Hepburn, Katharine (1907—)
Hepburn, Katharine (1907—)
American theater, film, and television actor who excelled in both comic and dramatic roles and won an unprecedented four Academy Awards. Pronunciation: HEP-burn. Born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut; daughter of Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn (a surgeon) and Katharine Martha (Houghton) Hepburn (a suffragist and pioneer for women's rights); graduated Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, B.A., 1928; married Ludlow Ogden Smith, on December 12, 1928 (divorced 1934); no children.
Made her professional Broadway debut (1928); made her screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932); won her first Academy Award for Best Actress for Morning Glory (1934); met Spencer Tracy (1941), sharing a personal and professional relationship with him that spanned 27 years and included making nine films together; awarded two consecutive Oscars, for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1968) and The Lion in Winter (1969); made a much celebrated return to the stage to star in Coco, her first and only musical (1969); made her television debut (1973); received an Emmy Award for Best Actress in Love Among the Ruins (1975); awarded her fourth and last Oscar for On Golden Pond (1982); during a professional career that spanned almost seven decades, performed in 43 films, 33 stage plays, and seven television movies.
Theater roles include:
Antiope in The Warrior's Husband (1932); Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1939); The Lady in The Millionairess (1952); Coco Chanel in the musical Coco (1969); Mrs. Basil in A Matter of Gravity (1976); and Margaret Mary Elderdice in The West Side Waltz (1981).
A Bill of Divorcement (1932); Eve Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933); Christopher Strong (1933); Jo in Little Women (1933); Spitfire (1934); The Little Minister (1934); Break of Hearts (1935); Alice Adams (1935); Sylvia Scarlett (1936); Mary of Scotland (1936); A Woman Rebels (1936); Quality Street (1937); Stage Door (1937); Bringing Up Baby (1938); Holiday (1938); Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940); Woman of the Year (1942); Keeper of the Flame (1942); Stage Door Canteen (1943); Dragon Seed (1944); Without Love (1945); Undercurrent (1946); The Sea of Grass (1947); Song of Love (1947); State of the Union (1948); Adam's Rib (1949); Rose Sayer in The African Queen (1951); Pat and Mike (1952); Summertime (1955); Lizzie Curry in The Rainmaker (1956); The Iron Petticoat (1956); Desk Set (1957); Mrs. Venable in Suddenly Last Summer (1959); Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night (1962); Christina Drayton in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967); Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968); The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969); Hecuba in The Trojan Women (1971); A Delicate Balance (1973); Eula Goodnight in Rooster Cogburn (1975); Olly Olly Oxen Free (1978); Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond (1981); The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (1984); Aunt Ginny in Love Affair (1994).
Television roles include:
Amanda Wingfield in "The Glass Menagerie" (1973); Jessica Medlicott in "Love Among the Ruins" (1975); Miss Moffat in "The Corn Is Green" (1979); "Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry" (1986); Victoria in "The Man Upstairs" (1992); Miss Cornelia in "One Christmas" (1994).
Every theatregoer in New York was talking about it. That fresh, young starlet Katharine Hepburn, their newest toast of the town, was returning to Broadway to star in The Lake. After a rather checkered early career, Hepburn had no sooner caught the Broadway public's attention as Antiope in The Warrior's Husband than she headed West to make her mark in the movies. And indeed she did. In less than two years, she made four films, including Morning Glory (which would win her an Academy Award for Best Actress) and Little Women. It was December 26, 1933, just a few months after her Hollywood triumph, and Katharine Hepburn was riding high. A New York newspaper reported that The Lake had sold out its first four weeks before the show even opened. In attendance at the Martin Beck Theater on opening night were such celebrities as Noel Coward, George S. Kaufman, Amelia Earhart , and Dorothy Parker —as well as the entire Hepburn family. The lights finally dimmed and came up again on Stella Surrege, the young society woman whose husband had drowned on the very day of their recent wedding. And there she was, Katharine Hepburn as the tragic Stella, speaking her first lines on stage: "The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower. I carried them on my wedding day. And now I place them here, in memory of someone who is dead."
The Lake could have—should have—been a smash hit for this rising star, but instead it was a disaster. Dorothy Parker's now famous critique in the Journal-American complained, "She ran
the gamut of emotion from A to B." Hepburn wrote her own critique of that performance in her autobiography Me: "My cue came. I walked on. And I walked through the whole opening night. It was perfectly awful. Like an automaton…. I just went on and on and on. I hadn't died. I was there. Fully conscious of having given a totally nothing performance." What went wrong? Hepburn claimed that constant sparring with director Jed Harris during rehearsals had made her lose her confidence. On opening night, she responded by losing control of her pitch and her timing, speaking faster and faster as her voice went higher and higher. After only 55 New York performances, The Lake closed, but not before Hepburn had made a concerted effort to improve her voice, relaxation, and concentration. And she did improve during the play's short run, although not enough to combat how history would record that opening-night disaster. For most American actors seeking stardom, such a flop would have been devastating to a young career. But not so for Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn has enjoyed one of the longest stage and screen careers of the 20th century, due not only to her talent but perhaps even more so to her extraordinary strength of character. She once called herself, in comical understatement, "feisty." She was born a Connecticut Yankee to parents who instilled the values of bravery, integrity, and the belief in equal rights for men and women. "Mother and Dad," as she calls them, were trailblazers who taught their daughter to live up to her potential. Her father Dr. Thomas Hepburn was a surgeon who founded the New England Social Hygiene Association, which was devoted to educating the public about venereal disease. Her mother Katharine Houghton Hepburn , for whom she was named, headed the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and also championed the cause of birth control. Kate Hepburn grew up in the kind of household where tea was served every day promptly at five and the plays of Shakespeare and Shaw were read aloud. No wonder she proclaimed in Me, "What luck to be born out of love and to live in an atmosphere of warmth and interest."
There's been a motto in my family for as long as I can remember. My parents lived by it and so do I…. "Listen to the song of life."
The second oldest of six children, "Kathy," or "Kath" to her family, grew up in Hartford and happily spent her youth wallowing in sports—tennis, golf, and especially swimming. (She gave herself the nickname "Jimmy" and liked to wear her hair short.) When she was five-and-a-half, her father bought the family a summer home at Fenwick, a small community on the Connecticut coast, and for her entire life Hepburn spent every summer she could there. In addition to sports, amateur theatricals were her favorite summer pastime. Hepburn remembers performing Beauty and the Beast on her best friend's front porch—her friend played Beauty and she played the Beast. She also had a miniature stage that she made herself out of a wooden box. Kate made scenery and actor figures and the stories to go with them, performing for her siblings. Dr. Hepburn took the children to the movies every Saturday night, and on special occasions they saw touring productions at the local theater. Kate and her older brother Tom even visited their Aunt Mary Towle in New York City, who took them to see plays.
It was in so many ways an idyllic childhood, until tragedy struck when Kate was 14. Her older brother Tom, whom she adored, died. Kate discovered him hanging from a rafter in the attic of Mary Towle's house. The family never knew whether it was an accident or intentional. The incident certainly changed Kate forever. She did not go back to school the following fall, but instead finished her high-school years at home with private tutors. When she enrolled at Bryn Mawr at the age of 16, Hepburn was a shy young woman who kept to herself. But by her sophomore year, she had made a circle of friends and the acting bug had bitten. She performed in several plays at Bryn Mawr, including the May Day production during her senior year of John Lyly's The Woman in the Moon. By graduation day 1928, Katharine Hepburn knew she wanted to be an actor.
The very next day after her graduation, Hepburn arrived in Baltimore to see Edwin Knopf, a young producer who ran the Auditorium Theater Players. He had promised her a role as one of four ladies-in-waiting in The Czarina. Indeed, Katharine Hepburn's professional theater debut was as a walk-on, a nameless, nonspeaking role. After another small part as a flapper in The Cradle Snatchers, Hepburn moved to New York, for Knopf had offered her a supporting role in the Broadway-bound The Big Pond. In addition to rehearsals, Hepburn started taking lessons from Frances Robinson-Duff , one of New York's most respected voice coaches. Robinson-Duff tried diligently to train her new pupil to use her diaphragm rather than speaking from her throat, but the headstrong young Hepburn just could not get it. Her high-pitched nasal voice that became one of her trademarks would also cause her many problems. Just nine days before The Big Pond was scheduled to open its pre-Broadway tryout in Great Neck, New York, the leading lady quit and Hepburn replaced her. Frantic to learn her lines and make the transition in time, Hepburn claimed she was terrified, and that terror took over. Her performance was so poor that she was fired; Robinson-Duff had the unhappy task of telling her so the next day.
Everything about those early days in New York was not grim, however. She met Laura Harding , another student of Robinson-Duff, and they became lifelong friends. Miraculously, Arthur Hopkins, a highly respected producer of the Theater Guild, had seen her in Great Neck and saw a spark of talent beneath Hepburn's botched performance. He offered her a small part as a schoolgirl in These Days, and Hepburn made her Broadway debut on November 12, 1928. Although These Days closed after a disappointing eight performances, Hepburn had other things on her mind. During her senior year at Bryn Mawr, she had met Ludlow Ogden Smith, a Philadelphia socialite who didn't much care for a career of his own and believed wholeheartedly in her acting ability. Luddy was the perfect partner for Kate: his devotion allowed her to be totally consumed in her career—and herself. In Me, Hepburn recalled, "I was just full of the joy of life and opportunity and a wild desire to be absolutely fascinating." Exactly a month after her New York debut, Kate and Luddy were married at her parents' home in West Hartford. They rented a small walk-up apartment in Manhattan, and Hepburn continued to pound on producers' doors.
For the next two years, Hepburn's stage career was a combination of near-hits and many misses. She kept getting cast, and she also kept getting fired. She seemed to fight with everyone, because she was a perfectionist and because she had her own ideas about how a role should be played. She also developed a reputation for being rude, bossy, and odd. (There was plenty of gossip concerning her predilection for wearing slacks.) But behind all of her bravura and strange habits, there was an indefatigable energy, a drive in her desire to succeed that could not be squelched. Success finally came with a role that seemed perfectly suited to her athletic physique and forceful personality. It was the Amazon queen, Antiope, in a farce called The Warrior's Husband. Hepburn's first entrance called for her to come bounding on stage down a high stairway, throw down a fake stag that she carried on her shoulders, and wrestle with her leading man. The New York critics applauded and even Hollywood took notice. The agent Leland Hayward invited her to take a screen test. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, film director George Cukor and producer David O. Selznick were searching for a young woman to star opposite the legendary John Barrymore as his daughter. When Cukor saw the screen test, he knew he had found her. Hepburn signed a contract with RKO Pictures, and in July 1932 she boarded a train with friend Laura Harding headed for Hollywood.
Hepburn's screen debut as Sydney Fairfield in A Bill of Divorcement marked the beginning of a film career that has never faltered. Her first moments on screen found her once again bounding down a staircase—faintly reminiscent of her Warrior's Husband stage entrance, but there the comparison ends. Here, dressed in a stunning white evening gown, she glided down the stairs as if her feet never touched the ground and into the arms of her handsome beau. In every closeup, her face had a radiance that inspired George Cukor to say she was "made for the screen." Neither was Hepburn shy in front of the camera; in fact, she seemed to demand its attention. Her high-powered energy translated into an intensity on the screen that demanded the audience's attention, too. When A Bill of Divorcement premiered in New York in the fall of 1932, the critics hailed Hepburn's star quality. Cukor also recognized her potential, and, although they had many confrontations during the film's shooting, he admired her gumption. Cukor and Hepburn became lifelong friends and comrades, making ten films together during the course of their lengthy careers.
Four films followed in quick succession, and the variety of roles was a testament to the breadth of Hepburn's talent. In Dorothy Arzner 's Christopher Strong, Hepburn played an adventurous "aviatrix" in love with a married man. In Morning Glory, a naive girl from a small town in New England comes to New York to conquer the stage. The story line may have parodied Hepburn's own life, but the mesmerizing performance was still all Hepburn. The stagestruck Eva Lovelace finally brought Hepburn her yearned-for celebrity. With the receipt of her first Academy Award in 1934 for Morning Glory, Katharine Hepburn was indeed a star. She followed with Little Women, in which she played the charming but spunky Jo March, and Spitfire, a drama about a mountain girl who is shunned by her community. The lukewarm reception for Spitfire could not dampen the enthusiasm of Hepburn fans.
Hepburn had insisted that her contract with RKO promised her the right to return to the stage in between films. Fortunately, after The Lake disaster she quickly returned to the less hostile atmosphere of Hollywood. Screen roles dominated the remainder of the 1930s for Hepburn, although at this time she believed the theater to be a much higher art form than film. Her next seven movies followed a rather rocky road. Besides a few flops, she won her second Oscar nomination for playing the title role in Alice Adams, about a working-class girl trying to climb up the social ladder. In Sylvia Scarlett, she played a boy so convincingly that audiences left the theater in droves during the scene when she kissed another woman. In 1937, a box-office personality poll ranked Hepburn in 70th place—a scary position, regardless of the huge salary RKO paid her. Then she brought a theater script about a group of would-be actresses to RKO. In Stage Door, which had been a hit on Broadway the previous year, Hepburn finally found her vehicle, playing a young society girl desperate to succeed. A critic for Life magazine noted that she showed the potential to be "the screen's greatest actress." (The movie's charm also included many fine performances by such up-and-coming starlets as Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball , and Eve Arden .) Hepburn then teamed with Cary Grant for two more comedies, Bringing up Baby and Holiday, winning acclaim from virtually all the critics. It seemed that the roller-coaster ride of successes and failures was finally over. Following Bringing up Baby, the ever-independent Hepburn—who had actively participated in all of her contract negotiations—bought out the rest of her RKO contract. In the spring of 1938, she went home to Connecticut to rest and contemplate her future as a free agent.
That summer Philip Barry, a friend and the author of Holiday, brought her a draft of his new work, The Philadelphia Story. Clearly inspired by Hepburn and her own family, this sophisticated comedy was filled with romance and witty dialogue. And it was a play, a chance for Hepburn to return to her first love, the stage. After two months of tryouts, it opened on Broadway, March 28, 1939, making theatrical history and linking forever the names of Katharine Hepburn and Tracy Lord, the play's central character. It ran in New York for 415 performances, and she repeated her triumph on film a year later (she owned the film rights), starring with Cary Grant and James Stewart. The comments of The New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson echoed the accolades she received from both film and theater critics: "[S]he plays with grace, jauntiness, and warmth … like one who is liberated from self-consciousness and taking a pleasure in acting that the audience can share." The role of Tracy Lord garnered for Hepburn a third Oscar nomination and prompted her, many years later, to remark, "I gave her life. She gave me back my career."
With her "career" now firmly intact, Hepburn was, unknowingly, on the brink of a new one, for the decade of the 1940s was to be dominated—onscreen and off—by an actor named Spencer Tracy. Several years before, in 1934, her marriage to Luddy Smith had ended quietly and amicably in divorce. The marriage had been more accurately a friendship rather than a romance—proven by the fact that they remained close friends for life. By the early '30s, Hepburn was more consumed with her career than any personal commitment. She had many "beaux," as she called them, before she met Spencer Tracy, including her agent Leland Hayward and the billionaire Howard Hughes. But when she met Tracy in 1941, as they starred together in Woman of the Year, she met her match. As Hepburn herself divulged in the documentary All About Me: "It was the first of nine films that we did together. And it was the beginning of a 27-year—what shall I call it? Relationship. Madness. Happiness. Love affair. It was everything. And it made me understand for the first time what it really meant to be in love. I always say Spencer grew me up beyond my potential." Although Tracy remained married, his partnership with Hepburn lasted until his death in 1967. The Hollywood press silently respected this liaison between two of its greatest stars, and, for the almost three decades of their relationship, Tracy and Hepburn remained discreet, never attending public functions together. They were both intensely private people who shunned the limelight. Even after Tracy's death, Hepburn refused to talk publicly about him until after the death of his wife Louise Tracy in 1983.
Woman of the Year, a comedy about the unlikely romance between an international-affairs columnist (Hepburn) and a sportswriter (Tracy) working on the same newspaper, was an even bigger success than The Philadelphia Story, cherished by critics and audiences alike, and earning Hepburn her fourth Oscar nomination. Many commented about what electricity Tracy and Hepburn generated together—and, indeed, it was genuine. Of the ten films Hepburn would make between 1942 and 1950, six of them would be with Tracy. No longer "owned" by the studio, Hepburn had begun looking for her own properties so that she could have more production control (a practice she continued throughout her career). It was she who brought the Woman of the Year script to Louis B. Mayer at Metro, suggesting Spencer Tracy as her costar. Following its success and the intensification of her romance with Tracy, Hepburn began searching for quality scripts they could star in together. In A Remarkable Woman, biographer Anne Edwards compares their careers during this period, pointing out Tracy's status as an independent film star. While Hepburn completed ten films between 1942 and 1950, Tracy made 14 and most of those he made without her were ample hits—proving his position in "the pantheon of film actors." The four films Hepburn made without him were not very successful, and even when they did perform together, all of the scripts after Woman of the Year favored Tracy's role over hers. Hepburn didn't seem to care. During this era, she clearly deferred to Tracy, both privately and professionally. And the critics duly observed the effects of their relationship on Hepburn as an actor. Her performances matured as did she. Referring to Keeper of the Flame, which followed Woman of the Year, Hepburn said that the part of Christine was a "woman," while all her previous roles had been "girls."
Although the Tracy-Hepburn films of the 1940s were not always applauded unanimously by the critics, their audience appeal rarely faltered. Certainly Tracy and Hepburn were one of Hollywood's most popular pairs, and their final film of the decade, Adam's Rib, proved it. For the first time since Woman of the Year, they each played strong characters who equally shared the spotlight. This sharp-tongued comedy about a husband and wife who are also lawyers—he for the prosecution and she for the defense—showed off their excellent comedic timing and their talent for repartee. Hepburn would have liked nothing more than to follow Adam's Rib with another vehicle for them both. But it would be another three years before that happened. In the meantime, she continued to seek scripts that would stretch her in new directions.
In the summer of 1949, Katharine Hepburn was 42 years old. It was more difficult to find scripts for mature women; she was no longer right for the glamour roles like Tracy Lord. But as the decade of the 1950s began, Hepburn was secure in her stardom and her belief in her own talent. She decided to return to Broadway and, for the first time in her professional career, tackle Shakespeare. As Rosalind in As You Like It, she played a respectable 180 performances, as well as an extensive road tour. Then she accepted the role of Rose Sayer in The African Queen and embarked on one of the greatest adventures of her career. Directed by John Huston and also starring Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen involved the unlikely romance between a prim English missionary and a socially outcast riverboat
pilot. They filmed on location in the Congo, and the horror stories of invasions by wasps, ants, and the like—as well as bouts with malaria and dysentery—made for great publicity. Hepburn published her own memoir of the filming, The Making of "The African Queen," in 1987. Despite all the on-location hardships, the film captured both Hepburn and Bogart giving one of their finest performances. The evolution of their quirky romance made for a movie that was adventurous, tender, funny, and deeply moving. Hepburn had proven once and for all the depth of her versatility as an actor. There would be no more accusations that Hepburn could only play Hepburn. And she had her fifth Oscar nomination to prove it.
The African Queen also ushered in a decade filled with a diversity of roles that Hepburn tackled with finesse. She would do two more films with Tracy during the decade: Pat and Mike (1952) and Desk Set (1957). Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, the same writing team that had created Adam's Rib, brought their friend Hepburn a new script when she returned from Africa about a woman training to be a professional athlete and her sports promoter-manager. Hepburn called Pat and Mike their best film together. She followed its success with another acting challenge, perhaps even greater than that of Rose Sayer in The African Queen. George Bernard Shaw's play The Millionairess centered around a character who was domineering, arrogant, and mean. The 15-year-old script had not been well received initially, and its success relied on one thing: a smashing performance by its leading lady. Hepburn's London debut was no less than smashing. The critic for the London Times wrote that Hepburn performed Epifania "with such a furious, raw-boned, strident vitality that it sweeps away likes and dislikes and presents the creature as a force of nature." She repeated this "furious" performance for a successful limited run in New York.
Her next project returned her to film, this time portraying a lonely spinster looking for love. Summertime, filmed entirely on location in Venice, featured as her costar Rossano Brazzi, an Italian actor at the height of his fame as a romantic leading man. Hepburn created magic with Brazzi as she had with Bogart, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rewarded her again with her sixth Oscar nomination. Continuing to seek out different acting opportunities, Hepburn then joined members of London's Old Vic theater company on a tour of Australia. For six months in 1955, she performed in a trio of Shakespearean plays, The Taming of the Shrew (Katherine), Measure for Measure (Isabella), and The Merchant of Venice (Portia). In the fall, she launched into the film version of The Rainmaker with Burt Lancaster, in which she played a Southwestern farmer's daughter charmed by a con man who wants to seduce her. A seventh Oscar nomination acknowledged Hepburn's subtle performance.
In 1956, Tracy and Hepburn teamed up once again to make their eighth film together. Unfortunately The Desk Set had a rather slim story that required nothing new from either of them. The New York Times critic wrote, "[T]hey lope through this trifling charade like a couple of old timers, who enjoy reminiscing with simple routines." Almost immediately, Hepburn returned to the challenge of the stage, joining the American Shakespeare Festival for two productions: The Merchant of Venice (Portia) and Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice). Hepburn won her eighth Oscar nomination for her last film of the decade, Tennessee Williams' drama Suddenly, Last Summer. As the eccentric Violet Venable, Hepburn played a role for the first time in her career that supported another star, Elizabeth Taylor , as her niece, Catherine Holly. For the next few years, Hepburn took a hiatus from acting, spending more of her time with the ailing Spencer Tracy than she did making movies.
Then in his early 60s, Spencer Tracy was not in the best of health. Years of too much alcohol had taken their toll on his liver and kidneys. He had difficulty breathing, and he was a fitful sleeper. Apparently more concerned about Tracy's career than her own, Hepburn cared for him as a wife would, cooking their meals and cleaning his small guest house on the grounds of George Cukor's estate—the same house they had lived in for years (she also rented a house nearby). They entertained small groups of friends at home—never in public. She accompanied him on location during the filming of Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, to name a few, sitting in a corner of the set with her knitting and shrewdly observing every take.
Only one role during those six years was alluring enough to invade her private life with Tracy: Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. Though she and the producer wanted Tracy to play Mary's husband, James Tyrone, Tracy refused but encouraged her to take the part anyway. One of the richest female characters created in the 20th century, Mary Tyrone is a genuinely tragic figure. She is at once noble and pathetic, having endured a marriage she didn't deserve and having struggled valiantly against her addiction to morphine. Hepburn tackled this extraordinary character with only three weeks of rehearsal. The entire film was shot in 27 days. It was also shot on a remarkably small budget, with Hepburn accepting a fraction of her normal salary. Clearly, she did it for the challenge, and she was rewarded unanimous praise. Biographer Anne Edwards called the performance Hepburn's "greatest professional achievement." She received her ninth Oscar nomination and won the 1962 Cannes Film Festival Best Actress Award.
If Long Day's Journey represented her greatest professional achievement as an actor, surely Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was her greatest personal one. Shot in 1967, it was the last film Tracy and Hepburn made together. During the first half of the 1960s, Tracy's battle with emphysema was constant. Thanks in part to Hepburn's care, his condition improved enough in 1966 for director Stanley Kramer to approach them with a new script. Progressive for its time, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? is the story of an interracial couple who confront their parents with their desire to get married. Hepburn and Tracy played the young woman's liberal parents who ultimately accept their decision. Tracy's health was so fragile during the spring of 1967 that the shooting schedule was arranged around him. Nevertheless, he rallied, and the challenge of doing the film seemed to bolster his energy. One of the film's final scenes, in which Tracy's character professes his love for his wife while her eyes well with tears, is extraordinarily moving—both in the fictional context of the film and in its real-life context. Although critics lambasted the movie for its fairy-tale, idealistic treatment of the interracial issue, at the box office it was an overwhelming success. Tracy would never know about the controversy—or that Hepburn won her second Oscar. He collapsed in his kitchen, only 15 days after filming was completed, and died.
Katharine Hepburn, always the pragmatist, threw herself back into her work. In the years following Spencer Tracy's death, she achieved some of her greatest triumphs and continued her lifelong practice of seeking out new artistic challenges. In 1968, she won her second consecutive Oscar for the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, creating a superb performance in which she matched wits and wills with Peter O'Toole as King Henry II. In 1969, she returned to the Broadway stage to star in the title role of her first-ever musical, Coco, based on the life of fashion designer Coco Chanel . In 1970, for the first time in her distinguished career, she
tackled Greek tragedy, performing Hecuba in a film version of Euripides' The Trojan Women. The 1970s also included Hepburn's first foray into television, in which she starred in four made-for-television movies between 1973 and 1979. These included her Emmy-winning performance opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Love Among the Ruins and her irresistible portrayal of Miss Moffat in The Corn Is Green. Perhaps Hepburn's greatest personal pleasure of the decade was her experience costarring with the inimitable John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn (released in 1975). Although they had never met, these two stars became fast friends, and their onscreen chemistry was cherished by both critics and audiences.
Hepburn had shared the screen with many of Hollywood's most beloved leading men—Barrymore, Fairbanks, Grant, Tracy, Bogart, Lancaster, and, finally, Wayne. In 1980, there was only one actor left of her stature with whom she had not yet performed: Henry Fonda. The perfect vehicle brought them together. On Golden Pond is the story of an aging couple coping with the decline of the husband's health. They come to their summer cottage in Maine, probably for the last time, and are visited by their daughter (played by Fonda's real-life daughter, Jane ), who hopes to make peace with her father before he dies. Despite the fact that she had dislocated her shoulder just a few months before filming began, Hepburn joined the Fondas and crew on location in New Hampshire in July 1980. On the first day of filming, she gave a rumpled cloth hat to Fonda, which she claimed was "Spencer's favorite." He wore it throughout the film, a symbol of their mutual friendship and respect. In his biography, Fonda described his leading lady: "Hepburn is a presence wherever she is. In a room, she is the only one in it. In a big area, she doesn't do anything to dominate, she just does and is." Their admiration and affection for each other translated to the screen, creating two heart-wrenching performances that were both honored with Oscars at the 1982 Academy Awards.
A tragic automobile accident in December of 1982 hampered Hepburn's independence. She was driving the icy streets of Fenwick, Connecticut, when the car skidded and slammed into a telephone pole. Hepburn's right foot was broken in several places and almost severed from her leg. After surgery, months and months of living in casts and therapy followed, and she spent most of the 1980s living relatively reclusively. Apparently, Hepburn grew impatient with retirement in the early 1990s and returned to the screen for a flurry of projects, each time proclaiming that this one would be her last. Her cameo appearance as Warren Beatty's aunt in Love Affair (1994) was the high point of the film. Three made-for-television movies were highlighted by "One Christmas" (1994), based on Truman Capote's short story. Hepburn played the crotchety but charming Aunt Cornelia, a New Orleans society matron who befriends a young boy named Buddy. She tells him, "I've always lived my life exactly as I wanted. I wouldn't change a single thing. No regrets." The authenticity of those lines makes them perhaps her most poignant ones ever captured on film.
"I've been around so long that people treat me as some sort of oracle. Or grandmother of the world, maybe," Hepburn mused in All About Me. Certainly her durability—her career as an actor of stage, screen, and television spanned nearly seven decades—was an accomplishment in itself. But the fiber of her character and the remarkable richness of her performances distinguished her as one of the most recognized and revered women of the 20th century. For millions of people the world over, she is known simply as "Kate." During the seven decades of her career, thousands of words, both spoken and written, attempted to describe the essence of Katharine Hepburn. She was called bull-headed, self-assured, vain, modest, imperious, imperial, effervescent, magisterial, willful, dignified, intellectual, glamourous, haughty, graceful, gangly, fearless, refined, indomitable. People criticized her independence and stubbornness but respected her dedication to family, friends, and her strong work ethic. Katharine Hepburn's work represents the finest art that acting can be. It also represents the best of the American character. In a 1984 interview, she proclaimed, "There are no rules, except to know yourself." Perhaps the one descriptor encompassing all those that have tried to capture her is authentic. She lived her life as she chose, proving her own philosophy: "I think that just being alive is a tremendous opportunity. It's what you do with it that matters."
Edwards, Anne. A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn. NY: William Morrow, 1985.
Hepburn, Katharine. Me: Stories of My Life. NY: Knopf, 1991.
Carey, Gary. Katharine Hepburn: A Hollywood Yankee. St. Martin's Press, 1983.
Dickens, Homer. The Films of Katharine Hepburn. Citadel Press, 1971.
Hepburn, Katharine. The Making of "The African Queen" or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Life. NY: Knopf, 1987.
Higham, Charles. Kate: The Life of Katharine Hepburn. NY: W.W. Norton, 1975.
Kanin, Garson. Tracy and Hepburn. NY: Viking Press, 1971.
Leaming, Barbara. Katharine Hepburn. Crown, 1995.
Spada, James. Hepburn: Her Life in Pictures. NY: Doubleday, 1984.
Katharine Hepburn: All About Me, autobiographical documentary film narrated by Hepburn, produced by Turner Pictures, 1992.
Original test footage, full-length films, original scripts, and memorabilia are housed in the archives of the American Film Institute, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and the Film Collection at the University of Southern California, all located in Los Angeles.
Theater-related material is housed in the Billy Rose Theater Collection, Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, New York, New York.
N. J. Stanley , Visiting Assistant Professor of Theater, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania