Hepburn, with too many apologies

September 29, 1991|By Hal Boedeker | Hal Boedeker,Knight-Ridder News Service


Katharine Hepburn.


418 pages. $25. Katharine the Great gives one of her worst performances in this windy, disjointed autobiography. Ms. Hepburn has done the impossible: made herself a bore, bore, bore.

Hollywood's pre-eminent film actress prattles on and on, numbingly, over 418 pages decorated with 165 photographs. She preaches self-reliance like Ethel Thayer in "On Golden Pond," salutes colleagues as if delivering a chronic Oscar speech and botches her tale by constantly digressing.

For instance, she segues from a story about Sinclair Lewis coming to visit her family into this: "Oh, I meant to tell you. I was standing on my head the other day and I got to thinking how probably unusual it is for someone of my age to do this."

The 84-year-old legend is a chatty Kathy. Pull her string -- she won't shut up.

She also is annoyingly apologetic. "So before you begin to read, I have to warn you that the book which follows does not follow a path," she writes in the prologue. "When I say story -- I mean stories of my life. And when I say stories I'm afraid I mean flashes -- this -- that -- no no the other thing."

Excuses, excuses. Hard to read, too. Most of these flashes are tepid.

Long the recluse, Ms. Hepburn has scrupulously avoided discussing her private life. She rarely opens up here, even though she reportedly received $4.5 million for the autobiography. In these 418 pages, she does not get around to discussing her 27-year extramarital affair with Spencer Tracy until page 389! Where was the editor? "You may think you've waited a long time," she writes. This coyness is the worst kind of self-indulgence, not to mention bad storytelling.

Before Ms. Hepburn gets to describing the affair -- in a six-page chapter titled "Love" -- she has wasted 37 pages on screenwriter William Rose ("Guess Who's Coming to Dinner") and his Maserati. She has devoted 17 pages to the making of the 1979 TV movie "The Corn Is Green," stopping to offer a recipe for currant cake. She has dawdled for 10 excruciating pages on refurbishing a swamp bank with film director David Lean and other friends.

Ms. Hepburn mostly glides over her remarkable film career. Of her performance as drug-addicted Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," considered by many critics her greatest, she writes only five paragraphs, and they're of questionable insight. "It is a brilliantly written play, the character of the mother described with such sensitivity that it was an inspiration to do," she announces.

But then she makes no apologies for her slipshod reminiscing. "When I left Hollywood, I expected that I would remember most of the pictures and the people who were in them. Well, the fact is, I don't -- I'm trying to, but I can't." At $25 a pop, with a stratospheric 500,000 books in the first printing, "Me" should not be making excuses.

Unfortunately, "Me" is just another anecdote-packed scrapbook from one of Hollywood's seminal figures. From Katharine Hepburn, the very finest of film actresses, the model of the independent woman, you expect more.

She escaped labeling as "box-office poison" in the late '30s. She resurrected her career with "The Philadelphia Story," first on Broadway and later with the classic 1940 film version. She has been a star seven decades and won a record four Oscars. In American film, she was not just Woman of the Year but Woman of the Century.

Interestingly, the most revealing passages retrace her failures. When Ms. Hepburn steps down from the pedestal, she drops the grande dame facade and becomes approachable

-- and much more interesting.

Her only marriage, to Ludlow Ogden Smith, a prominent Philadelphian, ended because she was "an absolute pig." She writes: "My aim was ME ME ME." She even persuaded her husband to change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow so she wouldn't be known as Kate Smith.

"The Lake," a notorious stage flop in the early '30s, taught her perseverance. After the disastrous opening, in which she gave "a totally nothing performance," she had to learn how to be a star. "My dignity returned. I stopped making excuses. And I began to try to look at myself as the leader of a group. Not a poor little thing who was trying her best and had been mistreated."

Her love affair with Howard Hughes didn't last because they were too similar. "We each had a wild desire to be famous," she writes. "I think that this was a dominant character failing. People who want to be famous are really loners. Or they should be."

Although Ms. Hepburn writes poignantly of Tracy's death, she refuses to delve into their affair. She calls him "as complicated as a human being could be" and spends just a couple of paragraphs on his drinking problems.

And she is always thanking people ("Dear Luddy, thank you," "Thank you, George Cukor, dear friend, it was lovely," "What wonderful examples our parents!") and rattling on about her luck. Unlucky us.

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