October 12, 2004

Massive Hepburn Archive a Revelation

Once upon a time, 1974 to be exact, a national magazine of note ran a contest in which Katharine Hepburn was declared the champ and was asked to accept her prize in person.

Big mistake. She refused, of course, which apparently caused a major kerfuffle ("How do we explain this?") despite the fact the great Kate was already well known to slavishly avoid premieres, publicity junkets and, especially, events where prizes are dispensed. (It's worth noting that despite her appreciation of the Oscars, she never attended any of the 12 times she was a nominee, thus wasn't present any of the four times she won.)

In 1974, her saying no to the magazine prompted a classic Hepburn retort that is part of the more than 100 boxes of rare letters, memos, telegrams and other treasures that the Hepburn estate has given to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to guard, catalog and eventually make available to scholars.

Wrote Hepburn: "I am sorry I have caused a commotion, but I do think that awards of almost every sort are being used as a means of advertising -- the winner the victim, rather than the honored one. In this case Clairol backs the event, reaps the publicity. Ladies Home Journal runs the contest, dramatizes the importance, corrals the desirable victims, exhibits them (free of charge) doing their thing on a national hookup, reaps the publicity. Now, some of the victims may like it because it publicizes a pet project. Others, like me, look upon it exactly what it is: false -- blown up into a big to-do, but false. At this rate, any honor in this country will become suspect. Sell, Sell. Hence my attitude. (Signed) Katharine Hepburn. P.S. Just ask the victims whether they care to be part of such a scheme. Then people who feel as I do won't be forced to behave like pigs."

It is, indeed, classic Hepburn -- pithy, to the point, unvarnished and, many will agree, true on all points. The letter is but a minuscule part of the enormous Hepburn archive that was previewed to guests last Thursday at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, with those four Oscars she received (for work in 1932-33, '67, '68 and '81) visiting as well, all of it a feast for the eyes (gorgeous posters and family photos and remarkable portraits by George Hurrell, Clarence Bull, etc., along with annotated scripts, press books and magazines bearing Hepburn covers) and the senses (telegrams sent by everyone from Harpo Marx and Myrna Loy to Spencer Tracy and Howard Hughes).

One would need an extra lifetime to be able to properly absorb it all; the Academy's esteemed archivists assure me that what was shown Thursday is but a tiny sampling of what the collection encompasses.

The following night the salute continued at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills with a panel of Hepburn friends, co-workers, confidants (Fay Kanin, Mark Rydell, Michael Feinstein, James Prideaux and K.H.'s niece Katharine Houghton) discussing the remarkable lady, climaxed by a screening of a newly restored print of Hepburn's 1955 David Lean-directed "Summertime."

All this launches a four-week, eight-film retrospective of Hepburn films at the Academy's new 300-seat Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood, and if you live in Los Angeles, nothing should keep you away. Great films, great star, great setting. For movie devotees, who could ask for anything more?

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