The great film critic Pauline Kael—herself an iconoclast of Katharine Hepburn-like proportions—was often dismissive of Kate and her reputation as our finest actress. Kael seemed to favor Hepburn’s contemporary (both born in 1907) and perhaps closest rival, Rosalind Russell.
Nonetheless, Kael could be critical of Russell, too. I wish I could find the exact quote, but here’s the gist: she wrote of a later-career Russell performance (perhaps as Auntie Mame, one of her signatures) that she liked Roz better as an actress than as a national monument
I’d say something similar about Hepburn. Her 1930s films (especially Alice Adams and Holiday) showcase a sparkling comic talent and truly distinctive style. But from the ‘40s onward, Kate calcified into something far less appealing. By then, her mannered persona—patrician and stoic (it’s hard to find any description of Hepburn that doesn’t include the word “Yankee”)—was virtually a brand, and seemed scientifically engineered for Mt. Rushmore.
Indeed, America practically canonized the older, bolder Kate. Even I enjoy some of her later, more dramatic work, including The African Queen, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and A Delicate Balance.
More often, though, I found it difficult to reconcile Hepburn’s trademark toughness with her increasingly mawkish, self-referential acting. The oft-quoted “You’re my knight in shining armor!” line from On Golden Pond makes me cringe; so does the entirety of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. To me, there’s something paradoxical about the actress and the image—we’re supposed to find her a model of unsentimental pragmatism, but the actual performances are awash in bathos.
So I was fascinated to discover, as I sat in the Walnut Street Studio, watching Rick Foster’s hagiographic one-hander, Kate: The Unexamined Life, that the play—ironically and likely unintentionally—captures exactly what I dislike about America’s most beloved actress.
I should also say that the show will likely be catnip for many audiences—there were audible sighs of delight on opening night. Janis Stevens gives an extraordinary performance—she uncannily summons Hepburn’s unique persona, but this is real acting and never simply mimicry. Foster’s script is essentially a litany of Kate’s joys (notably her long relationship with Spencer Tracy) and sorrows, and the seams certainly show in the exposition, but it’s no worse in that sense than most plays of this genre.
What grabbed me from the start, though, was how much of Kate’s story is presented, as Chekhov might have described it, through tears. Gritty determination always threatens to float away in self-pity—it never quite does, but the overwhelming mood is lachrymose.
To me, that’s the essential and irreconcilable Katharine Hepburn. I can’t say that Kate: The Unexamined Life struck me as a great evening of theater—but it comes closer to revealing The Hepburn Problem than anything I’ve ever seen… and probably more than Foster and company meant to.
Kate: The Unexamined Life plays through April 7. For more information, visit the Walnut Street Theatre website.