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Katharine Hepburn's Au Courant "Affair"

NEW YORK Strange. In most movie love stories, the turning point takes place in a scene between the lovers. In "Love Affair," which is about how characters played by Warren Beatty and Annette Bening fall in love, it takes place in a scene between Bening and Katharine Hepburn.

Beatty is nowhere in sight. He and Bening have landed on Tahiti, for reasons too complicated to explain, after having fallen in love at first sight on an airplane. It happens that Beatty has an elderly aunt who lives on the island, and he takes Bening to meet her. Hepburn sees at once that this is the woman for her beloved nephew. And before she is finished serving tea to Bening, she has made the young woman see so, too. Beatty's whole future is decided while he's out of the room.

"Right!" Beatty said. "Hence my desperation to get Katharine Hepburn in the movie because Katharine represents something that can change you. Katharine Hepburn is somebody you believe. Nobody else could have brought that aura to the role."

You had to move heaven and earth to get her into the film?

"I had to send a lot of flowers."

She had a quality that you couldn't find in anyone else.

"That goes back with me; it's very emotional. It has something to do with my childhood or something. Some kind of impression she made on me early on. She's unique. She's the kind of woman you want to approve of any women you'd choose. She provides the imprimatur."

For Bening, who played the long and crucial scene opposite Hepburn, the first feeling was one of awe.

"It was a coincidence, but I had been asked to do 'Philadelphia Story,' and I was seriously thinking about it, but I felt a little bit intimidated; it's ummm, you know, a Katharine Hepburn part. A part that has a stamp on it. And she, I think, still feels ownership, as well she should. She said something like that to Warren about it."

Was it going to be a film?

"It possibly could have been. It originally was just for the stage."

And so, meeting her . . .

"Awe. She still has that thing. There's something that happens when they say "action," with certain people. Warren's one of them, De Niro's like that. There's this thing that happens, and I don't know what it is, but it's magical and of course that's what makes them larger than life on camera. They would say, "action" and she would just glow; the light emanated from her. That talent is still so present, and she's quite old."

She looks older, and smaller, here than I've ever noticed before.

"She does. And she is. Everything that comes with that is happening to her. And despite all of that, she's got this incredible thing where she's responding to the moment. I mean, just as an actor, she's so good; she's so spontaneous and real. And also, in a different way than modern actors, she's got a sense of language. She knows where to hit a word and how to hit a phrase and where her moments are. It all seems very instinctive; it is, I think.

"And also, she's still competitive. I remember her saying to me, 'How tall are you?' I said, 'Five-seven.' Of course, immediately all I wanted to do was be whatever size she wanted me."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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