses or more robust vitamins.
This film made us think we judged you too harshly.
Rooster Cogburn is not a good movie. It’s hammy and lacks the understated prose of the great westerns of the 1950s. Because it resurrects Wayne’s character from his earlier film, True Grit (1969), and recycles your character from The African Queen (1951), it feels like a desperate attempt to revive previous successes – like reheating last week’s filet mignon in the microwave.
This film is also pedestrian and sanctimonious. You and Wayne, representing Old Hollywood, are heroes who believe in the Common Good, while the much-younger villains – they of New Hollywood – are greedy and selfish. Combine that with self-indulgent dialogue between you and Wayne, and it’s almost too much to ask of an audience.
In many ways, the villains are the better actors, especially outlaw leader Richard Jordan. You have charisma, but so does he. Jordan’s acting easily outshines Wayne (who is disappointingly mediocre), and he nearly steals his scenes with you.
It was your first scene in this film that made us take notice. You portray a missionary teacher in a remote settlement somewhere in the western U.S. When Jordan and his gang arrive to Set Up Shop, you approach them with a plea for civility.
You’re polite; he’s belligerent. You call him unpleasant; he fires a pistol at you.
You don’t even wince.
He pulls out a second pistol and shoots twice more at the ground in front of you. Again you don’t flinch. In fact, you start reciting Psalm 23 as Jordan continues to fire in his two-fisted way. The bullets don’t even impede your cadence.
These aren’t real bullets, we know; studios can’t have actors shooting each other with live ammunition. But your focus and concentration in this scene are remarkable. Not once do you break character.
That’s when we decided you may Have Something after all.
We began re-examining your films, such as Stage Door (1937), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Holiday (1938), and noted your timing and empathy. You even had us choking back a sob in the über-schmaltzy Summertime (1955).
As much as it pains us, we concede these films were made better by your presence.
So, these we take back: (1) It wasn’t sheer madness, after all, that nominated you for 12 Oscars; and (2) It is possible your reputation of Box Office Poison in the late 1930s may have been undeserved.
We grudgingly agree you became a legend for a Reason.
We are eating Humble Pie, dear Katharine. But if you want to let us Have It, go right ahead:
This is part of the SPENCER TRACY & KATHARINE HEPBURN Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.