by Chris Dashiell
The passing of Katharine Hepburn on June 29, 2003 marked
the end of an era. The age of the Hollywood studios - the classic sound
era of American film - seemed to be still with us somehow, as long as
she was still alive. I was beginning to wonder if Hepburn could be immortal
- a cinematic avatar, perhaps, of the goddess Athena. Yet she was, in
fact, an exception to the standard image of Hollywood glamour. In the
movies, as in life, she was utterly individual -- independent, high-spirited,
a personality that wouldn't fit into a type. In this tribute, I focus
on her long movie career, assessing the high and low points, and evaluating
her influence on the American film.
She had the good fortune to be born to well-to-do parents
who believed in freedom of thought (her mother was an activist for women's
rights) and put no obstacles in their daughter's way. Her outspokenness
got her into trouble during her meteoric rise on the New York stage, where
she was more than once fired for her behavior during rehearsals. She played
hard to get with Hollywood, turning down the offer of a test with Paramount,
and later naming what she thought was an absurdly high price for a one-picture
deal with RKO. To her surprise, they accepted.
A Bill of Divorcement seems rather dated now, with a static
quality inherited from its stage source, but Hepburn is the best thing in
it, especially in the tender scenes between her and Barrymore, who plays
a shell-shocked veteran. Her next film was Christopher
Strong ('33), directed by Dorothy Arzner, who picked
her for the role of a British flier who falls in love with the eponymous
aristocrat (Colin Clive), a married man. It's a fascinating and provocative
film with a proto-feminist message compromised by a submission to traditional
values (the flyer has to sacrifice herself to save the man's marriage).
Despite the name of the movie, it's not really about the man (and unfortunately,
Clive is a poor lead) but about Hepburn's character, and she's compulsively
watchable in it.
A Bill of Divorcement
wanted her to play John Barrymore's daughter in A Bill of Divorcement
(1932). The director saw something in the screen test what no one
else could - "freshness" and "spirit" along with very unusual looks.
Thus began one of the more productive relationships between a director
and a performer in film history. They made eight pictures together
(plus two TV movies in the 70s), some of them classics, and all of
them worth seeing.
It was this film that made her a star. It was also the one performance that
invited popular caricature. The Bugs Bunny cartoons in which Bugs imitates
a high-toned actress ("Rally I do, rally...") are making fun of this image.
Hepburn's upper-class Connecticut accent, polished at Bryn Mawr, seemed
to have rubbed a good percentage of the public the wrong way. To them she
seemed snooty and pretentious -- a classic case of confusing the performer
with her character.
|It didn't do well at the box
office, but her next film, Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman,
1933) was a hit, and she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She
plays an aspiring Broadway actress who is naively optimistic and burdens
herself and others with theatrical affectations and mannerisms. It's
too talky by far, and the romantic plot with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
is uninspiring, but Hepburn still outshines everyone on the screen,
including veteran Adolphe Menjou.
common (although not universal) belief at the time was that she wasn't
good-looking. I can't help thinking that those who believed this needed
a check-up with their eye doctor. The younger Katharine Hepburn, the Hepburn
of the 30s and early 40s, was incredibly beautiful. But the ideal at the
time, for men at least, was softer, less angular (think Merle Oberon).
In any case, this prejudice ended up working to Hepburn's advantage. Her
strength and essential character allowed her to continue to make movies
long after her beauty faded.
She then did another movie with Cukor -- Little Women
('33), still the best version of the Alcott book, as Jo March, a part
she was born to play. The first half is perfect fun. And although the
second half lets down a bit, Hepburn is bright and touching and funny,
carrying the picture and making it worth repeated viewings. It was a huge
success, but her further career at RKO was spotty.
|After three duds, including
a saccahrine version of J. M. Barrie's The Little Minister,
and a disastrous return to Broadway, she rebounded with Alice
Adams (George Stevens, 1935), from a Booth Tarkington novel
about a small town girl from a poor family who wishes she could be
popular. She is wooed by the town's most popular boy (Fred MacMurray),
but his first visit to her home is ruined by the hilariously crude
behavior of her family. The film is marred by a bit of casual racism
(unfortunately typical of the time) and a happy ending imposed by
the studio (some things never change). Still, Hepburn is radiant and
funny, seeming more confident and at ease here than usual.
|With Cukor again for Sylvia
('35), she plays a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to
help her swindler of a father (Edmund Gwenn) escape the law, and meeting
up with a swaggering con man played by Cary Grant. She is never believable
as a boy, but the film is madcap fun, its anarchic narrative ahead
is of its time, and the chemistry with Grant (this was the first movie
where he really stood out as an actor) is delicious. It was too far
out for audiences, though. Hepburn always tended to challenge conventions
of gender. This was just more overt than usual. It has been said that
she "put women in pants." Certainly she was one of the first
to popularize that choice of clothing in the movies.
paper, Mary of Scotland (John Ford, 1936) must have looked
sure-fire: prestigious Maxwell Anderson play, adapted by Dudley Nichols,
directed by one of Hollywood's premier veterans, and co-starring Fredric
March. But it never comes alive, drowning in its own prestige and period
detail. Another costume drama, A Woman Rebels (Mark Sandrich,
1936) is more promising, with Hepburn as a 19th century feminist magazine
editor championing women's issues. It chickens out at the end, unfortunately,
but one must say that her choice of roles was significant. Hepburn wouldn't
play a weak person, or someone who was merely a romantic object for the
male characters. She insisted on playing characters that were interesting
in their own right, who had their own subjective presence and complex
qualities. This alone makes her an important figure for women in films.
|She was back with Stevens
for Quality Street ('37), from another (better) J. M.
Barrie play, a Napoleonic-era period piece that has her competing
with sister Fay Bainter for the attentions of Franchot Tone. The style
is a bit stiff, and the plot becomes too predictable, but Hepburn
sparkles. She seems to have completely lost her stage mannerisms,
attuned now to the kind of acting required for film. In Gregory La
Door ('37) she plays a young actress who arouses
the jealousy and resentment of her thespian boarding house roommates,
sharing the screen with Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball,
among others. It's full of great wisecracks and overlapping dialogue,
a fun movie, although Hepburn doesn't get to shine much, because she's
essentially playing a straight woman to a bunch of comediennes.
But Hawks cranks the ridiculousness up a few notches to the outrageous,
with the situations becoming more and more incredible as the film proceeds.
Hepburn's performance is pure lunacy -- the laughs come most of all from
the reactions of Grant, who is superb, to her impossibly ludicrous behavior.
Even today, some people find this film too silly to tolerate, but it's one
of my favorite movies precisely because of its lack of moderation. The supporting
cast, including Charlie Ruggles and Mary Robson, is perfection. And no one,
other than Carole Lombard, ever equalled Hepburn's no-holds-barred approach
to the screwball form.
|Most of these films after
Alice Adams got good reviews, but they didn't make money. And
her last film for RKO was a complete flop. This was Bringing
Up Baby ('38), a screwball comedy that later, thanks to the
enthusiasm of French critics for director Howard Hawks, became recognized
as a classic. Hepburn plays a complete zany who meets up with a shy
paleontologist (Cary Grant) and proceeds to turn his life into a shambles.
Of course Grant is about to be married to a boring, respectable woman
(a standard convention in the genre), and Hepburn is out to snare
him for herself.
Bringing Up Baby
I would speculate that audiences in 1938, although they liked madcap
comedy, felt that this film didn't season the laughs with enough romance.
For whatever reason, the movie failed, and RKO lost faith in her, especially
after a group of exhibitors famously labelled her as "box office poison."
She bought out her contract rather than submit to the less promising roles
the studio began to offer her. In hindsight, despite the decline in profits,
she seems the perfect star for RKO in the 30s, a studio that prided itself
on its high-class urban style and adaptations of prestigious stage productions.
jumped to Columbia to do Holiday ('38), reunited with Cukor
in the adaptation of a well-known play that had been filmed before in
1930. Once again she rescues Cary Grant from a boring marriage (to her
sister), although this time Grant is the unconventional thinker who finds
himself drawn against his will to Hepburn's free soul. It's a charming
romantic film, marred only slightly by the play's philosophical pretensions.
Although Hepburn will always (understandably) be associated with Spencer
Tracy, I consider her match-ups with Cary Grant to be among the most delightful
in film. Grant's mixture of suavity with nervous energy and alarm, combined
with Hepburn's mercurial alertness, produces some fine sparks.
It looked like she was finished in Hollywood. Actually,
Selznick offered her the role of Scarlett O'Hara, out of desperation at
finding anyone suitable, but she was wise enough to sense that she was
wrong for the part, and even though she tentatively accepted, it was no
surprise when the part went to Vivien Leigh. The story of how Hepburn
finally revitalized her film career is too famous to do more than briefly
summarize. She asked Holiday author Philip Barry to write a play
for her, which turned out to be The Philadelphia Story. She bought
the film rights while she was at it, then triumphed on Broaday in the
lead role of Tracy Lord. MGM wanted to make it into a film; but Hepburn
came with the package. They starred her with Cary Grant and James Stewart.
Cukor directed. The result was a hit in 1940, and her film career was
(almost miraculously) resurrected.
The Philadelphia Story
|The Philadelphia Story
is about a spoiled, arrogant socialite (Hepburn) who divorces her
easy-going husband (Grant) and becomes engaged to a boring twit. Grant
retaliates by inviting a gossip magazine to cover the nuptials. One
of the magazine's reporters (Stewart) falls for Hepburn, resulting
in a tipsy romantic episode that embarrasses Hepburn into a new humility.
In terms of her screen persona, the strategy seems to have been, "So
Hepburn is perceived as snooty? Well, let's entertain you by giving
her a comeuppance." This is overplayed in the film by a few too many
self-righteous speeches concerning Tracy Lord's heartlessness, but
the movie's elegant style goes down easy. Hepburn transcends the conventions
of romantic comedy, making the story seem interesting and adult by
the sheer magnetism of her personality.
|Then began her long partnership,
and love affair, with Spencer Tracy. It started as an inducement for
Metro to offer her a contract - a picture called Woman of the Year
(George Stevens, 1942). She and Tracy play newspaper writers who fall
in love and get married. She becomes a world-famous celebrity and
advocate for women, but her success causes him to feel neglected.
She then has to sacrifice her ambition in order to save the marriage.
The chemistry between the leads is marvelous - the tenderness is palpable.
The comedy in the film's first half is excellent. Then the boom falls
in the film's second half, with Hepburn getting lectured on the sanctity
of motherhood and the importance of knowing her place as a woman.
The film ends on a note of pathetic slapstick. The idea of giving
Hepburn her comeuppance has gone too far. For the first time in a
film, her image as independent woman seems degraded. It's a shame,
and a woeful commentary on the sexual politics of that era, but the
film still has its pleasures in the first half that make it worth
Woman of the Year
movie succeeded, Hepburn got her contract, and ended up making nine films
with Tracy. Most of them are worthy of note, and a few are more than that.
Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1943) is an unjustly
neglected political drama about a journalist (Tracy) investigating the
death of an American patriot, who falls in love with his widow (Hepburn).
The film's left-wing sympathies make it something of a Hollywood curiosity
(and later got screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart in trouble during the
postwar witch hunts), but it's an interesting film on its own merits,
and Hepburn is fine in it. Without Love (Harold S. Bucquet,
1945) is a rather too-mild romantic comedy that gets by on the Tracy-Hepburn
charisma and not much else. Sea of Grass (Elia Kazan, 1947)
is a big budget spectacle about husband and wife pioneers in New Mexico.
It's beautifully shot and acted, but the studio cut the heart out of the
film by suppressing its class-conflict themes, and so it remains one of
those "what might have been" type of movies. State of the Union
(1949) is a very interesting film by Frank Capra that deserves to be better
known. Tracy plays a presidential candidate in danger of being corrupted
by special interests, and Hepburn is his no-nonsense wife who sees the
danger her husband, and her marriage, is in. It's smart, fast-talking,
and full of ideas, and once again the leads are excellent.
I think a big part of the Tracy-Hepburn charm is that they often played
married people who were in love, like William Powell and Myrna Loy, except
a bit older, more mature, more realistic in their comic interplay. Tracy's
gruffness and quiet humor was a perfect match for Hepburn's pointed wit.
Those who don't like Hepburn (and there are more than a few of those folks)
claim that her career would have been nowhere after the 30s if it hadn't
been for Tracy, but the same could be said for him. They were smart enough
to know they had a good thing, and their movies need no apologies. Most
of them stand up very well today.
|The best of the Hepburn-Tracy
movies, without a doubt, is Adam's Rib (George Cukor,
1949), in which they play attorneys arguing opposite sides of a case.
Hepburn is a feminist and Tracy is a male chauvinist, but unlike Woman
of the Year, they both get their licks in, they both get to look
ridiculous, and the picture (written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin)
is unalloyed, hilarious fun.
|Hepburn's other films from
the 1940s are a mixed bag. Dragon Seed (Harold S. Bucquet
and Jack Conway, 1944) is a sort of Pearl Buck re-tread with Hepburn
miscast as a Chinese freedom fighter. Undercurrent (Vincente
Minnelli, 1946) is a thriller that shows some promise, featuring Robert
Taylor and Robert Mitchum, but Hepburn seems a bit unsure of herself
in the film noir genre, and Minnelli's direction is tentative. In
Song of Love (Clarence Brown, 1947), Hepburn gets to
play Clara Schumann, a chance she must have jumped at. The film, with
Paul Henreid as Schumann and Robert Walker (!) as Brahms, falls victim
to the usual clichés of the Hollywood artist biopic, but the
style and production values are rather good, and Hepburn keeps the
movie from sinking.
|She returned to New York to
do Shakespeare for a few years, and it seems to have done her good.
In 1951 she starred in The African Queen, playing a
missionary who must enlist the help of a boozing steamboat captain
(Humphrey Bogart) to escape East Africa after the German occupation
in World War I. Written by James Agee and directed by John Huston,
its luster has not dimmed with time. Whoever had the odd idea of teaming
Hepburn with Bogart turned out to be a genius. It would appear that
opposites not only attract; they make good movies too. Bogart seems
fresh and vulnerable and endearing. He won an Oscar for the role,
and this tends to make us forget how good Hepburn is in the picture.
It's one of her most sustained performances - very controlled, perfectly
timed, a tour de force of subtlety and quiet strength. That this prim
and proper lady would fall for the washed up, uncouth Bogart character
seems unlikely. She makes it seem not only likely, but inevitable.
The African Queen
It's interesting to note that Hepburn seemed to have a knack for gathering
Oscars, not only for herself (she won four Best Actress awards, still
the record), but for the leading men, some of the biggest names in Hollywood,
who were lucky enough to star with her. Well, Tracy had already won a
couple before Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), so her
coattails didn't work there. But consider that James Stewart won his only
statue for The Philadelphia Story, Humphrey Bogart his only Oscar
for The African Queen, and Henry Fonda his only one for On
Golden Pond (1981). A pity she couldn't do the trick for Cary
Grant, but nobody's perfect.
In Summertime (1955) she plays a middle-aged spinster who
finds unexpected romance with Rossano Brazzi in Venice. The film is directed
with great vigor and intelligence by David Lean, and Hepburn's performance
is a many-faceted wonder. She doesn't play for pathos or sentimentality.
She makes the character tough, despite a certain awkwardness and vulnerability,
and it's a complete triumph. The Rainmaker (Joseph Anthony,
1956) was an odd little movie with Burt Lancaster that couldn't quite decide
whether it wanted to be a drama or a lighthearted comedy. Hepburn does pretty
well in it, considering, and the picture made money at the box office.
Pat and Mike
|She was with Tracy again in
Pat and Mike (George Cukor, 1952, from a Gordon/Kanin
script). It's not Adam's Rib, but in my opinion it's their
second-best film together. She plays a super-athlete engaged to a
boring twit (notice a pattern here?) and Tracy is her tough-guy manager
and trainer. The comedy is low-key, but very pleasant indeed.
In her 50s and 60s, a time when most film actresses were
consigned to supporting parts at best, Hepburn continued to succeed in
major roles that challenged her as an actress. Not all her movies were
good, but she became a sort of institution, beloved by audiences and critics
alike. Desk Set (Walter Lang, 1957) a comedy with Tracy
about the computerization of a company, has its moments, but is generally
one of the weaker Hepburn-Tracy films. In Suddenly, Last Summer
(1959), Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of the outrageously baroque
Tennessee Williams play, she gets to play an outright villain for once
in her career, as a woman obsessed with persecuting the niece (Elizabeth
Taylor) whom she blames for her son's death. It's a ridiculously overblown
film, but Hepburn is suitably scary in the role.
|Sidney Lumet cast her against
type as the drug-addicted mother in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey
Into Night (1962). Hepburn aims for high tragedy in a role
that requires more underplaying - amazingly, she still achieves quite
a few soul-stirring moments, and it remains one of the best filmed
versions of O'Neill ever.
Long Day's Journey Into Night
The Lion in Winter
In The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey,
1968) she plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, battling it out with husband
Henry II (Peter O'Toole). There's a trifle too much bombast here
for my taste, but Hepburn's third Oscar was deserved. She dominates
the film and draws the best out of O'Toole, who became her devoted
friend for life when she scolded him on the set for his self-destructive
this film, Hepburn's career was sporadic, with several noble attempts
to translate great theater to the screen. The Madwoman of Chaillot
(Bryan Forbes, 1969) was too literal minded in its approach to the Giradoux
play. The Trojan Women (Michael Cacoyannis, 1971) sported
a jaw-dropping cast (Hepburn co-starring with Vanessa Redgrave, Irene
Papas and Geneviève Bujold) but failed in the difficult task of
making Euripidean tragedy cinematic. A Delicate Balance
(Tony Richardson, 1973), co-starring Paul Scofield, seems to have brought
out the best in Hepburn, whose performance is admirably fierce, although
the film is cramped by the two room set-up of the Edward Albee play. She
also did Love Among the Ruins (1975) with Lawrence Olivier,
and a version of The Corn is Green (1979), both done for
TV, and her last films with the man who discovered her, George Cukor.
lived so long that she seemed to outlive the audiences that best remembered
and loved her. In her later years, her cantankerous nature (a trait she
has displayed from the beginning) seems to have gotten the better of her
more often. She wrote a successful autobiography called Me (the
title couldn't be more typical of her self-confidence, although the text
contained its share of self-deprecation), and made occasional appearances
on TV and in films, despite the quavering caused by Parkinson's disease.
The woman certainly had her faults, but there was no escaping a sense
of awe when regarding her career, spanning six decades, and with enough
great performances to sustain six lifetimes. Nobody had better instincts,
or a finer technique. Yet she expressed the wish that she could have done
more, regretting some of the time and opportunity wasted when she was
Always ambitious, always driven, ever her own person, Katharine
Hepburn escaped categorization. In her individuality she seemed like a
friend we all knew, a unique character whose talents, passions, strengths,
and flaws became part of us.
©2003 Chris Dashiell