Hepburn: the once & future Queen

Best roles may lie ahead

She hasn’t won an Oscar in 20 years now, and you keep hearing these rumors that she’s washed up, that her best days are behind her.

Me, I don’t think so.

Box office poison, they said once, these same rumor guys. They should forever be condemned to attending all future meetings of the Beverly Hills branch of the Flat Earth Society.

I mean, what does a kid have to do to convince you that talent’s legit? OK, you can argue she didn’t win her first Oscar until she was already in her mid-20s, but some performers start slow. And yes, it’s been a while since that breakthrough: 68 years and counting. (FDR was halfway through his first term, if you want to get historical about it.)

But I’ve just spent a weekend watching a little of her work, and this is what I think: Not only is she the greatest female actress in the history of film, you could make a case that the lady’s actually underrated.

Most people give her the comedies. Sure, they’ll admit, the fun stuff was tops. And no movie ever had three legends like “Philadelphia Story,” with her sharing time with Stewart and Grant. And yes, no duo ever touched her romantic-comedy work with Tracy, but so what, that’s just comedy. (Dying is easy, comedy is hard, don’t forget that. Never forget that.)

Double treat

Well, I just watched two pics where she didn’t get the Award. The first was “The African Queen,” and the British have a term they use for two-people casts: “double hander.” Well, this is the most glorious double hander ever. (They’re alone on the Queen for what I’d guess is 90% of the movie, so maybe I’m using the term wrong, sue me.)

Watching Bogart and Hepburn begin as this insanely mismatched duo, watching them inch toward each other through leeches and rapids and Germans and storms — well you sit there and what you wonder is this: How do they do it?

And why, oh why, was this their only pairing? How great for us if they’d whipsawed each other through half a dozen other adventures.

Before talking about the second pic, “Suddenly Last Summer,” a few words about movies and stars.

Studio’s need stars, that we know. And sure, stars all need a break to get into the clear, but those that stay famous aren’t lucky — they’re gifted and shrewd as well. And they can be wonderful.

But they also limit the material that gets made, because they insist on only playing perfect people.

And if they do consent to having a flaw, they insist on doing this: winking at the camera. Reminding us that they are now and forever the glorious creatures we imagine them to be.

‘Summer’ chills

Well, in “Suddenly Last Summer,” our lady plays a monster. No only has she destroyed her homosexual son, she is determined to have her revenge on the woman who took him away from her. How? Oh, just by lobotomizing her. (Young Liz, great.)

No winks here, folks, not a one. We are watching Medea. And seeing this performance on top of her work with Bogie on the boat, you think this again: How does she do it?

Wish I knew. Probably she doesn’t either.

There is an Olivier story (who knows if it’s true or not): During his phenomenal run as Othello, one night he was beyond great, so Maggie Smith, his Desdemona, knocked on his dressing room door afterward. He said come in and she did, only to find him in despair, staring at the wall, a tumbler of whisky in one hand. “It was magical tonight,” Dame Maggie said. To which the great man replied, “Thank you, I know it was, but I don’t know how I did it.”

The legends are always shrouded in mystery. There have been newspaper stories of late claiming Miss Hepburn was under the weather.

Me, I don’t think so. I prefer to think she’s just been in training, getting back in shape, fussing with her greasepaint. My God, there are still all those roles she hasn’t played…