HEPBURN, KATHARINE (1907 or 1909– ) Actress

During her 62-year film career, Katharine Hepburn embodied the independent American woman both onscreen and off. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 12 in 1907 or 1909, she was one of six children in a well-to-do New England family. From an early age, her parents encouraged her to think for herself and stand up for what she believed. Her mother was a wellregarded suffragist, while her father, a physician, was an early advocate for educating the public about venereal disease.

Katharine received an excellent private school education before enrolling at Bryn Mawr College, the alma mater of both her mother and her grandmother. By the time she graduated in 1928, she had decided to become an actress. In a 1992 interview, she explained that she chose her profession for no other reason than “I wanted to be famous.” In 1928, Hepburn married the socially prominent Ludlow Ogden Smith. She wrote in her 1991 autobiography that she was “an absolute pig” in her dealings with Smith. The couple separated after only three weeks, although they were not divorced until 1934. Hepburn never married again.

With the help of acting coaches, she gradually moved from summer stock to Broadway. In 1932, she played the role of a scantily-clad Amazon queen in the satire The Warrior’s Husband. David O. Selznick offered her a contract with RKO. Citing this as the first overture made to her by Hollywood, Hepburn later quipped, “They didn’t like me until I got into a leg show.” Ambivalent about film, she asked for an outrageous salary of $1,500 a week. When RKO unexpectedly agreed to her terms, she set off for Los Angeles. Hepburn made her film debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), opposite John Barrymore. The movie paired her with director George Cukor, with whom she would work on many of her best films. Though her acting was unpolished, she emerged from the movie a promising new talent. After suffering a popular disappointment with Christopher Strong (1933), she became a star with her third film, Morning Glory (1933), the story of an aspiring actress. The movie won Hepburn the first of three best actress Oscars.

Naturally thin and athletic, Hepburn had an aristocratic beauty unusual in 1930s Hollywood. She had her greatest successes in the decade playing assertive heroines (Little Women, 1933; Stage Door, 1937) and eccentric socialites (Bringing Up Baby, 1938; Holiday, 1938). However, her studio, RKO, seemed to have little confidence in her future. Irritated by their lack of interest in building her career, Hepburn attempted a return to theater in a disastrous production of The Lake (1934). The play was a commercial fiop, and Hepburn’s performance was critically scathed. Famously, theater critic Dorothy Parker wrote that in the play Hepburn ran “the gamut of emotion, from A to B.”In 1938, RKO wanted Hepburn to star in Mother Carey’s Chickens, a melodrama about the struggles of a poor farm family. Feeling her studio was placing her in projects unsuitable to her talents, she bought out her contract for more than $200,000. Hepburn then returned to the stage, this time in a comedy especially tailored for her by Philip Barry, who had written the play on which her film Holiday was based. Titled The Philadelphia Story, Barry’s new play focused on Tracy Lord, a spoiled socialite who needed to learn to respect human weakness before she could find love. The production, in which Hepburn had invested, was an enormous hit. Controlling the movie rights herself, she sold them to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) at a profit with the stipulation that the film version had to star her under Cukor’s direction. The resulting movie was a great commercial and critical success that brought Hepburn back to Hollywood’s A-list.

Her next film at MGM was Woman of the Year (1942), her first of nine movies costarring Spencer Tracy. The comedy dealt with the relationship between two reporters, casting Hepburn as an accomplished professional as her movies with Tracy often did. In both comedy and drama, they usually played a couple who constantly sparred with one another, all the while exploring the things that drive men and woman together and apart. Among their most effective pairings were Adam’s Rib (1949), in which Hepburn was cast as a prominent lawyer, and Pat and Mike (1952), in which she had the chance to display her athletic talent while playing a professional athlete. Offscreen, Hepburn and Tracy had a love affair, which they succeeded in keeping from the public eye for many years. Tracy had separated from his wife before meeting Hepburn but stayed married throughout their 25-year relationship.
By the 1950s, as Hepburn moved into her 40s, she was no longer cast as the spirited socialite or professional woman. Instead, her independence took on a more negative light. Hepburn delivered excellent performances in The African Queen (1951) and Summertime (1955), though in both romances she played a somewhat priggish spinster. She also increasingly portrayed eccentrics in films such as Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). The 1960s, however, brought Hepburn several memorable roles. She had perhaps her greatest critical triumph in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), in which she starred as the drug-addicted matriarch of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play. Hepburn also had popular successes with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968), for which she won her second and third Oscars.

Hepburn continued to act in the 1970s, though appropriate vehicles proved harder to find. She again collaborated with George Cukor in Love Among the Ruins (1975), a ade-for-television romance that coupled Hepburn with Laurence Olivier and won her an Emmy Award. Other television roles included an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie (1972) and a remake of The Corn Is Green (1979), her final work directed by Cukor.

Hepburn had less success on the big screen. Her most prominent film of the 1970s, Rooster Cogburn, had little to recommend it except the novelty of seeng her costar with the legendary John Wayne, in one of his final film appearances. However, a 1981 pairing with another acting great, Henry Fonda, brought Hepburn her last substantial role. In the film On Golden Pond, Hepburn played the stalwart wife of Fonda’s aging professor. For her performance, Hepburn won her fourth best actress Oscar, a record that has yet to be surpassed.

After appearing in a small role in Love Affair (1994), Hepburn retired from film, leaving behind a legacy of 47 movies. Much of her work, particularly her performances from the 1930s and 1940s, remains fresh, largely because Hepburn and the characters she portrayed were far ahead of their time. Decades before the idea of the liberated woman was widely accepted, Hepburn had consistently played the part—both in film and in life. In a fitting tribute to her infiuence on American culture, a 1999 American Film Institute poll of leading critics named Katharine Hepburn the greatest female star of the movies.

Further Reading
Hepburn, Katharine. Me: Stories of My Life. New York: Knopf, 1991.
Leaming, Barbara. Katharine Hepburn. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.
Ryan, Joal. Katharine Hepburn: A Stylish Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Adam’s Rib (1949). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Bringing Up Baby (1938). Turner Home Video, VHS, 1997.
On Golden Pond (1982). Artisan Entertainment, DVD/VHS, 1998.
The Philadelphia Story (1940). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.