Hepburn vs. Hepburn

A young drag queen goes from Audrey fan to Kate devotee.

Published October 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The telephone just rang. It was my friend Valerie, spurred on by some new observation she just had to share. It's nearly 2 in the morning, but does she care?

"Freak out, baby," she said, not even waiting for a hello. "Audrey Hepburn kicks Kate Hepburn's bony white ass. Her style soars! She's a Skyblazer! A Thunderbird! She Is My Queen!" And with those words she hung up.

She'd been watching "Funny Face" (1957), which I'd insisted she rent after learning she had never seen it. (Imagine that! A drag queen who had never seen "Funny Face"!) While I'm delighted by her enthusiasm for Audrey, her spiteful comment about Katharine, to whom I am eternally devoted, upsets me greatly. To take a jab at my most beloved heroine is to skewer my very heart.

Why did she do it? Revenge, probably. I think I touched a sore spot with her when I described the role Katharine Hepburn has played in my life. As I have explained to Valerie, it was when I discovered Katharine's films that I started to grow out of my Audrey phase. Katharine's fearless, quick-witted manner was a revelation to me. Her strength strengthened me and I became more self-reliant and courageous.

Katharine Hepburn made a man out of me.

Like Valerie, I too was once a young drag queen in love with Audrey Hepburn. I was drawn to her more than to any other figure in Hollywood. "Funny Face," where she plays a drab, boyish creature who's transformed into a supermodel, was the only film for me. The scene where she glides down the stairs before the Nike of Samothrace in a stunning red dress, chiffon "wings" trailing behind her, is masterful, uniting in just a matter of seconds 2,000 years of art, fashion and all the glory of feminine glamour. When I saw it, I knew my life would be forever changed, and it was.

Audrey played a pivotal role in my life. As a fashion student, trophy boy and sometime "escort" in San Francisco, I spent time between classes flitting through the department stores and chic boutiques of Union Square. Making it a point to peruse Tiffany's weekly, I thought of myself as a kind of male Holly Golightly. And I wasn't the only one who thought so. I acted like a princess and was treated like one. After about eight months of this, however, I was sick of acting coy to get what I wanted. I no longer wanted to be someone's prize, no matter how "golden." So I gave it up. I packed my Louis Vuitton bags, left my Nob Hill lover and set out on my own.

Audrey is a joy to look at, but watching Katharine's powerful physical presence on-screen is an invigorating experience. While Audrey pranced through Paris en pointe, a '50s Cinderella in Givenchy haute couture, Katharine Hepburn was an athlete who tramped around the globe like a fire horse in khakis and clogs. She was a force majeure, definite and swift in her movement. She never studied ballet, but she did move with a dancer's intelligence. She had, as one biographer remarked, an "oddity of gesture," performing the simplest of actions, such as picking up a glass, in unexpected, visually enticing, ways.

I've been talking with all sorts of people about Katharine and Audrey Hepburn these days. Writers. My mother. Even my masseur. I've been trying to understand why they are so popular. In recent months, two beautiful books celebrating the women and their individual styles have been published. In May it was "Audreystyle," by Pamela Clarke Keogh; it was followed this month by "Katharine Hepburn: A Stylish Life" by Joal Ryan. A movie about Audrey's life has just been made for ABC television. And in a Zogby/Reuter poll conducted this year, Americans selected Katharine as the greatest film actress of the century. Related through a distant ancestor, James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell (the third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots) Katharine and Audrey were kissing cousins in style who, in their own ways, helped create the look and feel of 20th century womanhood.

Of the two women, however, Audrey is the more widely copied. After the Second World War, Americans wanted nothing to do with exotic foreign creatures such as the dangerous Marlene Dietrich, whose dark, heavy wardrobe, all feathered and furred, harked back to an unfriendly time. Young Audrey in "Sabrina" (1954), wearing a white flower-embroidered organdy gown designed for her by Hubert de Givenchy, was fresh and light and totally pristine -- a springtime goddess. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) cemented the iconic Audrey look: the simple black dress, the big black sunglasses, the head scarf and the Tiffany jewels. Adopted by legions of women, including such fashion divas as Jackie O. and Sharon Stone, it's the style of the most sophisticated kind of woman. In the last 40 years, no other film has influenced fashion as much as "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Born and raised in Belgium, Audrey's father was a banker and her mother a baroness descended from a long line of aristocrats connected to the royal court of Holland. Audrey's parents nicknamed her "Princess," as if they knew she would be Hollywood royalty someday. In what must surely be a record, she wears a tiara in four films: "Roman Holiday" (1953), "War and Peace" (1956), "My Fair Lady" (1964) and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Audrey personified the idea of "everygirl" as princess.

My masseur, Jon, who also serves as my romantic advisor, spiritual guide and No. 1 gossip source, took this idea even further. "I have never met a woman without a princess fantasy," he said. "Some are engulfed by them."

Some men are too, I thought, but there's more to life than being a princess. For proof, just look at Katharine.

In films such as "Woman of the Year" (1942), "Adam's Rib" (1949) and "Desk Set" (1957), Katharine Hepburn is a lesson in leadership. She's commanding, competent and concise. When she announces at one point in "Woman of the Year" that she is quitting her job, Spencer Tracy cracks, "Oh, are you running for president?"

The first female president of the United States will be a Katharine Hepburn fan. Born at the outset of the 20th century, when women didn't even have the right to vote, Katharine was to become a role model for women everywhere, showing them how to take charge in a professional environment, and do so with style. Her mother, a leading suffragette who co-founded both Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters, was disappointed that her daughter chose a career as an actress, but her disapproval was poorly directed. Katharine's work made a lasting contribution to feminist ideals on an international scale.

Her clothing was not as chic as Audrey's, but she wore it well and always looked "smart" (a term which means little to people today). There doesn't seem to be an easily defined Katharine "look," as is made clear by perusing Ryan's new book, which lays out her entire life through photographs. She had the rare knack of being able to wear anything. She could put on a seductress gown or gardening gear and appear at ease in both.

There was even an element of transvestism in Katharine's work throughout her career, evident in films like "Christopher Strong" (1933), "Sylvia Scarlett" (1936) and "The Iron Petticoat" (1956). It's not surprising that when she decided to do Shakespeare, she took the cross-dressing role of Rosalind in "As You Like It." She acted in five Shakespearean plays, but it's of great regret to me that she was never cast as Julius Caesar. It would have been her greatest part.

If Audrey were to have done Shakespeare, it's doubtful she would have played a major role. Not Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra for her, but always the princess, always the good daughter. Even the lovesick Juliet may have been too dark for her. She simply lacked the gravity needed for an important dramatic role. A springtime figure, she would have been out of place in the bleak settings of tragedy.

In "The African Queen" (1951), Katharine fascinates us with her stoic resolve, her unyielding countenance and her determination -- but she also shows us her vulnerabilities, and we see that her strength is built upon pain.

When she was 13, Katharine discovered her beloved older brother, Tom, hanging dead from a rafter. Following his death, she took on his role as the eldest child in the family. "I sort of became two people instead of one," she once said, "a boy and a girl." In "The African Queen" she is again the woman forced to take on great responsibility following the death of an older brother.

Her English period costume of the 1910s becomes progressively ripped and soiled, and the more ragged her dress becomes, the more glorious she looks. She takes on a kind of rugged femininity that a city princess like Audrey would never be able to pull off. She is manlier than any man as a result.

Freak out, baby.

By Damion Matthews

Damion Matthews is the book editor at Look Online

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