Episode 42 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne star in The African Queen 2: This Time it's a Western!
Growing old in Hollywood sucks. To borrow a line from Goldie Hawn, “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, district attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy.” And while Hollywood’s ageism is well-documented and well-criticized, for some aging actors, an equally tricky problem can arise: the trouble with becoming a Legend in your own time. What happens when the legend eclipses the actor?
In 1975, Hepburn was arguably more popular than she’d ever been. This was due in no small part to her friend Garson Kanin’s unauthorized, best-selling 1972 “tell all” entitled Tracy And Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir. Though shocked by the invasion of her privacy, Kate used the public interest that the book generated to fuel her career, appearing on talk shows and even the 1974 Academy Awards (in pants, of course). As a result, in the 1970s, while Bette Davis was taking guest roles, Joan Crawford had retired, and Barbara Stanwyck "slummed" it in TV, Katharine Hepburn was as prolific as she’d ever been, starring in seven movies total. However, her popularity came at cost. Kate became in effect the curator of her own legacy, more valuable as a symbol of the past than as a well-respected thespian in the present.
Certainly, it was Katharine Hepburn the Legend that director Stuart Millar and producer Hal B. Wallis had in mind when they paired her with John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn. Five years after Wayne won his Academy Award for True Grit, Wallis’s wife Martha Hyer penned a sequel designed to play to its two stars’ greatest strengths: take the American Odyssey outline for True Grit, fill it with details from The African Queen (including more white water rapids), add a few pounds of nitroglycerin and some extra genre cliches about the death of the American West, and voila! Rooster Cogburn is born.
Westerns, Oscars, and a comparison Meryl Streep after the jump.