Two items on my newsfeed draw my attention: Ellen Page's decision to come out as a lesbian, saying she was "tired of hiding and... lying by omission" and expressing hope she could "make a difference," and the announcement of a film called Tracy and Hepburn by Permut Presentations, to be based on a script by David Rambo about "the long love affair between the screen legends Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn." At first glance, two unrelated items. But not really. They are the two sides of the door of the Hollywood closet.
Let's be clear about one thing: a film about Katharine Hepburn is an excellent idea. She was one of the most fascinating, complex stars ever to grace a motion picture screen, and she deserves a full-scale, big-screen biographical treatment. But let's be clear about something else as well: Any movie about Hepburn's life needs to show the reasons why she was so fascinating and complex, reasons that have everything to do with how she blurred the lines of gender and blazed a trail for freedom of expression and sexual liberation long before Ellen Page, who resembles her so much in spirit and courage, was ever born.
As I wrote in my 2006 biography, Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, this quirky, defiant hoyden was unlike anything Hollywood had seen before. Demolishing fussy male egos in Holiday and Bringing Up Baby and giddily waving goodbye to conventional expectations of love and romance at the end of Summertime, Hepburn was a maverick off screen as well. She once told Barbara Walters that she'd "put on pants 50 years ago and declared a sort of middle road." In her more thoughtful moments, Hepburn, who loved both men and women, but found her most complete fulfillment with women, challenged others to do what she had done: aim for love that was "more than ordinary."
Tracy and Hepburn, if it's to be an honest account of Hepburn's life, cannot be like Night and Day, Lawrence of Arabia, Valentino, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or even The Aviator (and so many others), where same-sex identities or relationships are marginalized or "straightened out" for public consumption. I haven't read the script, so I can't say if Tracy and Hepburn will be "more than ordinary." But I don't have great hopes for a film that declares its raison d'être to be Hepburn's "long love affair" with Tracy -- a description that can only be accurate if we acknowledge that love affairs can exist between friends and don't need to be sexual. The press release goes on to say, "They were madly in love off screen. [Their] love affair was an open secret in Hollywood" -- sounding rather like Photoplay promoting the latest screen heartthrobs, circa 1945.
It's true that Hepburn loved Tracy (just how much he loved her in return has never been clear), and it's true that she took care of him selflessly at the end of his life. But to call them "madly in love" makes them sound like Romeo and Juliet instead of the devoted and sometimes emotionally enmeshed friends they were. If there was "an open secret" in Hollywood it wasn't their friendship. It was the fact that Hepburn was romantically involved with a series of women and Tracy was a regular client of filmdom's "male madam" Scotty Bowers.
If we can call the relationship with Tracy a love affair, then Hepburn's much-longer relationships with Laura Harding and Phyllis Wilbourne must also count as love affairs (especially since, at least with Harding, there almost certainly was sex.) Filmmakers can, of course, make a film about any aspect of their subjects' lives they choose, but to elevate Tracy while leaving out Harding and Wilbourne (and Scotty Bowers), the filmmakers risk obscuring reality and perpetuating the closet, which seems very much against the zeitgeist of 2014, where a young actress like Ellen Page can stand up and speak her truth.
Yet, sadly, the announcement for the Rambo film reads as if it's missed everything that's happened in the last decade. It contains the same banalities Hepburn pushed in her myth-spinning old age, promulgated more recently by John Dayton, the producer of Hepburn's last television movies and a backer of the proposed film, in his two-act play Spence and Me. (It's interesting to note that when Hepburn herself wrote an autobiographical play, she called it Me and Phyllis.) But there is so much more richness and nuance to be tapped from Hepburn's life, which I discovered going through literally thousands of her letters; interviewing dozens of her friends; researching her many relationships and friendships with non-heterosexual women, which besides Harding and Wilbourne included actress Susan Steell, film editor Jane Loring, and Maie Casey, the wife of the Australian ambassador to the United States; examining her relationships with men, from poet Phelps Putnam to director John Ford to aviator Howard Hughes and of course to Tracy, all of whom were sexually conflicted to some degree; and standing back far enough to get a big-picture view of her life. The old bromides just don't tell the full story and miss all the most interesting parts.
Here's what's interesting about Katharine Hepburn: she was born a girl but identified as a boy so she shaved her head and rechristened herself Jimmy. Excelling his brothers in athletics, Jimmy could never get his father (or anyone else) to notice him simply because he had the wrong genitals. That set Jimmy off on a course seeking attention and affirmation for the rest of his life, and if the only way he could make that happen was to grow in his hair and put on a dress, he'd do it.
When Kate Hepburn arrived in Hollywood in 1932, she brought along with her the heiress Laura Harding, who friends called "the great love of her life." She also brought along a fair share of East Coast entitlement, believing herself immune to the rules that governed other stars. Living openly with Laura, Hepburn wore men's trousers and eschewed studio-engineered romances, while airing unfashionably left-wing opinions -- all of which scandalized the fan magazines. Meanwhile, she made movies that inverted gender expectations and dared to challenge the status quo between men and women (sort of like Ellen Page in her screen roles). In Christopher Strong, Little Women, Alice Adams, Sylvia Scarlett, A Woman Rebels, Holiday, Bringing Up Baby and others, she is in the driver's seat, not her male costars. She chases Cary Grant, not the other way around. She saves the day, not some obligatory male hero.
But Depression-era audiences weren't in the mood for bossy females. Eventually Hepburn found herself labeled box office poison. She came to realize that she'd have to make some compromises if she wanted fame and adulation, just as Jimmy had done when he'd grown in his hair.
And so Laura was banished and a publicity romance was hatched up for Hepburn with her agent, Leland Hayward. Thus began her metamorphosis from tomboy to glamour girl, from subversive to perpetual honoree. Remaking herself as a classic movie star, Hepburn had Philip Barry tailor The Philadelphia Story for her so she might, as spoiled rich girl Tracy Lord, be brought down a few pegs for all her previous "uppity female" behavior. Then she found box-office gold -- and American sainthood -- starring opposite Spencer Tracy in a series of films in which she was ostensibly his equal, but also forced to submit to him in some way, even getting spanked by him in State of the Union. But at last, Hepburn had the acclaim she had always wanted, ever since her father had refused to applaud Jimmy's dives off the family pier.
Three decades later, the legend of Tracy and Hepburn was officially carved into stone by the screenwriter of all those successful Tracy and Hepburn pictures, Garson Kanin. In a best-selling tome called (what else?) Tracy and Hepburn, Kanin turned the on-screen costars into an off-screen couple as well, layering lots of celluloid moments onto their supposed real-life relationship but leaving out all the parts where Spence sought out Scotty Bowers or Kate trekked off with such lesbian pals as Fran Rich or Pat Jarratt to places like Arizona or Australia. Although Hepburn initially disapproved of Kanin's book, she eventually came around to using the mythology of Tracy and Hepburn (how interesting that the proposed Rambo film has the same name) as a blueprint for her own late-in-life, rose-colored memoirs. She had come to the conclusion that her legend was better served by tales of conventional love and sacrifice rather than by more complicated stories of gender bending, same-sex desire and charting middle roads.
In addition to Hepburn, I've written about two other great ladies, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Streisand. Fervent fan bases keep the candles burning for all three. The Taylor and Streisand fans have been open-minded and interested to hear where the real story diverges from the narrative laid down by their heroines, understanding that legend often bends the truth. But a vocal minority of Hepburn fans has not been pleased with my challenge to their mythology. I've been called a liar and a cheat. I've been accused of having an "agenda" because I'm gay. I expect these same people will be back again when they read this, brandishing their torches and pitchforks.
Janet Maslin, in her New York Times review of my book, said I'd written the "real-life version of one of America's favorite fairy tales." That's the point. Fairy tales don't cut it anymore. It's not 1945 and Photoplay has been replaced by TMZ. In 2014, we understand and embrace fuller, more nuanced stories of relationships. We don't need anymore fake Hollywood romances, especially ones that were concocted to neutralize (and neuter) a woman's strength, identity and independence, which the Tracy-Hepburn "romance" ultimately does. Here's how the story always begins. The two meet on the MGM lot. Tracy is surprised by how tall Hepburn is. "Don't worry," someone tells him. "You'll soon cut her down to size." Let me be as clear as I can. No one ever cut Katharine Hepburn down to size. And it's time we stopped pretending someone did.
Here's an idea for an interesting movie (maybe starring Ellen Page): Show how Hepburn's drive for fame meant she would spend her life struggling between the demands of "the creature" (what she called her public image) and the more bohemian, unconventional relationships to which she was drawn. What would resonate for film audiences today are the ways in which Hepburn was forced to invent a role for the kind of woman she was -- her own kind. Sex, love and relationships were only the beginnings of the things she had to learn, remake and often reject.
It's taken more than a century to see Hepburn in all her complexity, and my hope is that we don't spend any more time on myths that wore out their usefulness a long time ago. Just because Hepburn succumbed to the temptations of the status quo doesn't mean we should, too. In fact, we owe it to her -- to Jimmy -- not to do so.
The limited fictions used to sell the lives of public figures often form a cloudy chiaroscuro that covers their true humanity. Too often, our public figures remain wrapped in unchallenged "truths," the cheap garments of hacks and press agents who keep their wayward charges safely moored to the boundaries of convention. But this gives only a partial glimpse into Hepburn's life, and a distorted one at that. Only the whole truth can do credit to what she did with the actual challenges she faced. The real Hepburn makes the fairy tale version seem like a bore.
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more