“Acting is the most minor of gifts. After all, Shirley Temple could do it when she was four.”
Katharine Hepburn: spirited, independent, sharp, one-of-a-kind… a cinema legend. With a career spanning almost 70 years, and the record for most acting Academy Awards (four, all for Best Actress), Hepburn is considered the greatest female Hollywood star – but she was also labelled box office poison in 1938, received an infamously scathing review on Broadway in The Lake from Dorothy Parker (Miss Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”), and was tainted by whispers of “un-American activities” in the ’50s. She was not conventionally beautiful. She did not court the media, but rather controversy (affairs with married men, rumours of sexuality, wearing trousers). She did not fit the mould of glamorous leading lady… So just how did Hepburn become “the Great Kate”, “Red” (courtesy of director George Cukor off-screen, and Cary Grant on-screen), and everyone’s favourite Hollywood feminist?
Born to a urologist father and suffragette mother in Hartford, Connecticut in 1907, Hepburn enjoyed a progressive and relatively well-off childhood, although she would be irrevocably affected by the apparent suicide of her older brother Tom in 1921. This devastating event caused her to withdraw and drop out of school. In 1924 Hepburn reluctantly enrolled at Bryn Mawr. Her interest in acting, however, saw Hepburn improve her grades in time for graduation and be granted permission to appear in productions during her final year. With characteristic determination, Hepburn decided to become an actress, and in 1928, via one appearance with a stock company in Baltimore, she moved to New York.
Four years of frustration followed, with money tight and an unfortunate proclivity towards getting fired during rehearsals. Finally, Hepburn made her mark in the 1932 play The Warrior’s Husband, as an amazingly physical Amazonian warrior (very “different” for its time), literally leaping on to the stage. Her performance secured her a screen test with director George Cukor, on the lookout for his female lead in A Bill of Divorcement, opposite John Barrymore. According to Hepburn, Cukor hated pretty much everything about her test, other than the way in which she put down a glass. She got the part, a contract with RKO Pictures, and Cukor would go on to become a lifelong friend and mentor.
Katharine Hepburn had arrived. After strong reviews for her first feature she starred as an aviatrix in Christopher Strong and won her first Oscar for Morning Glory, only her third film. She was then a spirited Jo in Little Women, one of her personal favourites. The yearning to prove herself on Broadway, however, tempted Hepburn back for the flop The Lake, and when she returned to film, choppy waters awaited. Despite another Oscar nomination for 1935’s Alice Adams, a string of unpopular films followed, as well as a growing awareness of the actress’ unconventionality and unwillingness to play by Hollywood’s rules. By 1937’s Stage Door, RKO no longer considered Hepburn a robust star and so Ginger Rogers was added. 1938 may have heralded the now-classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, but it was not enough to stop Hepburn being labelled “box office poison”.
Disheartened, Hepburn returned to Broadway again. This time, however, she was offered the lead in The Philadelphia Story, a role written specifically for the actress – and a role that would prove the making of Hepburn’s legend. With typical shrewdness, Hepburn bought the rights to the play and returned to Hollywood ready to sell – but only with herself attached. MGM took the deal, providing Hepburn with her top director Cukor, but in the place of Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy she would have to settle for Cary Grant and James Stewart.
Back “the Great Kate” came, with a third Oscar nomination for The Philadelphia Story. Importantly, Hepburn had wished to endear herself to the cinema audience: “Moviegoers […] think I’m too la-di-da or something. A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face” – and so she duly did, with Cary Grant pushing her backwards, palm to face.
Hepburn’s next film would start the most famous and defining partnership of both her career and her personal life: that with Spencer Tracy, in Woman of the Year. When they were first introduced, Hepburn was rumored to have said “I’m afraid I’m a little tall for you, Mr Tracy,” to which Tracy allegedly replied, “Don’t worry, Miss Hepburn, I’ll cut you down to my size.” The pair would go on to make a further eight films together and conduct a discreet relationship (Tracy was married) until Tracy’s death in 1967.
The fifties saw Hepburn proving that she was a popular star in her own right without Tracy, and during this decade she would take on some of her most enduring “spinster” parts, such as that of Rose Sayer in The African Queen opposite Humphrey Bogart (hello fifth Oscar nom), and Jane Hudson in David Lean’s Summertime (and there’s the sixth). In the sixties, she spent much of her time looking after the ailing Spencer Tracy and eschewing roles. They made their final appearance together on screen in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which earned Hepburn her second Academy Award. Tracy died just 17 days after filming wrapped.
After further film parts in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including a fierce Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (third Oscar), Hepburn expanded into television roles (and thus Emmy nominations), as well as enjoying continuing success on the stage and silver screen. 1981 saw Hepburn awarded with her fourth, and final, Oscar for On Golden Pond, opposite Henry Fonda. Katharine Hepburn made her last performance in a 1994 television movie, One Christmas, for which she duly received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. Hepburn died at home in Connecticut at the age of 96 in 2003. The actress herself couldn’t put her finger on exactly what had led her to legendary status: “It’s either some kind of electricity or some kind of energy. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, I’ve got it”.