I’m Ready for My Close Up: Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn

Based on the first in a Smithsonian Associates Lecture Series.

Documentary filmmaker/host Sara Lukinson calls Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn two women who represent the movies we love and the faces we can’t forget; the Alpha and Omega of 1940s female stars with Taylor manifesting tantalizing love interest and Hepburn embodying a robust, independent woman.” Both entered the “dream factory” then broke all the rules.

It was an era when studios released 400 films a year and 50 million people went to see them. Every aspect of actors lives were controlled by the studio and every star had a cultivated onscreen persona – making character break-out roles highly difficult to secure. Movie stars set standards of appearance and behavior.

Elizabeth Taylor (1922-2011) was seven when she emigrated to Los Angeles from London with her art dealer father and retired stage actress mother. Through friends, she auditioned Universal Pictures and MGM just a few years later. Universal dropped her after a single, small role ostensibly because she didn’t have the face of a child. MGM had no such reservations. After several minor roles there, she starred in National Velvet. Taylor cited the film (stardom) as the end of her childhood.

Author James Agee was a film critic at the time. He wrote, “I became choked with a peculiar sort of adoration…I hardly know or care if she can act or not.” “That’s pretty much what happened over the next four decades,” Lukinson says. “She was a charismatic, luxurious presence who didn’t live in our world except on screen.” In 1949 Taylor played Amy March in Mervyn Leroy’s version of Little Women. (Hepburn had played Jo March in the 1933 version.)

The studio kept using her albeit in nothing break-out and at 18, Taylor began to transition into women’s roles. She also married Conrad Hilton, Jr. Her wholesomely innocent role in Father of the Bride, didn’t keep director George Stevens from recognizing the actress as “someone for whom a man would murder his pregnant girlfriend.” He cast her as the rich, sensitive socialite in A Place in the Sun opposite Montgomery Clift, who would become a dear friend. Taylor said it was the first film for which she’d been required to act.

Lukinson observes that the actress “blossomed” as matriarch in the sprawling film, Giant. Here she became fast friends with James Dean and Rock Hudson. It’s a remarkable piece of cinema on all fronts and arguably the best work Hudson’s ever done. After nine months, the incipient femme fatale divorced Hilton. She then married actor Michael Wilding and had a child. This marriage also didn’t work out.

Next, Taylor turned to Mike Todd, a man she often called the love of her life. Number three came down in a plane crash barely a year later, while his wife was making Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She’s quoted as saying that being on set was the only time she could function during that period. An affair with Eddie Fisher followed, leading to his divorce from wife Debbie Reynolds. Taylor didn’t have affairs, she got married. (Time is compressed here.)

When MGM balked at employing Clift after a car crash, the famously loyal actress saw to it he was hired for Suddenly Last Summer, based on the intensely dramatic Tennessee Williams novel. (She and Katharine Hepburn also starred.) Then came Butterfield 8, her first Oscar win, yet a film she disparaged for years. Taylor arranged a sympathetic role for Fisher. Lukinson doesn’t think much of the film implying it was a “clinker.” I disagree.

In 1961, at the age of 31, Taylor was cast as Cleopatra. Lukinson remarks it both caused a sea change in the business and made Taylor a public figure. She was the first star to be paid a million dollars. The enterprise, which in today’s terms cost $300 million, was plagued with cost overruns and ridiculous, non-negotiable demands. Taylor insisted every cigarette holder coordinate to her dress, she was put up in a 14-room villa, the studio flew her favorite chili from Chasen’s Restaurant in Los Angeles to Italy. Cleopatra almost bankrupted the studio.

Taylor was often late or ill. Her torrid liaison with Richard Burton caused Life Magazine to call Cleopatra “the most talked about film ever.” Roped into directing, Joseph L. Mankiewicz declared he barely made it out with his sanity. “People went to the film to see Liz and Dick,” says Lukinson. “Never before had a romantic scale been pushed so far into the world’s view. Even the Vatican spoke out against her – for erotic vagrancy. There was a 35k engagement ring. The film was trounced. Taylor was now bigger than the studio. Her Louis IV melodramatic life- divorce, marriage, health issues – were public.”

“Taylor and Burton made a number of schlocky films together before 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? an adaptation of the Edward Albee play. (There would eventually be nine collaborations.) She was 34. It was her greatest, bravest, maddest performance,” Lukinson comments. And her second Academy Award. Basically retired at 53, she began a campaign against AIDS when Rock Hudson revealed he had the disease.  She spoke out first, co-founded AMFAR= American Foundation for Aids Research, raised and contributed considerable money.

“Elizabeth Taylor conquered us as surely as Helen conquered Troy. She created a feminine ideal. Was there ever a movie screen not lit up by her face? When she spoke out for those she loved her voice rang above all the rest. There’s no one today who compares on or off screen,” Lukinson closes. Notorious for being late, Elizabeth Taylor’s will dictated that her funeral start 15 minutes after it was scheduled. Clips throughout show Taylor in various roles. A short film made by Lukinson for Kennedy Center Honors is splendid.

“Patrician Connecticut Yankee Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) also stood out in the Hollywood galaxy. She lived to be 96 years old with unabated straightforwardness,” Lukinson begins. “Hepburn was known for being highly professional and pushy, often testing her directors. She epitomized women who were trying to understand the world and their places in it.”

Raised by wealthy, progressive parents, a lauded urologist father and a feminist mother, Hepburn was a tomboy athlete from childhood, independent and confident. At 13, finding her brother dead of an apparent suicide, the teenager grew suspicious and anxious. Under pressure from her alumnus mother, she attended Bryn Mawr, still uncomfortable around others. Grades suffered which limited participation in the newfound interest of theater. A title role in her senior year set her on the path.

When she arrived on the New York stage with a Hartford Theater production, however, the novice arrived late, mixed up her lines, tripped over her feet, spoke too quickly, and was summarily fired. In 1928, Hepburn understudied the lead in Philip Barry’s  play Holiday, but left after two weeks to marry college acquaintance, Ludlow Ogden Smith. Much to her surprise, she missed the theater and returned to resume that job. (Her move to Hollywood would precede a 1934 Mexican divorce.)

An original type, she continued to be hired but also continued to be fired again and again by disappointed playwrights, directors, even co-stars (Leslie Howard) who felt the actress wasn’t up to snuff. Still, she plugged on. Eventually the actress found success in a Broadway play for which her first entrance (as an Amazon) found her leaping down a stairway with a stag over her shoulder. A Hollywood talent scout sent her west where George Cukor chose Hepburn to be in A Bill of Divorcement opposite John Barrymore. She was not intimidated.

“When Hepburn arrived in Hollywood at 25, she rubbed almost everybody the wrong way,” Lukinson tells us. She asked for an outrageous amount of money for her first film. “David Selznick called her difficult, but Cukor saw a young woman with a mind, a temper, and self awareness.” The director became a lifelong friend. She played Jo March in Little Women for which she won Best Actress at The Venice Film Festival and the lead in Morning Glory (Constance Bennett was slated for the part) for which Hepburn earned her first Oscar. There would be five more, but not before dues were paid.

“She was self possessed, never vulnerable, had no warmth and no sex appeal,” Lukinson observes. The film Spitfire, famously her worst (she plays an uneducated Appalachian girl-think about that) eroded confidence, so when Jed Harris asked Hepburn to return to Broadway in The Lake, she did, and was again broadly panned. Dorothy Parker wrote, “She runs the gamut of emotions all the way from A to B.” Daunted, but undefeated she retreated back to the movies.

A series of badly received films, many period pieces, followed. She was, for a time, considered the proverbial box office poison. This compounded Hepburn’s tendency to be rude and abrupt with the press. Stage Door, ironically the story of a rich society girl trying to be an actress, was critically praised, but not a hit. “It wasn’t until she found a niche in four screwball comedies with Cary Grant, the public welcomed her,” Lukinson notes. “Sparing with men became her signature.”

After again earning success, Hepburn was back trying her hand on Broadway. She appeared in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story as Tracy Lord, an ice queen socialite who gets comeuppance and the right man. The part was tailored to her. Howard Hughes, Hepburn’s partner at the time, gifted her the rights which meant she starred in as well as choosing director and cast for the eventual film version.

She was also behind Woman of the Year about the unlikely romance between a working class sports journalist and a Barbara Walters type. Garson Kanin brought Hepburn the script and they ostensibly worked on it together, for which she was paid half. Given the choice of director and co-star, she selected George Stevens and Spencer Tracy. Tracy and she would make eight films together and enter a romantic relationship that lasted until his death. Hepburn did everything she could to help his alcoholism and insomnia.

“At 45, she stopped playing Hepburn and started playing character with The African Queen,” the host says. On location in the Belgian Congo, all her Yankee toughness rose to implicit difficulties, including dysentery. Director Walter Huston suggested she play prim spinster missionary Rose Sayer, like Eleanor Roosevelt. It worked.  In Summertime, with Rossano Brazzi, she embodied another up tight spinster, this time finding love. Hepburn fell into a canal and garnered a chronic eye infection, but to her, the film was a good experience.

Here Lukinson jumps to “Her greatest tragic performance,” Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Tracy’s last film, the touching Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the crackling Lion in Winter, in which she excels as Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O’Toole, and On Golden Pond (her last Oscar).

“Hepburn took on both life and acting on her own terms,” says Lukinson. “The actress always had definite ideas about what worked for her. She had a love/hate relationship with Hollywood, but not with audiences. Her screen characters dug deep into the ongoing struggles of women.”

Clips throughout show Hepburn in various roles. Watching her in On Golden Pond tell her failing husband, “Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor. Don’t you forget it!” one imagines her addressing Tracy. A short film made for Kennedy Center Honors is splendid.

Sara Lukinson is informative and entertaining, though this was a lot to ft into one program. (Additionally, I have here filled it out.)

Opening Photos: Elizabeth Taylor: MGM publicity photo of Elizabeth Taylor. Public Domain from Wikipedia
Katharine Hepburn: Public Domain photo of Katharine Hepburn from Wikipedia

Additional Sessions of this series

About Alix Cohen (1162 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.