Love Among the Ruins: Katharine Hepburn Manipulates Laurence Olivier

George Cukor’ TV movie “Love Among the Ruins” was born in a talk show, and was full of unanticipated turns.

In Katharine Hepburn’s 1972 celebrated interview with Dick Cavett, the host asked her if she regretted never having played opposite Laurence Olivier. In a characteristically straightforward and acerbic manner, Hepburn quipped, “Well! Neither Larry nor I are dead yet!”

That comment proved to be prophetic. Within a few months, Hepburn and her favorite director Cukor were hard at work on a TV production of Love Among the Ruins. Hepburn’s co-star would be Olivier, but the pairing did not come to life easily.

James Costigan’s script for Love Among the Ruins had been written for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, but when the famed couple retired from the stage, the project was shelved.

It was Hepburn’s idea to involve Olivier. “You know,” she told Cukor, “it must be played by somebody in the public’s eye, somebody important.” Cukor held that it would be more touching, if the actors were two “gorgeous ruins” with whom the audience could identify. Realizing that personal casting was crucial for TV movies, Cukor hoped that, with these two stars, it would be a “bang-up” show.

However, persuading Olivier to accept the role was not easy. The actor felt badly about disliking it–his view was an “absolute polarization” from Cukor and Hepburn’s. “Try as I may,” he noted, “I just can’t change my opinion or make my love and deep admiration for you both alter it to come into line with yours.” “As you can see, his lordship says, nay,” Cukor told his agent Ben Benjamin, “but he is making a big mistake.” “Larry definitely didn’t want to do it,” said the agent, “but George really talked him into doing it.”

“You see what clout I have with his Lordship,” Cukor told Barry Diller, then head of ABC TV. “He turns us down ever so regretfully–ever so affectionately–ever so respectfully. I’m sure he’d have liked to work with us all and is disappointed. There’s a chance that he might change his mind. I have no basis for saying this, but I have a hunch he might.” Cukor was right.

Cukor and Hepburn proceeded to write a long, personal letter to Olivier, which consisted of a series of questions: “Do you find the relationship–thus cast–not interesting Do you find it not funny Do you find it too trivial Would there be any particular thing which could make you do it, and if so, what Say it’s just hopeless, and we will both blow our brains out.” Cukor decided to be cute and mention their biggest professional failures. “What a combo!” he told Larry, “The star of Romeo and Juliet; the girl who was so successful in The Lake; and the director–fresh from his success–of Gone With the Wind. Irresistible!”

Olivier changed his mind after receiving this “enchanting” letter. He was relieved that it would be a TV movie; initially Olivier was concerned that it would be a feature film and thus demand more “formidable charge” than he could invest. In the winter of 1973, Cukor proudly announced that he got England’s two best actors to work for him. Ralph Richardson showed strong interest in playing the General in Black Comedy, and Olivier committed to do Love Among the Ruins.

British Allan Davis recalled how he was asked to produce Love Among the Ruins. Cukor said, “I’m going to do this movie for television in London, and we want an English producer. I’d like you to do it.’ “I’m doing a play,” Davis said, “I don’t know if I can. “Who’s going to be in it” asked Davis, just out of curiosity. “Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn,” Cukor said most calmly. “Yes, of course, I’m free,” Davis found himself saying, “When do we start shooting”

Shooting at London’s Pinewood studios went on for six weeks. “It was a lovely experience for all of us,” said Davis, “The audience sees parts of Old London with all these wonderful horses and carts.” The problem was they could only shoot in those areas on Sundays, which meant they all had to work on weekends. Initially, Benjamin, who was also Olivier’s agent, said, “Larry never works on Sunday.” But Davis went directly to the actor, whom he had known from the Old Vic, and bought him an extensive drink. “Does this mean we’ll finish the film sooner” Olivier asked. “It certainly does,” Davis said. “Then, I will do it,” Olivier said.

The script was shot pretty much in sequence, except for the exterior shots. Cukor asked the TV people, “How does one shoot for television” They said, “Shoot it just the way you would shoot a picture.” Cukor did not have to modify his style in any way. There was no reason to modify; the film was rather small, with most of the story set in courtroom.

“The first person to arrive at the studio was George,” Davis recalled, “he would be prowling around the studio at six in the morning, looking at the set, pacing back and forth–but never looking through the camera.” Davis never saw Cukor look through the camera. He was much more concerned about the acting and pacing of the dialogue. “I’ve got experts to do the camera,” he would say, “I don’t need to ask them if they have got the corner of the chair in” “He simply didn’t want to be bothered with that,” Davis noted.

Davis recalled fondly a scene in the lawyer’s office. Hepburn, who never kept her mouth shut, said, “George, you’ve got the camera in the wrong place. If you had the camera over there, you’d see me and Larry, and then you’d see my sister in the background. It would make a lovely shot. What do you think, Larry” “Kate,” George firmly said, “This is not a subject for vote.” Cukor later conceded that he didn’t do it because she suggested it. “Hepburn and Cukor were funny when they argued; everybody would laugh ruefully about their bickering. Their relationship was love and argument.”

The worst argument occurred when Olivier arrived one Monday morning, and said to Davis, “I’ve been rewriting the scene that we’re to do. I’ve had it typed out, and I want you to give it to George.” When Davis read it, he said to himself, ‘It’s just as bad as what we’ve got.'” But he gave it to Cukor, who looked at it and said, “No, no, no, it is no good.” “I’ve shown it to George,” Davis said to Olivier, “and he thinks that what we’ve got is better.” The actor did the scene the way Cukor wanted it–and did it well.

In a scene of a fire burning, Hepburn said, “Look at the fire, no fire ever burns like that. It’s ridiculous, George. Have that altered.” “Miss Hepburn,” Cukor said, “I know you’re a great actress and expert on many things, but I didn’t know you’re an expert on fake fires.” Everybody laughed, and that was the end of the argument.

Hepburn did her scene before the end too tearfully. “You’re going to cry eventually,” Cukor said, “but don’t cry now, don’t break here.” Hepburn was at first resistant. “I’ll be so flat if I don’t cry,” she said. “No, no, no,” Cukor insisted, “Just do it as I say.” “I’ll do it,” she said, “but with grave doubts.” Indeed, as in the past, Hepburn came in matter of fact and cried exactly on cue.

Cukor liked to shoot an immense amount of film, and refused to say what take to print. “Print them all,” he would say, “How can I tell now” Cukor ended up with “mountains of rushes,” but it was television and he had to do it on time and on budget. “We were only one day over the allotted time,” said Davis, “the shoot was three weeks, but we shot seven days a week.” “George was completely demanding,” Davis noted, “During the film, there was never anything else on his mind. All the people connected with the film were also supposed to be totally committed to it.”

Love Among the Ruins became a unique experience for its wonderful casting–all the people, down to those who played the small parts, were charming. “The movie is really a puff ball,” said Davis, “just wonderful performances.” Cukor and his stars all had marvelous time–they had always wanted but never worked together.

The charismatic presence of the two stars almost redeemed the foolish plot. “When the movie came out,” said Cukor’s agent Ben Benjamin, “you could tell all the people involved had enormous respect for each other.” The production was a testament to Cukor’s unfailing good taste. “When you saw it,” said Benjamin, “you realized that George must have picked out the best costume designer, the best set director. Everything was the best, he was a perfectionist.”

After winning an Emmy, Cukor wrote jokingly to Olivier that the voters were dazzled by the realization that he had taken “two unknown and inexperienced kids” who’d been at it a long time with little success. Cukor boasted about whipping his stars into giving respectable performances for the first time in their “lackluster” career. “He’s a wonderfully accomplished actor,” Cukor said about Olivier, “but I’d never seen him play with such simplicity and vulnerability–due entirely to my artistry as a director!”