Thursday, October 13, 2011

ARCHIVED REVIEW: The Making of the African Queen or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston, and almost lost my mind (9/17/11)

The Making of the African Queen 
or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston, and almost lost my mind
By Katherine Hepburn

"I remember observing one thing that struck me very powerfully. I would look serious or worried or trying to be sympathetic-- or solemn. And I would recieve back an absolutely impenetrable expression. A wall. But if I smiled or laughed, he did too. The universal language. This amazed me. I would have thought that tears were the things which bound us together, but no-- smiles, laughter-- and they warmed up immediately. Understand my ridiculous self-- thank you-- yes. We are rediculous, aren't we-- black-- white-- yellow? If we couldn't have some laughter we would crumble. Color be damned, We must laugh together."

This is Katherine Hepburn's first book, and she doesn't give a fuck. She writes how she wants to write and does not care about any rules or style but her own. She writes how you expect her to speak, very stoccato, with trails of sentence fragments, often separated by dashes. She will describe a room by listing nouns: "Heat-- hotel-- French-speaking Belgians-- no panes of glass in windows-- porches-- high ceilings-- blinds-- mosquito nets over the beds-- painted cement floors-- dark, spare bathroom-- watch the bugs-- watch the water-- thoughtful people-- took care of us afternoon and evening." For the most part, a coherent picture emerges, but sometimes you loose your place, or can't make the leap from one of her thoughts to another. But she is unapologetic: this is Africa as she experienced it.

It is Hepburn at her most Hepburnish: brash, bold, strangely and specifically neurotic (she can't go to the bathroom when others are nearby), and often quietly vulnerable. I was rather shocked at her selfishness (kicking the studio accountant out of his room because his room was better than hers), but she openly acknowledges that it was a mean move on her part, in retrospect.

She paints a loving portrait of Bogart, Lauren Bacall and John Huston, and their adventures filming the African Queen, faced with shipwreck, disease, and poor conditions.

Her views of the native Africans are jarring, though typical for the times. She is fascinated by their quaint ways, and can't really tell one from the other until she becomes friendly with her "boy" (the native assigned to wait on her). Even then, she holds him at a distance, not quite on the level of the white settlers, but special to her.

It is a fun, behind the scenes memoir, written by one of the most adventurous and authentic women of all time. It is not a great work of art, but it is honest, heartfelt, and unapologetic.

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