I strike people as peculiar in some way, although I don’t quite understand why. Of course, I have an angular face, an angular body and, I suppose, an angular personality, which jabs into people. I’m a personality as well as an actress. Show me an actress who isn’t a personality and you’ll show me a woman who isn’t a star.
– Katharine Hepburn
A leading lady in Hollywood for more than sixty years, Katharine Hepburn was known for her fierce independence and progressive views, as much for her acting ability. Born in Connecticut on May 12, 1907 to Thomas, an urologist and Katharine, a feminist campaigner, both parents were heavily involved in movements to illicit changes within the United States when it came to health and women’s rights. As a child Hepburn joined her mother at ‘Votes or Women’ rallies and all of the Hepburn children were raised to exercise freedom of speech and encouraged to stand up for what they believed in. The actress attributed much of her success later in life to her upbringing and she remained close to her family throughout her life.
In 1924 she attended Bryn Mawr College but struggled with the demands of university. She was drawn to acting but participation was conditional on good grades, encouraging the young Hepburn to improve her scholastic performance. A lead in the production of The Woman in the Moon in her senior year received positive reviews and subsequently cemented her love of the theatre. Over the next few years she performed in numerous plays, received poor reviews, was fired from three (once at the insistence of her co-star Leslie Howard who just didn’t like her) and quit another to marry Ludlow Ogden Smith in 1928 when she was twenty-one. Hepburn had Smith change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow so that she would not be known as ‘Kate Smith’, which she considered too plain. Putting her career ahead of her marriage eventually signalled its end when she moved to Hollywood in 1932 and they divorced soon after in 1934.
It was a role in The Warrior’s Husband that would prove to be her breakout performance when it opened on Broadway on March 11, 1932. A scout for the Hollywood agent Leland Hayward saw Hepburn and asked her to test for the part of Sydney Fairfield in the RKO film A Bill of Divorcement. When offered the role the actress demanded $1,500 a week, a large sum for an unknown actress, and Hepburn was signed to a temporary contract. Although she struggled to adapt to the nature of film acting, her first screen appearance received positive reviews and on the strength of A Bill of Divorcement RKO signed Hepburn to a long term contract. The film’s director George Cukor would go on to become a lifelong friend whom the actress would make a further nine films with. Hepburn’s third film, Morning Glory, cemented her as a major actress in Hollywood, a role for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. She had seen the script on the desk of producer Pandro S. Berman and was convinced she was born to play the part of Eva Lovelace, insisting the role be hers. She refused to attend the award ceremony, as she would do for the duration of her career. Her success continued with her next role as Jo in Little Women (1933), for which she won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival.
By the end of 1933 she had become a respected film actress but she longed to prove herself on Broadway. RKO allowed the actress to go on leave to pursue a stage role in The Lake but it was largely considered a failure. Her next three films would also be poorly received but this would all change with Alice Adams (1935), often considered one of Hepburn’s personal favourites, for which she received her second Oscar nomination. Her next film, Sylvia Scarlett (1935) would see her paired with Cary Grant in the first of many films they would star in together. The film was unpopular with audiences and critics and would be the first of four films she would produce to poor reviews. It didn’t help that she had a difficult relationship with the press and was perceived as rude and provocative. She refused to give interviews or sign autographs, earning her the nickname ‘Katharine of Arrogance’. The public were confused by her fashion choices and boyish demeanour which made her largely unpopular. Feeling the need to take a break from Hollywood, Hepburn returned to the theatre.
Towards the end of 1936 the actress vied for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind but producer David O. Selznick felt she had no sex appeal, commenting, ‘I can’t see Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years.’ Her next two films, Stage Door (1937) with Ginger Rogers and Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Cary Grant were both a hit with the critics but a flop with the public, earning her the label of ‘Box Office Poison’. With her reputation at an all-time low, RKO began offering her terrible roles, forcing the actress to buy herself out of her contract for $75,000 at a time when most actors were afraid to leave the studio system. She signed for the film version of Holiday (1938) with Columbia Pictures which would be her third pairing with Cary Grant and while it was positively reviewed, audiences were still wary of Hepburn.
The actress decided to take drastic action to orchestrate her own comeback, leaving Hollywood to star in the Philip Barry play The Philadelphia Story. Howard Hughes, Hepburn’s partner at the time, sensing this play could be her ticket back into popular opinion, bought her the film rights before it had even debut on stage. The play was a huge success, performing two financially and critically successful tours. While several film studios approached Hepburn to produce the film, she chose MGM, Hollywood’s number one studio at the time, on the condition she be the star and long-time friend George Cukor be the director. She also picked James Stewart and Cary Grant as her co-stars. This film was vitally important as a stepping stone to repairing her relationship with the public. Recognising this, Hepburn commented, ‘I don’t want to make a grand entrance in this picture. Moviegoers think I’m too la-di-da or something. A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face.’ Thus the film begins with Grant knocking the actress flat on her backside. The Philadelphia Story was one of the biggest hits of 1940, with Hepburn nominated for her third Academy Award for Best Actress.
Woman of the Year (1942) was Hepburn’s first film with Spencer Tracy with whom she would go on to share a twenty-six year relationship. The film received rave reviews and saw the actress receive a fourth Academy Award nomination. It was during filming that she signed a contract with MGM. Hepburn and Tracy would star in nine films together and their partnership has been considered one of Hollywood’s legendary love affairs. Throughout their partnership, which they largely kept secret, Tracy was married. The actor was also an alcoholic and Hepburn dedicated much of her time to making his life easier, which often included helping him to remember his lines, something which became increasingly more difficult as he got older. As the actor’s health began to deteriorate in the 1960s, Hepburn took a five year break from her career to care for him and she was with him when he died on June 10, 1967. She did not attend his funeral and it was not until after his wife’s death in 1983 that Hepburn began to speak openly about her feelings and their relationship. Their last role together was in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967), with Tracy dying seventeen days after filming his final scene.
In the 1950s as the actress neared her mid- 40s, a time when most women in Hollywood began to step back from acting, Hepburn began to challenge herself and threw herself into performing Shakespeare. 1951 she starred opposite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, her first film in technicolour, and received her fifth Academy Award Best Actress nomination. As she got older Hepburn fell into a pattern of playing strong willed spinsters, continuing to impress critics and audiences alike and receiving more Oscar nominations. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner (1967) was Hepburn’s most commercially successful film up to that point for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress, thirty-four years after winning her first. Hepburn’s career did not slow down as she aged, remaining active throughout the 1970s in film, theatre and television.
Hepburn made her only appearance at the Academy Awards in 1974 to present the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to Lawrence Weingarten. The actress received a standing ovation and joked with the audience, ‘I’m very happy I didn’t hear anyone call out it’s about time’. On Golden Pond (1981) was the second highest grossing film of that year and an irrefutable success, demonstrating how energetic and exceptional the seventy-four year old Hepburn still was. She continued to perform into her eighties until a tumour was discovered in 2003 with the actress dying shortly after on June 29, 2003 at the age of 96.
Despite early struggles, heavy criticism and constant hurdles which plagued her career, Hepburn is widely renowned as one of the most significant and influential cultural figures of the silver screen. She broke the mould for women in Hollywood, encouraging a new breed of strong willed and fiercely independent women. The actress achieved four Academy Awards for Best Actress, the highest number awarded to a performer, and her Oscar nominations are only surpassed by Meryl Streep. She received two awards and five nominations from the British Academy Film Awards, one award and six nominations from the Emmy Awards, eight Golden Globe nominations, two Tony Award nominations and awards from the Cannes Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards and the People’s Choice Awards. Over her sixty-six year career Hepburn appeared in forty-four feature films, eight television movies and thirty-three plays, appearing on stage in every decade from the 1920s – 1980s. Famously blunt and outspoken, Hepburn never shied away from a challenge and is widely considered one of the most successful and prolific actors of all time.