Katharine the Great

by | Jul 15, 2020 | Actors | 0 comments

Cary Grant was never so jaunty and appealing as when he was playing off Katharine in Holiday, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story; Spencer Tracy was never so spunky and attractive as he was when keeping up with Katharine in Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib; Jimmy Stewart was never so lusty and swaggering as he was in The Philadelphia Story, the only role for which he won an Oscar; Henry Fonda was never so prickly as he was On Golden Pond, in the role for which he won his only Oscar. And Humphrey Bogart never proved himself so doughty as when he played the Character of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen opposite Katharine which also won him his only Oscar. Coincidence? 

Throughout her illustrious career she chose never to own a house in Hollywood so that she might always remain an outsider. She always lived in the moment; and once a project had been completed she was on to the next. There was no looking back. This perhaps was due to her witnessing earlier in her life the suicide of her brother which forced not just her but her family to not tolerate what had happened and were encouraged to move on with their lives with even greater intensity. 

As a sensitive teenager going through an awkward period in her life Katharine dealt with her renewed feelings of isolation by role playing – becoming stronger, prouder, even haughtier. She learned to mask her feelings, to create one persona that would greet the world while she hid another that she would fight to keep private. She would cloak her loneliness and insecurities with a personality that would entrance. She was becoming an actress. 

By the time she graduated from college she appeared at the theatre and was hired on the spot – evidently on looks and personality alone. She had a small part in a play and managed to learn her lines and blocking quickly. She was taught how to apply makeup and how to make an entrance – a rapid walk and a slow discovery of the audience. 

She was urged to invest whatever money she had in voice lessons and was forced to perform all sorts of exercises like blowing out candles, speaking with marbles in her mouth, reciting phrases that emphasised certain sounds and syllables. Although she never mastered breath control from the diaphragm, which she claimed, caused her voice’s premature rasp. 

Her parents didn’t think much of her acting career but Katharine decided to move to New York and pursue her career as an actress. She was accepted as an understudy to the lead in a play called The Big Pond and as luck would have it the lead was suddenly dismissed at the last minute allowing Katharine to take on her role on stage. Not two months in the theatre and Katharine was a fireball of self confidence. She was so carried away with her opening night performance that she raced through the play and the next day she was fired. 

She did manage to make a splash from her performance and was approached by a couple of Broadway producers with offers. The first offer she refused for not wanting to commit herself for a long period of having to appear in plays she might not like. The other was to play a supporting role in a modest play but unfortunately was closed after three performances. 

Her theatrical career over the following years was quite rambunctious. Choosing not to have an agent she would sit in producers offices and get parts for herself – giving charming interviews and readings. More than once the jobs were as understudies to the female leads, and more than once she got fired. 

Even after several more plays, including a season of summer stock of plays Katharine was still getting fired almost as often as she was hired. The problem was not, as was often suspected, her know it all attitude and troublesome stubbornness. It was really because according to one playwright ‘She was simply not good.’ 

Undaunted, she continued to make the rounds acquiring contacts and becoming known. In early 1932 a leading lady role fell from the skies into her lap in a play called The Warrior’s Husband. Originally the roll was meant to go to a bigger name but after a few anxious weeks they decided to settle on her. To make her entrance she had to bound down the stairs three at a time while carrying a stag over her shoulders. Her performance in the roll almost always brought the house down every night and the play received mixed notices. But Katharine received raves and became the talk of the town. 

David O Selznick, then head of production for RKO in Hollywood, was preparing a film version of a play called A Bill of Divorcement for John Barrymore, the greatest actor of the day. Both Selznick and the director, George Cukor, were looking to create a new movie star by casting a first time film actress in the ingenue role. Katharine’s timing was more exquisite than that. Hollywood was just coming out of the tailspin it had entered five years earlier when The Jazz Singer opened and introduced talking pictures. The careers of most of the great silent stars had dissipated, some overnight, and the producers had become desperate to fill the vacuum looking for promising new directors, playwrights and, most especially, actors. It was no longer enough for actors to have faces the public liked. They also needed good voices. 

Katharine went up for a screen test that Sleznick and Cukor were holding but when it came time to shoot the test, she refused to play the scene they handed her instead preferring to perform a scene from another film, a part she had honed and which would show her off to better advantage, rather than the one she was stepping into cold. The test did not bowl over the producer or the director but Cukor liked one particular moment when Katharine lowered a glass and set it on the floor, a moment he found real and theatrical and graceful at the same time. 

Eventually the role for A Bill of Divorcement was offered to Katharine and she was whisked off to Hollywood to begin the filming which she took to the process immediately being fascinated in her own words by the romantic medium. While she argued every possible reading of every line with the director, she realised that she and her director were, in fact, generally of the same mind. Cukor said of Katharine’s first every screen performance that she was like a colt finding her legs during the first week of the movie. By the end she had proved that she was a thoroughbred. 

Katharine’s determination to succeed kept her focused on her work and eschewed any kind of social life in Hollywood. When the film was released and proved to be a great success for everyone involved, many critics commented on the strangeness of both Katharine’s voice and appearance but in the end most found her extremely appealing, different but attractive. For that Katharine credited the director Cukor who she said he knew she was an odd creature to most audiences and that she would take some getting used to. Cuckor had even inserted several lingering shots of Katharine that did nothing to advance the story or deepen the character purely to allow the audience to adjust to her and get acquainted with her. Katharine acknowledged that Cukor’s experience in theatre showed the viewers the importance of an entrance especially when introducing a character to an audience. She thought she wouldn’t have had a career without those few shots, those few extra seconds of screen time. 

Getting a sense of the Studio system Katharine realised that actor were considered second class citizens in Hollywood, especially women. She quickly realised that if she wanted to remain at the head of the pack of actors she would have to take charge of her career – to the extent of scouting and securing the best possible material for herself. On one occasion she came across a script on one of the Selznick’s assistants desks and walked off with it making sure to arrange an appointment with the wanna-be producer, Berman, after she’d read it. 

‘This must have been written for me’ she told Berman after reading the script for Morning Glory but Berman brushed her off saying the part had been written to another actress from the silent screen era who’s making a comeback. Not giving in Katharine spent her time meeting everybody that was connected to the production, talking up this ‘thrilling’ screenplay until she convinced them that she was born to play this part. Having given a remarkable performance in Morning Glory which she was praised for revealing new dimensions as an actress and for bringing originality to potentially trite material, Katharine confessed she had borrowed heavily from another actor in her role. An actress who performed in a play called A Church Mouse, in which she spoke in a monotone voice, conveying both eagerness and nervousness. Katharine stole from her and proved to be one of the studio’s prime assets.

On the production of Little Women, again directed by Cukor, Katharine played the role of Jo March. Both would bicker throughout the production – never about personal matters, only the material – in a collegial manner that brought them closer together. More often than not, Katharine would get her way by either throwing her own New England background in Cukor’s face or by reminding the director that he never read the book. She enjoyed playing with her entire cast but from the luminous cast it was Katharine’s portrayal as Jo that shone in the public eye. In less than a year she had become more than a Hollywood leading lady. She was a star. 

Being nominated for her performance in Morning Glory and not Little Women, Katharine believed that she was nominated wrongly and it should’ve been the other way round. When the announcement at the Academy’s was made that she’d won that year’s best actress award Katharine wasn’t there to pick up the award. The Academy Awards conflicted Katharine from the very outset of her career, beginning with her believing that somebody so young and new to the game couldn’t possibly win. There was more to it than that. Even after she was told she had won, she said she wanted to release a statement saying she did not believe in awards. 

From that first nomination, Katharine vowed never to attend the Academy Awards ceremony albeit a vow she was not proud of. 

Katharine always liked to return to the theatre between her Hollywood performances. She said that there really is nothing as generous as an American audience especially for a movie star trying to stretch. She was always amazed that more movie stars, especially the actresses who hit their forties and fifties and complained that Hollywood isn’t writing any parts for them anymore, don’t take to the stage. She went on to say that there were hundreds of wonderful theatres all over the country who would be thrilled to have them. Actors should act. 

Over the course of the next several years, Katharine had her share of misses more than hits. She began a relationship with the esteemed Howard Hughes and while her career began to take a nose dive Hughes thought it would be an opportune moment to Marry her. Thinking that her career slump might make her more open to the suggestion of sharing their lives, he proposed to her more than once but Hughes had read her wrong. The downturn in Katharine’s career only made her more ferocious about her independence, more determined to prove herself on her own. 

She decided to take on the play of The Philadelphia Story, written by the play writer Philip Barry who she had a good relationship with. The play received rave notices, and Katharine begged the producers to keep the show on the road as long as possible, building up good word of mouth before coming into Broadway. She also controlled the film rights to the play and forbade her agent from telling anyone about it yet. Of course, all the major studios called hoping to buy the source material but upon his client’s instructions the agent stalled them. Meantime, Katharine carried on her stage performance in the show to nightly acclaim, playing more than four hundred performances on Broadway. More importantly the play had warmed up enough audiences nationwide to rekindle her career. 

Studios were knocking at her agents door willing to throw money at making her play into a film but Katharine held out for knowing exactly what she wanted. Until Louis B. Mayer showed just as much interest and Katharine told him that the property that she owned was not about making money. She would sell it to him for exactly what she paid for it, without a dime of profit. It wasn’t simply about getting a good part for her with a reasonable salary for herself, what she really wanted from him were two stars. She requested Clarke Gable and Spencer Tracy to be in the film, aiming for the top but eventually settled for Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. She was even allowed to choose her director which she of course went ahead with George Cukor. 

The success of The Philadelphia Story on the big screen had put Katharine back on the map and on top again, especially in the eyes of the studios. One of the great producers of the time Selznick said that Katharine represented everything that was good about America. She had a tight knit family, she had a first class education, she had elegance – class without airs. And she had a good business head on her shoulders. She talked straight, without ever compromising her femininity. 

Throughout her career and life, Katharine could never settle down with a man for too long until she met Spencer Tracy. Acting opposite him in Woman of the Year enhanced the genuine chemistry of its stars and would provide the template for another eight pictures in which Tracy and Katharine would appear together over the next twenty five years, making them the most enduring romantic screen team in history. On certain occasions she would refer to her co star as ‘A baked potato’ meaning that his talent was absolutely plain, basic but essential. 

Tracy and Katharine had long approached their work differently. He had a phenomenal memory, could read a script, absorb the lines, look over a scene the night before it was shot, and was usually word perfect on his first take. She liked to study a script, learning not only all her lines before production but mostly everybody else’s as well. She considered every possibly reading she could give – and was known to pass along advice to other actors as to how they might deliver their lines as well. 

For all her assertiveness, Katharine’s interests were always what was best for the picture. She always felt that moviemaking was about the survival of the fittest, but it was never about just one person – it’s a collaborative medium, but it’s not a democracy. She would always speak her mind but after she had her say she knew to shut up. She listened to the directors and learned from them. She was smart enough to know that if everybody around her looked good, then she looked good. 

In the film Adam’s Rib which she starred opposite Tracy as the two leads, Katharine was gracious enough to remain on set to assist a younger up and coming actress, Judy Holliday, with her close up shot even when Hepburn was off camera – a courtesy most big stars seldom extended – to provide moral support. Her generosity didn’t end there. She went to the publicity director at MGM who leaked to the press some misinformation she had fed him, hinting that ‘Kate and Spencer are certainly burned because Judy Holliday was stealing the picture.’ This led to Judy being cast for her next role in Born Yesterday which also won her the Academy Award for best actress. 

Later in her career, between 1950 and 1962, as most of the female movie stars of Katharine’s age were being put out to pasture, her choices grew increasingly purposeful. She spent time in deepening her friendships with several older actresses including Ethel Barrymore and Constance Collier, spending time and performing great plays with the great ladies of the theatre. Everyone had agreed the Katharine was the only movie star of her caliber working on a stage, performing Shakespeare at that. It proved to be a period in which she truly came into her own. 

After finishing a run as Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It she went onto work opposite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. They had to work in horrendous conditions with bugs, snakes, muck and bad weather which to have fought against all the elements would have been futile. For Katharine that picture was one great adventure and it also proved to be one of the greatest challenges of her life. And despite the genuine hardships, the director John Huston was able to capture all her exhilaration on film. When the film was released it became a huge hit among the critics and fans. 

Through the 1970s, Katharine remained in perpetual motion, tackling one project after another. Work remained the best antidote against grief after Spencer Tracy died of a heart attack in 1967.

By the 1980’s most of the male movie stars of Katharine’s generation had died and the few remaining female stars of her vintage had fallen from sight. Katharine, although frail looking, still had strength and energy within her. She went on to star in various films acting opposite Warren Beatty and Nick Nolte but it was On Golden Pond which made her clinch her 4th Oscar award for best actress. 

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Katharine’s personality was that she never expected to be considered a movie star or had any sense of entitlement. She made plenty of demands and she knew how to get what she wanted long before she was a star. She always remained grounded. For all her impatience there was always a sense of humility and humanity, even a sense of gratitude for her good fortune. She was never above making a bed, cooking a meal, chopping wood, or working her garden since she found pleasure in those activities. In short, she never lost her work ethic. She believed that actors shouldn’t walk away from the audience as long as the audience aren’t walking away from them. As long as people are buying what she was selling, she was still selling. Katharine never understood how people got stuck in jobs they didn’t enjoy. 

While she sought the limelight all her life Katharine believed actors received too much attention and respect. She even said that actors are prostitutes, spending their life selling themselves, their face, their body, the way they walk and talk. But actors also offer a unique service – the best of them please by inspiring, by becoming the agents for our emotional chatarses. She believed that it’s no small thing to move people and to get people to think differently, maybe even behave differently. 

‘Life’s tough for everybody’ she once said, ‘and that’s why most people become its victims.’ She lived most of her life as a contestant in that great struggle, always pushing herself hard, riding the wave and sometimes swimming ahead of it. ‘The natural law is to settle’ she said. ‘I broke that law.’ 

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