At first, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her. But she soon changed that. For more than six decades, in over 40 films, and with a staggering 12 Oscar nominations, the fierce and fiery Katharine Hepburn blazed a trail through Hollywood. Though the very picture of a modern, independent woman, she was hopelessly devoted to longtime partner Spencer Tracy, and their chemistry still informs today’s movie romances. Here’s a look back at her extraordinary life and the movies that made her a star.
The old Gods are now gone.
Katharine Hepburn died on June 29, in her home at Fenwick, Old Saybrook, Conn., and with her goes the star system of Hollywood’s golden age – the faces that dominated a century. Bogart, Garbo, Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart: Hepburn outlasted them all, and she did it with the flinty, vibrant stubbornness that fueled her every on-screen moment. She hadn’t appeared in a movie in nine years, but everyone knew she was sitting up there in Connecticut like a monument in lace, intimidating reporters, writing persnickety memoirs, carrying on with the noblesse oblige of a legend who no longer needed to please anyone but herself. Who is there to tell us how it was anymore? No one, and so the shiny youth of American film passes into history.
Modern Hollywood, whose films are to the studio-era classics as videogames are to illuminated manuscripts, knows what it has lost. Throughout the industry, filmmakers and actors spoke of what Hepburn meant to them. ”She was the template upon which many smart 20th-century women modeled themselves,” said Meryl Streep, who broke Hepburn’s record for most Oscar nominations this past spring. ”But her style and uncompromising substance – a mix of sass, brass, and class – were uniquely her own.” Some spoke, too, of what it was like to work with her. ”Everybody thinks of her as fiercely independent. She was a pipe-and-slippers woman,” recalls On Golden Pond director Mark Rydell. ”She would bring cookies to the crew. She sat at mine and Henry Fonda’s feet. She couldn’t have been more solicitous…it blew me away.”
The great irony, of course, is that Hepburn was initially scorned in Hollywood as an arrogant outsider. Fascinating and mannered, she was rich cake for many Depression-era moviegoers, and her career suffered a serious setback when she was labeled ”box office poison” by an influential exhibitor in 1938. She really was the Streep of her day, astonishing but vaguely medicinal. Her comeback in The Philadelphia Story (1940) was, typically, her own doing – the Broadway play was tailored to her persona and she made damned sure she picked up the film rights (on the advice of then boyfriend Howard Hughes, who gave her the money to do so).
Having wooed back audiences, Hepburn won over Hollywood by caring for the beloved, tormented Spencer Tracy over the years. The nine films the two made together mellowed her in the public’s eyes as well, bringing her gracefully down from her pedestal while allowing her to remain true to herself. Everyone knew that Hepburn and the married Tracy shared a cottage on director George Cukor’s estate for years – an open secret that reflected the esteem in which the couple was held.
By 1951’s The African Queen, Hepburn was an institution, and thereafter the industry threw awards at her. Her four Oscar wins, some merely for surviving, others most assuredly on merit, may be an impossible benchmark to surpass.