Saturday, May 12, 2007


Centennial Tributes: Katharine Hepburn

By Josh R
In a career spanning more than six decades, featuring a gallery of iconic characters and performances, Katharine Hepburn was always her own greatest creation. The actress, who was born May 12, 1907, not only defined her era but effectively opened up an entirely new realm of possibility for women in film. As she would firmly stipulate in her later years, she was not an agitator, an activist, or a political figure — she considered herself an actress, first and foremost, and if she broke down boundaries in the process, it wasn’t the result of any premeditated agenda on her part. That she challenged and expanded the definition of what constituted “feminine” behavior — both in the world of cinema and the world at large — was less a product of deliberate design than a reflection of the fact that she was, without apology or compromise, completely true to herself. Revolutions come about in many ways, and Hepburn set one in motion by the sheer force of her personality — it came about as a natural consequence of who she was. Along the way, she created an indelible body of work without precedent or parallel. I can’t definitively state whether or not she was the greatest screen actress of all time, or how I would go about ranking the others in the pantheon of legends in relation to her. I only know that there was, and is, only one Katharine Hepburn, and attempting to compare her to anyone else is an exercise in futility.

In the 1930s, she stood apart from the crowd; none of her contemporaries could touch her for originality, incisiveness or audacity. Very few films she made in the early stages of her career had the courage to run with her — at her worst, and sometimes even at her best, she could seem hopelessly affected and refined, too much of a rare bird to be credible as a mere mortal. She was occasionally a tomboy, but always with an element of exoticism — an aura of Bryn Mawr haughtiness coupled with an air of high-starch Yankee breeding. Any departure from convention is usually greeted with suspicion and resistance, and neither the Hollywood establishment nor the moviegoing public embraced her immediately. It went beyond the well-publicized fact that she preferred slacks to dresses — no one knew exactly what to make of the coltish New Englander with the angular features and forthright manner who made no attempt to conceal her intelligence while wearing her independent spirit like a badge of honor. She was never an ingénue; courtship, both on and off the screen, proceeded on her terms, not on anyone else’s. It would be an exaggeration to say that Hepburn pioneered the concept of the 20th century modern woman, but more than anyone else (save for Eleanor Roosevelt), she can be credited with having popularized it. On movie screens around the country and around the world, people saw something they hadn’t seen before. Whether they capitulated to her charms or wrote her off as an anomaly, they couldn’t help but take notice.

After some success on the New York stage, the actress was put under contract to RKO. She made an auspicious debut opposite John Barrymore in 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement — a tentative performance, but indicative of her potential. Perhaps even more importantly, the film marked the beginning of her association with George Cukor, the director who was to become her longtime collaborator and greatest champion — all told, they made 10 films together. Christopher Strong, in which she played an aviatrix in the Amelia Earhart mold, was a true oddity; very early on, it was apparent that the actress’ outré persona wouldn’t lend itself comfortably to traditional casting. Seemingly out of the blue, she received her first Academy Award for Morning Glory — a strange yet striking film in which she was cast as Eva Lovelace, an aspiring actress breathlessly pursuing stardom on the boards. The centerpiece of the film was a party scene in which a drunken Hepburn began spouting Shakespeare to demonstrate her acting prowess — a peculiar but arresting piece of grandstanding, and an early intimation of the brash flamboyance lurking behind the veneer of Yankee common sense. At this point in her career, it was not yet clear whether she had fully mastered the art of screen acting — her early success had more to do with the novelty of her persona than with the actual merits of her performances.

If the first few outings had the feeling of trial-and-error, it didn’t take Hepburn long to find her bearings and adjust to the medium. She was a natural choice to play Jo in Cukor’s Little Women — it took one New England tomboy to bring out the best in another. While overstated in its rambunctiousness, the performance communicated an energy and spirit that existed in welcome relief to the artificial, self-conscious quality that had characterized her previous work. The true breakthrough came with her touching portrayal of the title character in 1935’s Alice Adams, an emotionally acute performance which revealed the wistful insecurities behind the strident affectation; Bette Davis, who won that year’s best actress prize for Dangerous, stated that she felt Hepburn was more deserving of the honor, an assertion which few film buffs would challenge. The cross-dressing antics of Sylvia Scarlett, which intensified speculation surrounding Hepburn’s sexual orientation, did nothing to enhance her prestige. It’s worth noting how many truly bizarre films the actress took part in during her tenure at RKO — Spitfire, which cast her as a bare-footed Appalachian girl named Trigger with mystical healing powers, was the one which caused her the most embarrassment.

If her career up to this point had seemed touch-and-go, her last two years at the studio produced three genuine classics. Terry Randall, an upper-crust girl trying to break into show business in Gregory LaCava’s sublime Stage Door, bore a striking resemblance to the actress playing her, and not just by virtue of the obvious similarities in their backgrounds. When she and Ginger Rogers traded barbs in their scenes together, audiences were treated to an authentic battling rhythm fueled by genuine animosity and a spirit of competition — it was a notoriously unfriendly rivalry. As the lovelorn noncomformist in the following year’s Holiday, she perfected her expert chemistry with Cary Grant. It’s been said that he got more out of her than Spencer Tracy ever did — certainly, she took greater risks in his company (there was always something slightly deferential in the Hepburn/Tracy dynamic, at least on her part). In any event, Bringing Up Baby was a masterpiece, and a chance for Hepburn to unbend in deliciously unexpected ways. She was not the obvious choice for the role of a dizzy heiress in a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks — that would have been Carole Lombard — but offbeat casting decisions can often yield the highest dividends, and Baby is nearly everyone’s favorite Katharine Hepburn film. As the impulsive debutante juggling her pursuit of a bespectacled paleontologist with her custodianship of a leopard, she threw caution to the wind and let down her hair — there was a spirit of giddy abandon at work in her performance, a willingness to act silly and be silly, that freed her from her own confining persona while at the same time referencing it in sly, nodding fashion (in a way, Hepburn spent most of the film poking fun at Hepburn). Breezing through the din like a Typhoid Mary on roller skates, the actress was blissfully uninhibited and deliriously funny from start to finish, yet never lost sight of what drove her character’s eccentric and erratic behavior. At heart, Susan Vance — who acts on whim and a freewheeling improvisatory logic that she alone can follow, with a blithe indifference to the precepts of decorum or any measure of reason — is just a lovestruck, sentimental goof who just can’t keep her emotions in check long enough to act like a normal human being. It’s a reflection of the Academy’s chronic lack of insight that the actress who, until recently, held the record for the most nominations, failed to be recognized for what may ultimately stand as her greatest triumph.

As if to be punished for her unwillingness to play it safe, don a dress and moon stupidly over the likes of Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, Hepburn was branded box-office poison and dropped from her contract at RKO. She returned to New York for the stage version of The Philadelphia Story, secured the film rights, and more or less strong-armed Louis B. Mayer into letting her repeat her performance for the MGM film adaptation. The role of Tracy Lord, a haughty socialite who views the imperfections of others as an insupportable blemish on her otherwise charmed existence, cannily exploited her natural imperiousness and debunked the prevailing notion that the actress was too proud to show her flaws. It was a custom-built showcase specifically designed to make the Hepburn persona more accessible to those who found her superior attitude off-putting — in setting her up for a fall, it almost felt like an act of penance. In truth, the actress’s proficiency in the role only partially disguised how thin and arch and the source material actually was. Viewing the film from a modern perspective, there’s something slightly misogynistic, if not downright grotesque, in the way the deck is so heavily stacked against its heroine — in addition to all the “cold, unfeeling goddess” talk, there’s one rather nauseating scene where Tracy’s father chalks up his infidelities to the fact that his daughter doesn’t worship him enough (the audience is supposed to be on the father’s side). It's a credit to Hepburn that she managed to make the character as likeable as she did.

Her career reignited, the actress embarked on a new chapter, re-positioning herself as one half of a team. Her romantic partnership with Tracy was the stuff of legend, if not always great cinema — it produced more than its share of duds and mediocrities. State of the Union and Desk Set were agreeable diversions, but Keeper of the Flame, Without Love and The Sea of Grass were misconceived endeavors that no amount of talent could render tolerable. Three of their efforts endure as genuine classics, the slightest of which, Pat and Mike, is virtually beyond reproach — although the first and most celebrated of their pairings was also their best. Woman of the Year had a crackerjack script and furnished both stars with ample room in which to shine. The role of Tess Harding, a career woman par excellence, allowed Hepburn to express a bracing intelligence and forthright sexuality unlike anything her previous roles had revealed. If Tracy brought out the warmth in Hepburn, she liberated his sense of mischief; their chemistry had an easy, natural quality, at once subtle yet unpretentious. If the film’s pat ending betrayed both Hepburn and the character to some degree, it’s a flaw that can be overlooked — the film is so good in every other respect that even an infusion of 1940s sexism can’t detract from its overall appeal. Adam’s Rib provided further evidence of the extent to which both actors flourished in adversarial roles which allowed them to banter, even if Hepburn’s opposing counsel Amanda Bonner had to argue the somewhat ridiculous legal position that a woman should be excused for committing a crime of passion, because for a male perpetrator such an act would be considered socially acceptable (sure it would, in ancient Gaul).

Working with Tracy had a mellowing effect on the highly-strung girl of the 1930s — if this Kate wasn’t exactly tamed, her onscreen persona became more relaxed in reaction to her partner’s unforced naturalism. By her third decade as a star, she had become a clear audience favorite. The 1950s brought a spate of spinster roles all of which conformed to a similar pattern — the cautious maiden lady melting under the spell of unexpected romance. The African Queen, which cast her opposite Humphrey Bogart, was an unqualified triumph. As the prim-and-proper missionary falling hook, line and sinker for a scruffy riverboat captain, she braved the tides of the Belgian Congo and seemed thoroughly engaged from start to finish — the great outdoors was always her natural element. She was very good as a frustrated schoolteacher vacationing abroad in Summertime, but the performance took a back seat to the sumptuous location photography — Venice was the real star of the film. The Rainmaker gave her more of an opportunity to show her range; she responded well to the inherent theatricality of the piece, and offered a heartfelt delineation of quiet desperation blossoming into romantic euphoria. As a change of pace from refined spinsterhood, she took an abrupt turn into the realm of screaming camp. Suddenly, Last Summer, adapted from a Tennessee Williams southern gothic, was a lurid exercise in excess dealing with cannibalism, homosexuality and lobotomy — it was as if the author took every taboo he could think of, tossed them into the pot and hoped for the best. Hepburn was cast, somewhat improbably, as a devouring gorgon in heat for her dead son; she attacked the role with hammy relish, but failed to bring much emotional credibility to a film that tried for shock value and wound up seeming overheated and absurd.

The 1960s saw Hepburn working with less frequency as a result of Tracy’s failing health. Her turn as the opium-addicted mother in Long Day’s Journey into Night is often cited as one of her greatest achievements, although in truth she was somewhat miscast. Hepburn was not the ideal person to communicate lack of wherewithal, fragility and a sense of helplessness — even when the character was at her most pathetic, the personality of the actress was too forceful to make it entirely convincing. She experienced a career renaissance following Tracy’s death, winning consecutive best actress trophies for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and The Lion in Winter (actually, half a win considering that she tied with Barbra Streisand). The former cast her and Tracy as the parents of a young woman who wants to enter into an interracial marriage. The film didn’t quite have the courage of its convictions — if the African-American suitor in question hadn’t been a Rhodes scholar, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, and working on a cure for cancer, the film would have actually been about something. Hepburn’s solid if unremarkable work didn’t qualify as one of her more interesting efforts, and the Oscar win had the appearance of a gesture of condolence (Tracy died shortly after filming had been completed). She dusted off her Suddenly, Last Summer dragon-lady act for The Lion in Winter’s poisonous Plantagenet matriarch, wisely playing it to the hilt in a film she surely sensed was lowbrow camp posing as Masterpiece Theater — actors always seem to have more fun with scripts they know are terrible.

She worked sporadically throughout the '70s and '80s, with forays into television and theater. On Broadway, she croaked her way gamely through the musical Coco, to general approbation — she earned a Tony nomination for her efforts, and another 12 years later for West Side Waltz. 1971’s The Trojan Women was the last theatrical film that made any real demands on her as an actress — for the most part, she seemed increasingly content to play Katharine Hepburn (Rooster Cogburn belongs in this category, although she seemed to get a genuine kick out of playing opposite John Wayne). Her last great performance came in 1975’s Love Among the Ruins, which cast her as a Victorian grand dame testing the nerves of Laurence Olivier’s hapless barrister, and for which she won an Emmy. She was awarded her record fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond, mainly for sentiment’s sake. An elegiac examination of an elderly couple set against a sun-streaked New Hampshire sky, Mark Rydell’s calculated exercise in nostalgia didn’t afford the actress the opportunity to do much more than gaze lovingly at Henry Fonda and make gentle clucking noises. You can’t really fault The Academy for conducting itself like a ga-ga fan club as far as Hepburn was concerned — in later years, she would describe herself as “fascinating" and damned if she wasn’t. Her final screen appearance came with 1994’s Love Affair, in a rather unflattering cameo which required her to utter the F-word — judging by her nearly inaudible delivery of the vulgarism, she found the assignment somewhat embarrassing. Her participation was obtained as a concession to Warren Beatty’s vanity — her biographer Scott Berg’s devastating account of its making was more entertaining than the film itself.

There are many of us who hoped — somewhat selfishly — that the actress would live to see her centennial year. Even though the possibility of her working again was slim to none, there was something reassuring in the knowledge that she was still there, the last vestige of a bygone era and an enduring reminder of its majesty. I once got into a lengthy argument with a professor who made the bald pronouncement that Hepburn had no range. Success in screen acting today is usually judged by the extent to which a performer can sublimate his or her own personality in service to a role — something Katharine Hepburn never did. Meryl Streep is generally acknowledged as the greatest actress of her generation; her champions would cite her chameleon-like ability to assume any physical or vocal characteristic under the sun as proof of her genius. The intense preparation and meticulous care that have gone into each performance is always made explicit — Hepburn summed it up to her biographer by pointing to her temple and muttering “click click click.” It’s an approach that exists in stark contrast to the golden age of cinema, when roles were specifically tailored to suit the personas of stars who were playing them — singular wonders like John Wayne, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn, who put their own personal stamp on every role they played. Fifty years later, the object has changed. In order to give a great performance, an actor needs to get as far away from themselves as humanly possible, to the point where their peers can say, with a note of awe in their voices, “I forgot I was watching Charlize Theron.” You never forget you’re watching Katharine Hepburn, and that — to my way of thinking — doesn’t constitute a weakness. Acting is about connecting to an audience, and in that regard, she never faltered. She didn’t disappear into her characters — her greatness lay in her ability to find different levels and variations within her own unique persona. You knew that you were watching the real thing. Quite simply, she was one of a kind.

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That was a great read, befitting a great lady. I agree with you that her best and most adorable performance was as Susan Vance, though Tracy Lord and Eleanor of Aquitaine come very close.
Hepburn truly was one of a kind. Not only was she a great actress, she was a great personality. What actress from later generations truly qualify as both?
Thanks for this wonderful tribute. You're right that, as an actress and as a personality, her influence will never be equalled.

I think I'll settle in today with a double feature of my two favorites, The Philadelphia Story and The Lion in Winter. Followed perhaps by Adam's Rib, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday...
Superb article. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

A wonderful tribute. As usual, I learn things when I read one of Josh R's pieces.
Great piece, Josh R! Kate would say "rally it is..."

Bringing Up Baby is my favorite Kate Hepburn movie. It's fast, it's witty, it's warped, and it was made at a time when Kate was "box office poison!"

I'll also always remember her saying "Fuck a duck" in Warren Beatty's misfired remake of Love Affair. I think that's the first time she uttered the F-word onscreen.
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