Intimate Portraits of Stars From Hollywood's Golden Age

From left, David Heeley, Joan Kramer and Robert Osborne during a taping for their show. JONAS PR

"Spencer had eyes like an old wild animal," said Katharine Hepburn, speaking of her 27-year relationship on- and off-screen with Spencer Tracy. "He had a soul that had no release; you were not looking into an empty room. He found acting easy and life difficult. He was like a baked potato. I, on the other hand am more like an ice-cream sundae with whipped cream."

While some might dispute the late star's self-assessment, her quote about her longtime lover and friend is revealing and the kind an interviewer generally gets only after winning the trust of a subject. The famously prickly Hepburn opened up to documentarians Joan Kramer and David Heeley only after she had reluctantly allowed them to make film about her in 1981. The duo had made their bones with a pair of biographies about Fred Astaire (one of which won an Emmy); Kramer had been a booker for the Dick Cavett Show and Heeley had come to New York from the BBC. They shared an interest in the great actors of Hollywood's golden age and in their book about the 18 biopics they produced together over the next 25 years (In the Company of Legends), they cheerfully admit they didn't know what they were getting into.

On Tuesday, April 7, Turner Classic Movies will show five of their biographies (James Stewart: A Wonderful Life; Spencer Tracy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn; Fonda on Fonda; Katharine Hepburn: All About Me; Bacall on Bogart), interspersed with introductions by them and TCM host Robert Osborne. Kramer and Heeley talked to Newsweek from their respective homes in New York City about getting past the legends.

Were you starstruck by your subjects at first?

Joan Kramer: Now that we've written the book we're sort of stunned that we worked with the people we worked with and they trusted us. We were certainly aware that we were dealing with big personalities, but you can't be cowed by them and I don't think we ever were. You're too busy. Got to get it done, and you've got to strike a certain balance between friendly and business-like.

Could you do that kind of film with stars of today?

JK: When we were producing those films, the bulk of [most of our stars'] film careers was prior to 1960. In the world of film clip residuals, 1960 was the cutoff date. Prior to 1960 you had to pay no residuals for the use of clips. You had to pay the distributors to acquire the clips but no residuals. We wouldn't have the budget to do Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks today; it would be millions of dollars.

David Heeley: The stars were inaccessible back then, their image was controlled by the studios. The publicity put out was often fake and often designed to protect those people. More than anything else, it was designed to protect the image of those people because the studios were making a fortune off those images. Today there is nobody to do that for you. We were great friends with Joanne Woodward and therefore knew Paul Newman quite well. Paul was very uncomfortable being a star in that respect. He said, "Some people just adore this, but for me it's difficult." Some people just bathe in the public limelight; he didn't.

You made a film about Fred Astaire without his cooperation thinking that as a public figure, you didn't need his blessing.

JK: We didn't know when we started productions that Fred had in his contract from the early '30s—he must have had very clever and far-seeing lawyers who put in his contract that [he] controlled excerpts from his films at a time when no one used excerpts from films. He's only one of three people we know about who had those kinds of '30s contracts, Myrna Loy and Cary Grant being the others.

Were you conscious of the clock ticking on some of your subjects?

DH: I don't think we ever thought that. The working title of the book was, So Who Are You Going to Do Next? After we did the Fred Astaire films [Puttin' on His Top Hat and Change Partners and Dance]—they were funded by PBS in Washington and were a big hit—stations around the country made a lot of money cause they all went out on pledge weeks—they would ask, "Who are you going to do next?" We were looking for the icons who were part of, for want of a better cliché, that golden era, that magic time in Hollywood.

Spencer Tracy was another one of those stars who was unhappy with celebrity.

DH: Spencer Tracy was remarkable. Of course we never met him; Kate was our proxy. We learned everything about Spencer from her, and we tried to read between the lines from time to time. But what an unlikely star! This man's not handsome; he doesn't have movie star looks. Why did he become a huge star? We tried to answer the question. He was one of the most respected movie actors. You could tell by talking to anybody; they weren't just being nice to Kate. They really respected this man. The story about Frank Sinatra climbing up a ladder to watch him at work [on the set at MGM], I don't know if it's true or not. But the concept is there. It's a great story; the image is wonderful.

They worked together on The Devil at Four O'Clock (1961) and when Sinatra asked Tracy for pointers he said, "Don't act...react."

DH: Tracy was a method actor, though he would never say that.

Katharine Hepburn looks over some notes. JONAS PR

Any examples of getting too close to the subjects to make your treatment balanced?

DH: Sometimes it's tricky when you're getting very close to the people involved. You don't want to offend them but you can't let that color how you tell the story. In the case of the Errol Flynn show we got very close to [his widow] Pat Wymore, who initially wouldn't talk to anybody about him. Joan got her on the phone and that was the end of that [laughs]. Joan can persuade anybody. At the end of the phone call she said, "Why don't you come down and visit me?" We were very close to Pat but we said Errol Flynn did not lead a life that was all hunky-dory. If we're going to really tell the truth, we risk offending Pat. We talked to her and she said, "Just tell the story straight." She knew who she was married to. So we did tell the story straight and she said, in the end, "Errol would have been so happy. Because yes of course we showed his flaws, but we also showed the world that he was a great actor."

Had Katharine Hepburn never been interviewed about her relationship with Tracy before?

DH: Everybody knew in Hollywood that she and Spencer Tracy were an item and yet [gossip columnist] Louella Parsons never said a word about it. If anyone interviewed [Kate] and raised the subject, that was the end of the interview. She told us one of the reasons why was to protect Mrs. [Louise] Tracy. She was supporting this clinic for deaf children because their son was deaf. And Kate said, "I'm never going to get in the way of that. That's very important work she's doing." It was only after Mrs. Tracy was no longer with us that Kate said, "Now I can talk about Spencer."

Was this after Garson Kanin wrote his book about their relationship?

DH: Garson Kanin was basically excommunicated when he wrote the book. She felt he had betrayed a private relationship, and she refused to talk to him again. When we were deciding who to have on the show, we decided we had to ask Kate about this. She said, "No, no he has to be on the program! Look at all the great movies he did with Spencer [Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike]. You have to ask Garson on the show." I called him, and he said, "I don't want to come on the show." But a few days later he called back and said, "Is that invitation still open? I think I'd like to say something." What happened after the show aired is that she invited Garson to dinner. But she said to us afterwards, "I'm not sure I trust him yet, because he's probably taking notes about everything."