Wednesday, May 09, 2007

"LISTEN TO THE SONG OF LIFE". That was her family motto. It was carved in the mantle at her childhood home. It was embroidered on a throw pillow on her sofa. And it's the way she spent every day of her life. KATHARINE HOUGHTON HEPBURN was born May 12th, 1907; 100 years ago this Saturday. It may come as something of a surprise to remember that she only died four years ago. It seemed like she might go on forever. Well, she certainly was an institution. She once quipped that, if one hangs around long enough, one gets to be revered -- like a monument. In Kate's case, it was a little more than that. She has been voted the number one female movie star of all time. I, for one, wouldn't argue that. She was a star of the first magnitude. Winner of a record 4 Academy Awards for Best Actress and nominated 12 times, Kate would be the first to tell you that what she did for a living wasn't very important. Except to all of us who loved her films. Granted, many of her films are classics. But Kate should perhaps be admired even more for the way she lived her life. She knew what she wanted and how to get it. She didn't have any children; not because she didn't want any but because she realized she was too selfish to be a parent and it wouldn't be fair on the children. She wanted her career. She made her choice and didn't whine and moan about her decision. Instead, she listened to the song of life. A quality I readily confess I don't have a knack for. If her studio was casting her in insipid costume drama turkeys (for which she would unfairly be labelled "box office poison"), Kate would just buy her way out of her contract, head to Broadway where she bought the rights to "The Philadelphia Story" and then wait for the studios to come crawling to her. And they did. And she played the lead in the film version. And she would be nominated for YET ANOTHER Oscar for it. Career back on track, thank you very much. One of her contemporary actresses said: In the first 5 minutes of a Katharine Hepburn film, you wonder WHY she TALKS like that. Then after about 10 minutes, you wonder why EVERYONE doesn't talk like her. Hepburn's strong Yankee "gumption" and her voice (which has been compared to nickles dropping in a pay phone) leads some unobservant people to suppose that Kate was more of a movie star personality than a REAL actress. They're just not paying attention. They can't observe past the Bryn Mawr accent to see the real, genuine acting chops Hepburn possessed. She is absolutely devastating as the drug-addicted Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; this is possibly her greatest performance. She didn't win the Oscar for it but she was nominated once again. She played the hell out of Greek Tragedy in Euripides' "The Trojan Women"; Kate instills Hecuba with palpable heartbreak in every scene. When the material provided her with something to sink her acting teeth into, she obliged. If the character didn't require it, Kate would not overact merely because she was a "GREAT ACTRESS". She'd play the damn part like she was supposed to; like it was written. She never resorted to crowbarring little bits of actorish business in a role for the mere sake of it.
However, it's for the way she lived her life that I most admire her. Katharine Hepburn is probably the only "glass-half-full" optimists that DIDN'T drive me up a wall. That is because she didn't pretend like things were hunky dory and everything would turn out peachy in the end. Kate's eyes were wide open. She (unlike MOST optimists) realized that life has a lot of suffering in it; she didn't expect to be happy happy HAPPY every day. She was "adult" in this respect; more adult than about 90% of everyone I've ever met. When adversity came, she faced it and withstood it. However, she could find the bright spots when they were there. A slice of chocolate cake was cause for celebration. So what if life can suck; that damn cake was DELICIOUS!!!! Now, I am the consummate moaner/groaner; if there's nothing to complain about I'll make something up. I can't do what she did. And that's why I admire her as much as I do. It takes a hell of a lot of steel in your spine to live life like she did. Life to Kate was an exhilarating adventure. And for that alone, she was a hell of a lady. Happy 100th birthday, Kate. The world misses you.

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