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Katharine Hepburn: First Lady of Cinema


Katharine Houghton Hepburn, (aka “Katherine” or “Kate” to an adoring public, born 12 May 1907, died 29 June 2003) was indubitably one of the most enduring icons of America’s golden age of cinema. In a career that spanned 62 years, Hepburn starred in no less than 52 movies, appeared in 42 other features and authored one book, an autobiography. If the latter is not enough proof that she was not just a pretty face and figure like the “vamps” of her era, Hepburn earned no less than 27 nominations, won 4 Oscars, and a raft of Emmys, BAFTA bests, even a Cannes Golden Bough and a Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy. Her very first Academy Award came for “Morning Glory” (1933), the third film she ever made.

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The Life and Times

“Kate” was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to a doctor and a suffragette. Such assertive parents obviously impelled Hepburn to speak what was on her mind, to maximize her native intelligence, broaden her scope of knowledge, and be as athletic as females could be. The child-tomboy grew to adulthood fond of wearing slacks long before they became fashionable. Revisionist biographers (e.g. Rowe 72-73) Hepburn dressed like that not because she was unconventional but mainly because she was, like Spencer Tracy, a closet bisexual.

Painfully shy as a young girl, Hepburn had to make do mainly with home schooling for her primary and secondary education. Being no mean intellect, however, she was accepted to Bryn Mawr College, where roles in amateur stage productions opened up new vistas for a lifelong career that would span six decades, from black-and-white movies to Technicolor and television, alongside three generations of American film stars (Peter 1).

On graduation, Hepburn first exercised her craft with minor roles in plays, both on-and off-Broadway. Critics, Peter (1) reports, especially liked her performance in “Art and Mrs. Bottle” (1931). Her movie break came with startling swiftness, landing the lead female role as the Amazon princess Antiope in “A Warrior’s Husband” (1932). This proved woefully forgettable, however.

After her first five-year contract with RKO, her standing in Hollywood weakened owing partly to poor script choices and her intractably unconventional bearing. From 1935 to 1938, just two works of hers did well at the box office: “Alice Adams” (1935) and “Stage Door” (1937). Her backers endured a string of unpopular fare – “Break of Hearts” (1935), “Sylvia Scarlett” (1935), “Mary of Scotland” (1936), “Quality Street” (1937) and “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) – even though in retrospect, two of these became film classics.

Almost as damaging was an unbearably haughty with fans and the press. Hepburn refused to dress in anything but slacks in public, forswore makeup and naturally would not stand still for picture opportunities or interviews. This did not sit well with moviegoers of the golden age who much preferred glamorous paragons of beauty rather than feminist-thinking, mannish women (Britton 21) and stars who preferred to get around incognito. When Hepburn attempted to escape all this by reviving her Broadway career in 1934 but both critics and audience scorned “The Lake”. A return to Hollywood yielded more flops and Hepburn resuscitated her career only in 1938 with her sterling performance in the Broadway play, “The Philadelphia Story” (1938) and great box-office response as well. Realizing a good thing when she saw it, Hepburn bought the film rights and, being able to choose who would film it and star with her, got back into the Hollywood game with a vengeance. The film turned into a box-office hit.

Starting with “Woman of the Year” (1942), Hepburn commenced an on- and off-screen partnership with Spencer Tracy that lasted an amazing nine films, until 1957.

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Starting with “The African Queen” (1951), Hepburn transitioned to character actress in middle-aged spinster roles. This did not hurt her critical success any as she notched at least four Oscar nominations throughout the 19502.

The 1960s saw Hepburn becoming scarce on the movie scene for having to take care of her ailing partner, Spencer Tracy. Their last film together was “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967). In mourning when Tracy died a few weeks after the film went into the can, Hepburn garnered some consolation because the work won her second Oscar statuette ever. Her third Oscar win came just a year later for “The Lion in Winter” (1968).

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hepburn adapted to the power of television by doing more made-for-TV films. By the mid-1990s, deteriorating health forced her to leave the limelight once and for all. Hepburn died in 2003, four years short of turning 100.


Hepburn started her cinematic career at 25, when she was cast in a supporting role to headliners John Barrymore (father to Drew Barrymore of the contemporary movie scene) and Billie Burke as a couple undergoing marital strains in “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932). This was a sign of Hepburn’s capacity for serious dramatic acting since the film dealt with unprecedented themes (for the Depression era) of psychological disorders and post-traumatic stress (Internet Movie Database 1).

The thirties were the busiest decade for Hepburn for she starred in 15 movies then. Among her more notable works at the time was the role of Jo in the first film rendering of Alcott’s “Little Women” (1933) and as Mary Stuart in “Mary of Scotland” (1936). “Little Women” eventually proved to be the greatest commercial success of the pre-war era.

In the decade of World War II, Hepburn starred in 11 more films. Perhaps her best work of the time was “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), a romantic comedy that pitted her against two great actors of the time, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Showing her mettle as an actress, Hepburn received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role and won a Best Actress Award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Quantitatively, her career seemed to gradually dwindle in the next two decades. Hepburn starred in just seven films in the 1950s and just four in the 1960s. In fact, this period saw some of her most brilliant work in films that went on to become commercial and critical successes. In the film rendering of Tennessee Williams’ classic “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959), Hepburn essayed the role of mother grieving the shocking death of her son. For this she was recognized with Oscar, Golden Globe, and Golden Laurel nominations for Best Actress or Top Female Dramatic Performance. Ironically, it was “Suddenly…” protagonist Elizabeth Taylor, reaching the peak of her own career and fame then, who won two of the awards.

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Still, Hepburn marked the 1950s and 1960s with stellar performances in films that were destined to become classics: Stanley Kramer’s exploration of biracial relations in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)” opposite Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier; the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962) with co-star Jason Robards; and the period drama about King Henry II (circa 1183 A.D.) “The Lion in Winter” (1968) opposite the brilliant Peter O’Toole, the incandescent Anthony Hopkins, and the then-obscure Timothy Dalton.

Like the proverbial phoenix, Hepburn followed this up with a second renascence, going on to star in more seven more titles in the 1970s (including three made for TV), four more in the 1980s and the same number in the early 1990s (Internet Movie Database 1). This time around, truly great critical and commercial success was comparatively elusive, the exceptions being: a) a second-tier role opposite Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache and Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra in “The Trojan Women” (1971); b) the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance” (1973); c) the made-for-TV adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” (1973); and, d) “On Golden Pond” (1981), opposite Henry and Jane Fonda and for which Hepburn reaped Best Actress trophies at the Oscars (her fourth, a record never equaled by any actress), the American Movie Awards, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), the UK’s counterpart to the Oscars, as well as a nomination at the Golden Globes.

The last feature Hepburn ever made was “Love Affair” (1994) with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in the lead roles.

Finally, Hepburn essayed the role of Cornelia Beaumont in the made-for-TV adaptation of Truman Capote’s “One Christmas” (1994). It is an interesting coincidence perhaps that the final curtain rang down on a drama set at Christmas just as her very first thespic role in “A Bill of Divorcement” was. By then, Hepburn was essentially playing herself opposite Henry Winkler. The 87 year-old actress romped off into the sunset with one more laurel to her name, a Screen Actors Guild win for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries.

Notable Quotes

“Now to squash a rumor. No, I don’t have Parkinson’s. I inherited my shaking head from my grandfather Hepburn. I discovered that whisky helps stop the shaking. Problem is, if you’re not careful, it stops the rest of you too. My head just shakes, but I promise you, it ain’t gonna fall off!” (Hepburn, narrated audiotape).

“There is seldom a way to explain what are the things that hurt one deeply. They are usually quite foolish. Some little hope or pride – like my singing, for instance – or the size of my eyes.” (Hepburn 88).

Works Cited

  1. Britton, Andrew. Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist. New York: Columbia University Press.
  2. Hepburn, Katharine. ME- Stories of My Life. New York: Knopf 1992.
  3. The Internet Movie Database. 2002. Katharine Hepburn. Web.
  4. Peter, Tommy. 2009. IMDb Mini Biography.
  5. Rowe, Michael. “Katharine Hepburn: Leading Man.” The Advocate. 2006, 976: 72-73.

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