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Katharine Hepburn made The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969) during a time of transition in her life, and if it's hardly one of her best films, it's notable both for its varied cast of old-timers - which includes Paul Henreid, Dame Edith Evans and Charles Boyer - and for its efforts, however clumsy, to take older material and make it topical. Madwoman is an adaptation of the 1943 satire by French playwright Jean Giraudoux. John Huston had been hoping to make a film adaptation of the play since the 1950s - he had originally intended Greta Garbo to star - and finally, in 1968, producer Ely Landau signed him on to direct a film version. It was Huston's involvement that got Hepburn interested in the role in the first place: Her longtime partner Spencer Tracy had died the previous year, leaving her listless and grief-stricken. Unfortunately, Huston was pulled off the film rather suddenly even before it started shooting: He and Ely had a disagreement over the script, Huston balking at the idea of making the play contemporary. But Hepburn was persuaded to stay with the project and work with its new director, Bryan Forbes.
That was perhaps a mixed blessing: The performance isn't one of Hepburn's strongest, but there's a touching, vulnerable quality to it, at least slightly reflective of her own fragility at the time - and Hepburn is hardly an actress we think of as fragile. She plays the "madwoman" of the title, Countess Aurelia, a woman who drifts through life in late-1960s Paris as if it were still 1919. She carries a parasol and wears oversized picture hats swathed with tulle veiling. And though she's an oddity, the locals accept her warmly: She's a model of civility in an increasingly uncivil world, one that stands to become even more so when a group of powerful men, moneygrubbers and warmongers among them, plot to destroy Paris in the belief that it's sitting on land rich in oil. Aurelia catches wind of the plot and with the help of her local citizens (played by the likes of Edith Evans and Danny Thomas) vows to stop all the madness and greed.
That means Aurelia needs to face off against a group including a ruthless financier (Boyer), a bloodthirsty general (Henreid), a power-hungry Communist (Oskar Homolka), a trickster evangelist priest (John Gavin) and the man who has called them all to the table, the ringleader known as "the Chairman" (Yul Brynner). Also enfolded in the proceedings are an idealistic young man (Richard Chamberlain) and a lonely, beautiful caf waitress (Nanette Newman).
Hepburn herself hesitated to accept the role. She balked after reading the script, citing the material's heady philosophical themes and telling Landau, "Oh no. What's all this about? I'm a simple, nice person. I like to make Christmas wreaths, sweep floors. I don't understand all this complicated stuff. I'm rather like my sister [Peggy] who's a farmer and says that the most difficult thing she likes to attempt is carrying two pails of milk over a fence!"
But Hepburn changed her tune, partly because she trusted Landau (who had produced the 1962 Long Day's Journey into Night). She accepted the role, she claimed, "in order to better understand what [the play] was all about." And she was happy to dive into a busy work schedule. As it turned out, just after she had agreed to star in Madwoman, another picture in which she'd signed on to appear, The Lion in Winter (1968), received financing and was to begin filming in a few weeks. Landau agreed to postpone the shooting of Madwoman until Hepburn was free. The two films would be shot in Europe -- Lion in Wales and France, Madwoman in France - and Hepburn thought the change of setting would do her good.
And so, immediately after shooting on The Lion in Winter ended, Hepburn showed up at Studios de la Victorine in Nice, moving into a grand old house on St. Jean-Cap-Ferrat. Her home overlooked the Mediterranean, and she swam daily and also rode her bicycle: Though Tracy hadn't left her much in the way of personal possessions, she did have a beat-up old red sweater that used to belong to him, which she'd pull on over a pair of old trousers and tennis shoes, her typical costume for pedaling around the village. Her other habits included smoking (which she had previously quit for a time) and heading to bed by 8:30, whether she was due on the set the next morning or not. Dame Edith Evans warned her that it seemed she was sleeping her life away. "It's true," Hepburn replied. "I don't go out much. But when I do, I decide I don't miss much."
It was while Hepburn was in Nice filming Madwoman that she learned she'd won the Oscar® for her role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). She made a statement claiming that she considered the award a joint honor for herself and Tracy. Unfortunately, her role in Madwoman was not as rapturously received. In the New York Times, Vincent Canby carped about the "spectacle of Katharine Hepburn . . . gently clenching her perfect teeth, looking into the middle distance and weeping through her tears."
Hepburn had not been reviewed so negatively in years, and while The Madwoman of Chaillot may not have been her finest hour, the story was perhaps more palatable to French audiences than to American ones. "The ending of Madwoman was acceptable for the French," she later said, "who saw the play existentially and metaphorically. American audiences were more literal. They saw my character as a murderess, and her behavior not endearing, not acceptable." She also offered a winking explanation of her reasons for taking the role in the first place, a role that took her away from her personal troubles and also gave her a change of scenery from Fenwick, her home in Connecticut: "People ask me why I accepted such a part. Well, why not?" she said. "I'm already the Madwoman of Fenwick."
Producer: Ely A. Landau
Director: Bryan Forbes
Screenplay: Edward Anhalt (writer); Maurice Valency (adaptation); Jean Giraudoux (play)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey, Claude Renoir
Art Direction: Georges Petitot
Music: Michael J. Lewis
Film Editing: Roger Dwyre
Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Countess Aurelia), Paul Henreid (The General), Oskar Homolka (The Commissar), Yul Brynner (The Chairman), Richard Chamberlain (Roderick), Edith Evans (Josephine), Donald Pleasence (The Prospector), Joellina Smadja (Prospector's girlfriend), Henri Virlojeux (The Peddler), John Gavin (The Reverend).
by Stephanie Zacharek
Barbara Leaming, Katharine Hepburn, Crown Publishers, 2004
Anne Edwards, A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn, William Morrow and Company, 1985
Charlotte Chandler, I Know Where I'm Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography, Simon & Schuster, 2010