Movie Stars: Hepburn, Katharine

I’m a living proof that someone can wait 41 years to be unselfish–Katharine Hepburn in 1974, her first appearance at an Oscar telecast, to present an award to vet producer and friend, Lawrence Weingarten.

Katharine Hepburn, who was born May 12, 1907, was arguably the most iconic and eccentric of all actresses during the Golden Age of Hollywood, from 1930 to 1960.

I had met and interviewed her three or four times at her Brownstone on East 52street in Manhattan; she was a neighbor with Stephen Sondheim, with whom she didn’t talk for years. In interviews, conducted for my biographies of George Cukor and then Vincenete Minnelli, Hepburn was kind and generous in her remarks about directors, but also opinionated and tough when it came to questions she didn’t like, or didn’t want to answer, such as her own love life, Cukor’s homosexuality, and Minnelli’s ambiguous sexual orientation.

This weekend marks Hepburn’s centennial, which is celebrated with a retro of her films at TCM (with the knowledgeable host Robert Obsorne) and Warner’s DVD Collection of six Hepburn films, including some of her most eccentric (“Sylvia Scarlett,” in which she is dressed as a boy and falls for Cary Grant) and some of her lesser known, such as “Without Love”).

Hepburn was an actress whose independent life and strong-willed screen role made her a role model for generations of women and a beloved heroine to filmgoers for six decades. In her starring roles in film, on stage, and on television, she was cast as sharp-witted, sophisticated, independent women with an ease that suggested a thin line between her on-screen and off-screen personalities.

Like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Bogart, and Stewart, Hepburn defined each and every role, no matter the genre or the medium, with her unique charisma, strong personality, diverse talentand mannerisms too, if the director was not watchful enough.

The noted stage director and theater critic Harold Clurman once told me, when we were both teaching at Hunter College, that Katharine Hepburn once showed up to a meeting of the Group Theater, a left-of-center group that propagated, among other things, socially aware plays (by Cliford Odets and others) and ensemble acting rather than the star system. Hepburn never showed up again. A major proponent of individualism and originality, on screen and off screen, the whole concepts of socialism, collectivism, ensemble and group values were foreign to her.

Hepburn’s value system derived from the particular (upper-class) education she received from her family, but also from unbridled ambition. Reportedly, she was extremely arrogant and brash when she arrived in Hollywood in 1932, a chapter that I documented in my biography of George Cukor, Master of Elegance.

George Cukor, who was her most frequent and favorite filmmaker, had directed Hepburn 10 times (8 features and 2 TV films). When La Hepburn was concerned, he saw his task, he once noted, as “a lion-tamer,” taming the shrewd and shrewish actress, who thought she knew everything. Cukor was also the only director who slapped her across the face on the set of “Little Women,” and called her “amateur,” when she ran too quickly down the stairs and fell, thus ruining the only white dress that was available that day.

After appearing in several stage plays, mostly failures, she was cast as the sensitive daughter of John Barrymore’s mentally ill father in the melodrama “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932) directed by George Cukor, who was later one of her dearest friends and with whom she made 10 films. Miss Hepburn became a movie star quickly. She won an Oscar Award for her role as Eva Lovelace, the nave aspiring actress who learns a tough lesson about survival, in the 1933 film “Morning Glory,” only her third movie.

Many of her early films are now regarded as classics. Playing a tough, determined actress in “Stage Door” (1937), she read a line from a play–The calla lilies are in bloom again–that became a favorite of Hepburn’s league of impersonators. Life magazine said that, “Stage Door” proved that she was potentially the screen’s greatest actress. (See My Review).

Hepburn played a free-spirited heiress in “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), opposite Cary Grant, a leopard and a dog. Though the film was a box-office flop when initially released, it became a cult movie and is now considered as the one of the best screwball comedies ever made.

A major blow to her career was not being cast as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” Contrary to rumors, and her own denials, she did test for the roleand desired it. Yet she herself knew that she was not right, but how could one resist trying for the best-known female part in film history

In 1938, she appeared on a list of actors labeled “box-office poison” in a poll of movie exhibitors. Hepburn then took charge of her career in a way few women dared in those days of the studio system. Philip Barry wrote the play “The Philadelphia Story” for her, modeling his beautiful heroine, Tracy Lord, on Miss Hepburn.

The play was a hit, and Hepburn owned the rights to it because Howard Hughes, a sometime beau, had bought them for her. She went to Louis B. Mayer, then head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, and sold him the property on the condition that she play the lead and could also choose the director and her tow leading men. Not surprisingly, Hepburn chose her friend George Cukor to direct, and she asked for Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable as her co-stars. Instead, she got Cary Grant as her former husband, James Stewart as the reporter, and a hit movie.

If I had to choose one picture that features Hepburn’s best performance, it would be “The Philadelphia Story,” a film that was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, and other awards, but failed to win Hepburn an Oscar for her definitive work, due to industry politics. The winner in 1940 was Ginger Rogers in “Kitty Foyle”! Put it another way, “Philadelphia Story” to Hepburn is what “All About Eve” is to Bette Davis (who also failed to win an Oscar.)

In 1942, Hepburn initiated another good picture, “Woman of the Year,” the story of the unlikely romance between a hotshot political columnist and a sportswriter. She asked for Tracy, whom she’d never met, to play the sportswriter. This time she got him. The two began a love affair that would eventually dominate Heyburn’s life and career and become one of the great romantic legends and brilliant movie pairings of their day.

The movies Tracy and Hepburn made–among them, “Woman of the Year,” “Adam’s Rib,” “Pat and Mike”–are typically bright and biting collaborations. Their last movie together was an especially poignant Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

One of Hepburn’s most enduring films without Tracy was “The African Queen” (1951), in which she played opposite Humphrey Bogart for director John Huston. Her versatility lasted well into her career with such films as “The Lion in Winter,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Rooster Cogburn,” and “On Golden Pond.”

Oscar Records

Though Meryl Streep holds the all-time record of Oscar nominations (14), let’s not forget that Hepburn is the only actress in history who had won four Best Actress Oscars, in 1933 for “Morning Glory,” in 1967 for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” in 1968 for “The Lion in Winter,” and in 1981 for “On Golden Pond.”

More importantly, with the exception of Warren Beatty’s “Love Affair” (a big artistic and commercial failure), and a few other pictures, Hepburn was a leading lady from her very first role, in “A Bill of Divorcement,” all the way to her last significant role, “On Golden Pond.”
Indeed, unlike Streep, who was nominated several times for Supporting Actress, all of Hepburn’s 12 Oscar nominations, which span half a century, were for the Best Actress Oscar. This is not to denigrate the fabulously gifted Streep, but to suggest that she always perceived herselfand was perceived by her peeras a star par excellence.

Hepburn’s Oscar Nominations

1933: Morning Glory
1935: Alice Adams
1940: The Philadelphia Story
1942: Woman of the Year
1951: The African Queen
1955: Summertime
1956: The Rainmaker
1959: Suddenly, Last Summer
1962: Long Day’s Journey Into Night
1967: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
1968: The Lion in Winter
1981: On Golden Pond

My List of Hepburn’s Best

As is often the case of Oscars, actors don’t necessarily get the award for what represents their most skillful or accomplished work. Thus, below find a list of my favorite Hepburn roles:

1933: Little Women (not nominated)
1935: Alice Adams (nominated)
1936: Sylvia Scarlett (not nominated)
1938: Holiday (not nominated)
1938: Bringing Up Baby (not nominated)
1940: The Philadelphia Story (nominated)
1949: Adam’s Rib (not nominated)
1952: Pat and Mike (not nominated)
1959: Suddnely, Last Summer (nominated)
1962: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (nominated)