Taraji P. Henson, a great character actress, finally got her fame for playing Cookie Lyon. The basis of Cookie and the show she’s in, Empire, are, respectively, Eleanor of Aquitaine and The Lion in Winter that starred Katharine Hepburn as that movie’s jailbird queen. Sure, Cookie Lyon is feisty. But wait until you see and hear Eleanor trading barbs against her husband, Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole). The kicker is when she reveals all the ways she had sex with his dead dad Geoffrey. And here I was, questioning her ‘fearlessness’. I’m not sure if all roads and all strong leading ladies lead to Katharine Hepburn, but many of them do.
You can watch that great scene, sorry for the spoilers, and many more featuring Hepburn in TIFF’s new retrospective of her work that they entitled “Fearless”. And it applies to her despite Hollywood’s attempts to typecast her. She played the game by taking the roles that the studios wanted her to play. Hollywood back then had little imagination. She has familial connections to the British Royal Family and is a member of the New England upper crust. So she got roles that reflected her silver spoon upbringing. But they willfully ignored the rebellious side of her ancestry. A daughter of a suffragette, she made sure that her socialite roles had nuances. And that they had qualities that reflected her outspoken nature and acting ability.
Hepburn was also in the list of actresses that industry publications back then considered box office poison. In showing her films, this retrospective rights that part of her career. Calling her an ‘indie queen’ would be reductive. That said, she made adaptations of stage plays while other actresses made profitable fluff that paid for such prestige films. She could and did take risks in the projects she chose. She plays Tracy Samantha Lord in both the Broadway and cinematic versions of The Philadelphia Story. That’s a play depicting both the romantic misadventures and the occasional alcoholism of the upper class. Surprisingly, that portrayal of ambiguous morality worked, even for audiences who worried about many things like another war in Europe.
TIFF’s new retrospective is a way of seeing Hepburn’s great work on the big screen, which is a nice way of saying that they’re showing movies I’ve seen before. The only film that I haven’t taken off the bucket list yet is Adam’s Rib, which has that scene of Hepburn pleading women’s rights to a court of law. It’s nice to have a head start so I can write these pieces and know what I’m talking about, but this retrospective could have used some of her obscure films. Even their decision to not show her work after 1968 feels both fair and reductive. I long for the deep cuts like the ones they showed in the Joan Crawford retrospective.
Some like yours truly can whine about not being able to see Long Day’s Journey into Night, but in the end, the retrospective is not for party poopers. Come to TIFF if you want to watch The African Queen which is just as funny or funnier than the Chris Rock joke about it. Watch Little Women, one of the few films where Hepburn became the strong willed muse for the stylish George Cukor. Watching it is a good way to prep for Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel. Those are just the few classics TIFF are showing to remind us why Katharine Hepburn is Old Hollywood’s most fearless actress.