In addition to being a great actress, Katharine Hepburn was one of the most beautiful women to appear on-screen; and nowhere else is she quite so beautiful as she is in Mary of Scotland, based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, where (following Helen Hayes, for whom the part had been written) she plays Scotland’s ill-fated Mary Stuart, for whom “Mary’s Comet” was named: the “falling star” that scarred the heavens when this rightful claimant to the throne of England was put to death by Elizabeth I, whose grip on power trumped the illegitimacy of her position. Elizabeth Tudor had her second cousin beheaded because Mary ruled “too close” to her own throne.
What explains Hepburn’s extra measure of beauty in this particular film? For starters, for whatever reason(s), the befreckled Hepburn never suffered the pastiness that bedeviled the appearances of some other actresses, Joan Crawford and Shirley MacLaine among them, whose freckles were buried under a blanket of white-out makeup; Hepburn, somehow, always looked natural, her makeup restrained, light, even. This could not have been the case; but it seemed to be. Beyond that, she was more beautiful than ever in this particular film because John Ford directed it. We all know that Ford was enraptured by her, infatuated; he believed he was deeply in love with her, and indeed he may have been. It makes an incredible difference when we watch an actress through a director’s adoring gaze—think Dietrich as envisioned by Sternberg (1930-1935); Stanwyck, with that glow that Capra gave her (1930-1933); Bette Davis as Julie in Wyler’s Jezebel (1938). In every view of her in Mary of Scotland, Kate Hepburn sets our hearts to racing and takes our breath away. She is as gorgeous here as Garbo or Elizabeth Taylor ever was.
Hepburn’s role arrived to her from the play already considerably softened; Anderson’s Mary Stuart is Elizabeth’s victim more than she is Elizabeth’s fierce opponent—and, of course, her own victim, too, for loving James Hepburn (a relation?), the Earl of Bothwell, whom she married: the last of her three husbands, and the one of them she did love. This marriage to a Protestant—Mary herself was Catholic—eroded the loyalty and support of Catholic subjects, who already felt threatened by the inroads made into Scotlandby John Knox and his loathsome Presbyterianism. Whatever the actual Mary’s designs on power, her motto in Anderson’s version might be, “Most for love.” In Ford’s version, which his feelings for Hepburn guided, this became “All for love.”
Indeed, Hepburn softened Mary beyond the softening that Andersonhad already applied. In the confrontation between Elizabeth and Mary in Mary’s prison chamber hours before her beheading (historically, a meeting that never took place), Elizabethpleads with Mary to renounce the English throne and thus spare her own life; Mary, however, will not budge. Instead, she taunts Elizabethwith a glimpse into the future: the “Virgin Queen” will have no heir, and Mary’s son, James, will succeed Elizabeth. In fact, Mary utters two lines of unmitigated taunt and vehement triumph: After referring to the fact that she (unlike Elizabeth) has known a woman’s love for a man, she crows, “Still I win [despite my execution]!” Even in such a line as this, Ford’s Hepburn doesn’t budge from her deepened softening of Mary, whose delivery registers more irony than malice or spite. Not for the last time, Hepburn—whose courage did not match that of Stanwyck or Bette Davis—held herself back from the abyss of a character’s grimmest or most convoluted aspect. Thus in Woman of the Year (George Stevens, 1942), the first of her films with Spencer Tracy, she more or less ignores the premise of the romance and, later, marital relationship, to wit, that her (again gorgeous, but calculatedly sexy) Tess Harding manages to enforce her own rules between them by seducing Sam Craig into silence whenever it seems she might not get her own way. Hepburn goes through the motions but never explores the grotesque implications of such contemptuous behavior. Likewise, in The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968), where she plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, when Eleanor instructs her son Richard to seduce his former lover, who happens to be the King of France (“Promise him anything”), for her own advantage in her quarrel with her spouse, England’s King Henry II, Hepburn betrays not the slightest sign that she grasps the line she is delivering, that she knows what she is asking Richard to do. Hepburn rarely courted unpleasantness in the roles she enacted, perhaps a lingering result of her youthful discovery of the body of her brother, whom she adored—an apparent suicide.
Whatever its “softening,” Hepburn’s Mary Stuart is among her greatest performances, perhaps surpassed in her filn career only by her dazzling, uproarious Susan in Howard Hawks’s darkest comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and her staggering, soul-shaking Queen Hecuba in Michael Cacoyannis’s film of Euripedes’ The Trojan Women (1971). Her Mary Stuart is a seamless blend of gracious personality, stirring characterization and intuitive insight. Not until John Huston’s The African Queen fifteen years (and nearly as many films) later would she be so convincing and compelling in a romantic role.
Ford was not pleased with this film, which tanked at the box office; since his relationship with Hepburn bit the dust (in later years Hepburn denied that the two of them had been lovers), Ford may have felt that he compromised its rich historical material in his pursuit of the radiant redhead. Although it is vastly superior to such Fords of the same period as Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and Four Men and a Prayer (1938), Mary of Scotland has taken a lot of hits over the years. No one can deny that Ford’s staging of its few “action scenes” is stagy and clumsy, and the purging of Anderson’s blank verse in Dudley Nichols’ adaptation was probably a mistake; nevertheless, this is an estimable work, mature, engrossing, very moving. Hepburn is nothing short of shattering, and Fredric March is robust and vulnerable as Bothwell—the film’s best performance. Douglas Walton is very good as Darnley, Mary’s namby-pamby weakling of a second husband (Mary and Bothwell, here, escape all suspicion of his murder) and, from the Broadway cast, Moroni Olsen is a hoot as that slimeball Knox, who, some may insist, loomed as a more credible figure than this film suggests. Ford may have been Hollywood’s foremost atheist, but the culture of Irish Catholicism was deep in him, regardless of the absence of his faith.
The final shot is strange and powerful: enrobed in early morning darkness, Mary/Kate ascends to the scaffold to meet her fate, the camera withdrawing and withdrawing to hold her image in the frame. No matter how quickly he wanted to get through with the shoot, John Ford couldn’t let this woman go.
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