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Katharine Hepburn: Collected Works of an Award Winning Actress

Updated on August 23, 2011

We must protect certain American legends in the arts. Katharine Hepburn is one of them. One of the truly few great American film actors, her strange New England voice and haughty mannerisms left fans adoring and disdainful. People either loved or hated Hepburn.

Academy Award winner for Best Actress (4 out of 27 nominations), she was the most honored screen actor of her time. Despite recognition from the Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, she left audiences divided. Honors by the Kennedy Center and the American Film Institute did not impress her or moviegoers who did not like her in the first place. However, her contribution to American film is unique and lasting. It deserves study, preservation, and exposure.

One problem is that many of her films were filmed in black and white. Fortunately, the directors and cinematographers she worked with in those films were masters of the art form. Even though, there is little or no audience for black and white movies, hers are collectors’ items.

· A Bill of Divorcement (1932) was a stunning debut. A soap opera melodrama starring John Barrymore and Billie Burke, she was luminous in the stylized lighting and cinematography of the day. She stood out as a spirited, independent woman, a position she would own for most of her career.

· Morning Glory (1933) earned Hepburn her first Academy Award. In this backstage show biz story, Hepburn stars as an exuberant, naïve ingénue surrounded by corrupt directors, agents, and producers. She revealed and reveled in the electric personality and stage center role.

· Little Women (1933) let her make her mark as Jo in this best of the several tries at making film of Louisa May Alcott’s perennial favorite. Again, Hepburn is the creative daughter, the independent one who leaves home for adventures.

· Mary of Scotland (1936) puts her into a costume drama with that, in retrospect, looks lo budget. This very limitation, nonetheless, allows her to stand out. Her theatrical training makes her mistress of the set despite her unsuitable accent. John Ford directs her and Fredric March in a dark brooding Scotland befitting Macbeth’s doings.

· Stage Door (1937) opens the doors of a theatrical boarding house where a variety of young world-be Broadway stars audition, date, and launch their careers. She is the wealthy, smart mouthed, ambitious one that creates her own problems.

· Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Cary Grant marks her first major role as a comedian. Waltzing and flouncing through this inane comedy-romance, she will set the course for her next batch of movies.

· Holiday (1938) is her second film with Cary Grant in the same year and her first film with George Cukor, who would become one of her favorite directors. This is another light romantic comedy without the zaniness of Bringing up Baby.

· The Philadelphia Story (1940) reunites her with Cary Grant and George Cukor and the marvelous James Stewart in a sophisticated comedy about courtship, divorce, and marriage among the wealthy. This series of films with Cary Grant remain classics in all aspects of filmmaking, not the least of which are her performances.

· Woman of the Year (1942) marks her partnership with Spencer Tracey, the love of her personal life. The film’s excellence is due in large part to the excellent screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. and the smart brisk direction of George Stevens. It is, however, the personal chemistry between Tracey and Hepburn that makes this story work. Significantly in tune with her personal beliefs – as well as those of her mother, Hepburn plays an active feminist.

· State of the Union (1948) with Spencer Tracey comes after a few forgettable films, including the very ill advised Dragon Seed in which she played a Chinese villager – with that New England accent. Nevertheless, the wait for this gem was worth it. This script, directed by Frank Capra, allows her more opportunity to be the outspoken independent radical on the stage of American presidential politics.

· Adam’s Rib (1949) ends an era. Working again with Spencer Tracey and George Cukor, she and Tracey deliver stunning performances in a Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin script about married lawyers at work, opposite each other, on the same trial. Judy Holiday and Tom Ewell contribute big laughs, but if you want to appreciate movie making, just watch the scene in which Tracey and Hepburn prepare a meal. They argue, move, and gesture non-stop in a magical 3 minutes.

The subsequent films mark her “modern” work. She would return in black and white films, but audiences were demanding color.

· The African Queen (1951) teams her with Humphrey Bogart for unexpected chemistry. They each provide iconic performances: he as a hard-drinking riverboat owner and she as a prim missionary. As this oddball couple try to flee Africa, she persuades Bogart to turn his boat into a torpedo to attack a German warship. Directed by John Houston, the work is legendary.

· Pat and Mike (1952) links her again with Tracey and Cukor in another Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin script. In this one, she plugs feminism indirectly as a famous pro athlete whose performance is hurt by her domineering fiancé. She joins up with Tracey’s shady sports promoter, and they fall in love. Both actors were middle-aged by this time, and their personal love affair had matured, so there is very nice mellow screen chemistry at play.
Desk Set (1957) comes as Spencer Tracey’s health declines. They will only work one together one more time in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968), a well-received but second-rate film about race-relations in the upper class. In Desk Set, we have a clever, witty personality conflict between a computer whiz and an efficiency expert planted to observe her work.

· Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) casts her as the grand dame Catherine Holly in Tennessee Williams’ southern gothic tragedy. The ensemble cast in this black and white film puts her in company with Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, and Mercedes McCambridge. Hepburn has one of the great entrances of all time.

· Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) puts her into Eugene O’Neill’s dysfunctional tragedy. Suitably filmed in black and white by Sidney Lumet, the film includes extraordinary performances by Hepburn, Sir Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell. Dreary and oppressive in its almost 3-hour length, the film had a very limited audience as had the play.

· The Lion in winter (1968) brings another play to the screen in color. She works here with Sir Peter O’Toole and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Hepburn brings fire to the role of the stubborn imprisoned Eleanor of Aquitaine as she schemes to protect the interests of her heirs. Witty and angry, the script plays on the chemistry between these great actors. Unfortunately, the twitches and tics caused by Hepburn’s apparent Parkinson’s disease became more and more apparent on screen.

· The Glass Menagerie (1973) put her on screen with “youngsters” such as Sam Waterston and Michael Moriarity. Perhaps a bit old for the casting, Hepburn still brought a new dimension to the, by then, classic American role.

· On Golden Pond (1981) was her last important role among a few TV performances and some bad choices. However, this lovely moving film is a wonderful farewell. Hepburn id marked by her Parkinson’s, but it makes her indomitable, loyal, and loving wife of a very frail Henry Fonda. The back-story involving Jane Fonda and her son is unimportant against this tableau of these two acting legends in their last summer.

Katharine Hepburn was born of New England aristocrats and educated at Bryn Mawr. Her origins left her with a grand, haughty manner and an upper-class accent and style. She was not good at accents and did not sing or dance well. In the end, none of these characteristics got in the way of her playing strong, independent woman who could make you laugh or tear your heart out.


Submit a Comment

  • Victoria Lynn profile image

    Victoria Lynn 

    7 years ago from Arkansas, USA

    Nice hub on one of the greats! How could anyone not like Hepburn? She was great! I enjoy your writing and plan to read more.


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