It is 5 a.m., a morning so cold that first snow must be near. Cars move the cast and crew of Rooster Cogburn up into the pine forests of the Cascade range; then, an overland trek to a location so rugged that the usual portable toilets have not been brought in. Bushes serve.
It is the eighth week of shooting, and another 12-hour day is just beginning. But the two sexagenarian stars of the film—John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—have survived white-water raft rides, gallops across the desert and endless manhandling to emerge this morning, if possible, as fresh as when “Scene 1, Take 1” was called.
Wayne and Hepburn have never made a picture together before—though between them they have compiled 132 years of living, nine decades of filmmaking and almost 300 screen credits. In 47 years John Wayne has patented the image of the hard-to-anger but righteous Man of the West. For 42 years Hepburn has been honing her image as the feisty woman—but vulnerable to the right man—who will not be squelched.
Both of these screen images have been melded in Rooster Cogburn, which canny producer Hal Wallis created as a successor to the celebrated True Grit and to satisfy Hepburn’s 18-year desire to “star in a western with Wayne.” The Duke again limns the exploits of the one-eyed, whiskey-wallowing marshal that won him an Oscar. And Kate, herself a three-time Oscar recipient, plays Eula Goodnight, in essence the older sister of the snappish, spunky spinster she portrayed in The African Queen.
When shooting started their discreet sizing-up of each other was short-lived; soon he was calling her “Sister” and she was calling him “Duke.” And they were dazzling the rest of the company with their on-camera chemistry and their assertiveness off it. “When two great monsters get together and begin working things out,” Hepburn acknowledged with a smile, “it would be difficult for anyone.” They were hardly monsters in most eyes. Crewmen are notoriously hardbitten; yet one wrangler said, “I cut my income in half to come up here—I just wanted to be part of it.”
In between shots one day Duke was spinning a tall yarn. Hovering nearby, Kate—who once said “you shouldn’t be a doormat” and has lived by that credo—sported the grin of a cheerleader hanging on to a high school quarterback’s every word. Her smile, one crewman said, “takes 20 years off her face.”
When a magazine photographer began to shoot the two stars as they prepared a scene, Kate shifted almost imperceptibly so a shaft of sunlight beamed through the trees onto her face. Duke tugged on one of his ears. The conversation continued, but Kate was not to be upstaged: she casually picked up a Winchester and began to load it.
Later that day they relaxed in conversation; and their viewpoints were strangely resonant:
Kate: I think it’s the most minor of gifts.
Duke: All I want instinctively is for the average guy to want to be in my shoes.
Kate: The male sex, as a sex, does not universally appeal to me. I find the men today less manly; but a woman of my age is not in a position to know exactly how manly they are.
Duke: Everybody should do what’s fun, but it’s not a spectator sport.
Kate: Most of it is wild self-indulgence. The fact remains we’re like those salmon—you know, you either get up the river or you don’t.
Duke: I dive into cold water and everything looks a little different.
On each other—
Kate: He has confidence in himself, which gives him enormous charisma. He’s quick, he’s sensitive. He knows all the techniques. I think he’s an awfully good actor—and a terribly funny man. We laugh all day. What a goddamn fascinating personality!
Duke: I have never in my life worked with a woman who had the smell of drama that this woman has. She is so feminine—she’s a man’s woman.
It was late at night. Two or three more days of shooting remained. Hepburn, as usual, had been in bed since 8. Wayne, as usual, had a bottle of Commemorativo tequila in front of him. “Imagine,” he mused softly, “how she must have been at age 25 or 30…how lucky a man would have been to have found her.”