Hepburn, Katharine (1909—)

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Hepburn, Katharine (1909—)

Always a role model for female independence, self-determination, and integrity, actress Katharine Hepburn is thought by many to be one of the most monumental and enduring of all of Hollywood's stars. At the end of the twentieth century, Hepburn holds the record for Oscar wins (four) and nominations (twelve).

Hepburn spent her early years in Hartford, Connecticut, where her parents were liberal intellectuals who did not raise their children along traditional sex roles, but encouraged them to excel at all their endeavors and expand their boundaries. Her father was a successful physician and her mother an active suffragette, which gave Hepburn an expanded view of woman's role from an early age.

Hepburn was drawn to acting early and participated in local productions before going to Bryn Mawr and appearing in college theatricals. She graduated in 1928 and made her Broadway debut in The Warrior's Husband (1932) for which she garnered critical praise. She was then approached by Hollywood, but thinking Hollywood was not "legitimate," she demanded an extremely high salary, which, to her amazement, RKO accepted. Hepburn made her screen debut in 1932 in Bill of Divorcement starring John Barrymore, which was both a critical and box-office success. Upon her arrival in Hollywood Hepburn refused to conform to the standard starlet mold. She preferred to wear slacks to revealing dresses, avoided publicity, and closely guarded her private life. She shunned the party crowd of Hollywood and demanded to be dealt with respectfully.

She won her first Oscar for her third film, Morning Glory (1933), in which she played the aspiring actress/understudy who, after many manipulations, becomes an overnight success when the veteran actress has a breakdown that necessitates the understudy taking her place. The same year she appeared as Jo in Little Women, a role that she found personally rewarding. One of her next projects was the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), which ranks as one of the best examples of the genre. Hepburn portrayed the madcap heiress Susan Vance, who falls in love with an absentminded paleontologist (Cary Grant) and enlists his aid in caring for a tame leopard named Baby to keep him from marrying his staid assistant. Later that same year Hepburn appeared in Holiday, again with Grant.

For some reason, film exhibitors branded her "box office poison" despite her many successes, and Hepburn left Hollywood for Broadway, where she appeared in The Philadelphia Story, forgoing a salary in favor of a percentage of the profits and screen rights. It was a huge hit and enabled Hepburn to return to Hollywood with the upper hand. She sold the screen rights to MGM but maintained creative control, which allowed her to choose the director and her costars (Cary Grant and James Stewart). The film broke attendance records and won Hepburn the New York Film Critics Award as well as her third Oscar nomination.

Her next film, Woman of the Year (1942), paired her for the first time with Spencer Tracy and began a twenty-five-year-long relationship that ended only with Tracy's death. On-screen they were a remarkable team that made eight more films together: Keeper of the Flame (1942), Without Love (1945), The Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), Adam's Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957), and their final film, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967). Offscreen they remained devoted to one another and were seldom seen apart. Hepburn did appear in several films without Tracy during this period. In African Queen (1952) she portrayed an uptight spinster who falls in love with Humphrey Bogart's reprobate supply-boat "captain." She also appeared in Summertime (1955); The Rainmaker (1956); Suddenly, Last Summer (1959); and Long Day's Journey into Night (1962).

She retired from the screen for several years as Tracy became more ill but both returned in 1967 to appear in their last picture together, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, for which she won her second Oscar. She won her third Oscar for The Lion in Winter (1968) in which she portrayed Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her fourth for On Golden Pond (1981), for which she also won the British Academy Award.

While her work on television has not been as extensive, her performances have been of consistent quality. She received Emmy nominations for her performances in The Glass Menagerie (1973) and The Corn Is Green (1979), and won an Emmy for her portrayal of an elderly woman who finds Love among the Ruins (1975). She has also starred in several television movies including Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (1986), Laura Lansing Slept Here (1988), The Man Upstairs (1992), and This Can't Be Love (1994).

—Denise Lowe

Further Reading:

Felder, Deborah G. The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time. New York, Citadel Press, 1996.

Hepburn, Katharine. Me. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Martin, Jean, ed. Who's Who of Women in the Twentieth Century. New York, Crescent Books, 1995.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. New York, Dover Publications, 1980.