Katharine Hepburn – The Making of the African Queen

Honorary Allnut Fix:

Don’t be fooled by the title – the only person responsible for Hepburn’s near-loss of sanity was John Huston. If Hepburn’s to be believed, the least important components of this film for Huston were, in order: The script, the wardrobes, and the actors.

Written as a polished version of a private journal (although how polished can it be when it regularly references vomiting and bowel movements), The Making of the African Queen is an incredibly insightful look behind the scenes of one of Hollywood’s greatest films.

Yes, if this memoir was restricted to only Hepburn’s anal retentive observations about the quality of life while living in Africa and working with John Huston, we might be left to believe that this was the most miserable period of her life. Hepburn’s charm though, comes with her ability to immediately poke holes in her own ego and readily admit when her fellow collaborators were in the right despite their own peculiar attributes and tendencies.

Filled with glorious black and white photos from Hepburn’s own collection and well known studio stills, The Making of the African Queen is an incredible chronicle of Hepburn’s fascinating working relationship with Director Huston as she learns to cope with, and appreciate, the eccentric auteur’s unique lust for life and occasionally confusing style of directing.

Hepburn badgers him endlessly about the script. (Who needs a finalized script until filming begins, right?) She fussily cares for him along the way like a three-way cross between a beleaguered sister, a frustrated wife, and a devoted assistant. (Hepburn fixes the buttons on the fly of his pants, accompanies him on an elephant hunting excursion, and dutifully joins in to help the cast and crew resurrect The African Queen after the ship sinks to the bottom of the river.) And in the book’s most telling moments, Hepburn reveals Huston’s brilliant, blunt, and simple style of direction that led to some of her most famous scenes from the film. (Yes, he cruelly made her mourn the loss of her film brother for an extended prank, but the “stiff upper lip” direction formed 95% of what makes Hepburn’s acting great here!)

What about Bogie? Well, he’s around. Bacall was on the trip, so they were often off doing their own thing while Hepburn was exploring Africa. Hepburn though, treats Bogart more like a minor character in the book. She loves his acting and professionalism. She enjoyed his endless needling off-screen and learned to respect him as a private man who had a hard time letting people into his inner circle. And in the end, she couldn’t have been happier to support him in his much deserved Oscar win for the role of Charlie Allnut.

What one will take away the most from this book is Hepburn’s dedication to her craft and her determination to make sure that she gave this film her very best. Whether she’s carefully pouring over the script to make sure it feels authentic, or lugging a full length mirror through the jungle to make sure her wardrobe and hair are the best that they can be, we see an actress that is willing to give her all for a role – even if that means acting through a severe case of the runs and losing 20 pounds in the process.

And did I mention the pictures?

The behind-the-scene moments portrayed are priceless, and the double page spreads are worth the price of this book alone. Even at her physical worst, Hepburn is so stunningly G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S.

If you’re a fan of Hepburn, Bogart, Huston, or The African Queen, this one’s definitely worth a read. To close, I’ll leave you with perhaps one of the most satisfying bits from Hepburn after the whole adventure had wrapped:

“Now, what do you suppose ever happened to Charlie and Rose? Where did they live? Did they stay in Africa? I always thought they must have. And lots of little Charlies and Rosies. And live happily ever after. Because that’s what we wanted them to do. And every summer they take a trip in the old Queen – and laugh and laugh and laugh and laugh. . .” 

I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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