Few actors’ names are more synonymous with the Golden Age of Hollywood than Katharine Hepburn. Her looks, charm, and verve contributed to many, now classic films we return to time and time again. But who was Katharine Hepburn? A new documentary, “Call Me Kate,” currently streaming on Netflix, looks into the life of the screen and theater legend, and attempts, at least partially, to answer that question.
Directed by Lorna Tucker, the documentary offers previously undisclosed footage and recordings of Hepburn, seeking to cover ground not explored in other biographical efforts, and to delve deeper into Hepburn’s interior life. Tucker directs an exceptionally beautiful and aesthetically pleasing film. The cinematic atmosphere she creates parallels the story of Hepburn’s life, and the transitions between fictionalized scenes and the reality of Hepburn’s career and life are flawless.
Tucker clearly admires her subject, and treats her with utter respect. But on some level this is also the main flaw of the documentary, making it almost partisan.
We learn about Hepburn’s childhood: growing up in a family of progressive intellectuals, and her struggles with a cold and distant father and equally distant mother, who seemed more interested in suffragette causes than her children. Hepburn’s life changed completely when one of her brothers, Tom, committed suicide by hanging himself. There is some speculation as to whether her brother meant to kill himself or if he was actually attempting a stunt once described by their father. Either way, young Katharine was devastated, and her life was made even worse by the fact that both of her parents refused to speak of the suicide or of Tom ever again. It was as if he never existed, and one can only imagine what kind of emotional damage this did to Hepburn. But she kept going, suppressing those deep emotions, and trying to find her way in the world.
Indeed she found her way and through sheer determination, she succeeded. But how does one measure success? Was Hepburn aware of her hardness and a refusal to show any vulnerability? Most of her roles reflect this as well. Even when she is slightly and comically mad (as we see in Howard Hawks’ 1938 “Bringing Up Baby”), Hepburn is in control and gets what she wants. But this control also meant that she wasn’t willing to give up certain aspects of her life.
It would appear that the only place she allowed space for love and vulnerability was in her relationship with fellow actor Spencer Tracy with whom she was involved in an affair for almost 30 years. Their relationship was known in Hollywood but it was overlooked, including by Tracy’s wife and children. In “Call Me Kate,” we witness tender moments between Hepburn and Tracy. Through the interviews with Tracy’s and Hepburn’s family members, we encounter their opinions on the couple’s long standing relationship, and for the most part, there is an emotional distance that is unsurprising.
Part of the problem with “Call Me Kate” is that Hepburn is presented without any flaws or blemishes. She is a perfect woman, living in a man’s world, a progressive feminist, who fought for women’s rights, and found her own way of being. A filmmaker is certainly allowed to have admiration for his or her subject, but a healthy distance and some objectivity is needed in order to see the subject clearly and without the obstruction of some metaphorical mask.
It is as though Tucker is asking us to accept certain negative aspects of Hepburn’s personality by not really focusing on them, even brushing them off. She was notoriously difficult on the sets, and broke alliances and friendships based on politics. For example, she had a good friendship with the Reagans (especially Nancy), but she broke it off because of her differences with them in politics.
Hepburn is also presented in a way that divorces her from the time and place she lived in. Apparently she sacrificed much of her life for Spencer Tracy and had to carry the burden of his alcoholism, yet his well-known guilt over the affair with Hepburn is dismissed. (It is true that Tracy was an alcoholic long before he met or had a relationship with Hepburn.) She was a shrewd businesswoman but the truth is that she also learned most of those strategies early on from her agent. She funded some of her films and was uncompromising in her vision, but we learn that she couldn’t have done much of that without the hefty loan from Howard Hughes.
In other words, men who already were successful and were willing to help were a big part of her life. Instead, she is presented as a kind of Randian figure: a woman who made everything because of her own brilliance and alleged powers of decision. Without a doubt, Hepburn was an intelligent, bright, and charming woman. But the truth is we are relational beings, and although some have more fortitude than others, nothing is created in a vacuum or out of nothing. There are strands that bind us together, paths that are crossed, roads chosen or not chosen. Lorna Tucker made a documentary that captures the often ethereal and fluid beauty of Katharine Hepburn, but perhaps at the cost of making her into a marble goddess, a fate Hepburn’s character in “The Philadelphia Story” rightly came to understand as horrific. As charming and entertaining as Tucker’s take on Hepburn is, the filmmaker appears to have missed out an opportunity to show Hepburn’s humanity.