An independent woman who made her mark portraying heroines just as willful and unforgettable as she was, as at home in light comedy as in provocative drama, this sculpted New England beauty deservedly spanned generations as a prominent motion picture presence. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1907 to a prominent urologist father and a suffragist pioneer mother, Katharine Houghton Hepburn’s upbringing understandably vested her with regard for both physical culture and free thought. Largely home-schooled in her adolescence after the devastating loss of her beloved older brother, Hepburn’s childhood interest in acting flowered into fixation while she was matriculating at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, and she signed on with a Baltimore stock company upon her graduation, dropping her middle name and appearing as Katharine Hepburn.
The willful novice spent the next several seasons getting herself hired, fired and re-hired by stage directors and playwrights on and off Broadway until scoring a hit with a part as an Amazon princess in 1932’s The Warrior’s Husband. Her efforts sufficiently impressed an RKO scout that David O. Selznick sought her out for 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, a vehicle for John Barrymore. Hepburn countered the salary offer by demanding the figure be tripled–and to her own great surprise, she won out.
Hollywood success came quickly for the iconoclastic outsider; her notices were strong, and it only took her third film, Morning Glory, where she portrayed a feisty New Englander determined to be a Broadway star, for her to obtain the Best Actress Oscar. She followed with another triumph with her characterization of Jo March in the 1933 version of Little Women. However, Katharine’s next several years at RKO would largely be rocky: Christopher Strong (1933) had her as a free-spirited aviatrix who falls in love with a married man; her offbeat casting in the romantic drama Spitfire (1934) as an Ozark mountain faith healer accused of witchcraft didn’t help her career; and the same year she starred in The Little Minister, based on a James Barrie story, as a high-spirited girl who is the object of a shy pastor’s affections. In the classic 1935 melodrama Break of Hearts, Hepburn shines as a struggling composer who meets and subsequently falls for New York City-based conductor Charles Boyer, and also in 1935, Hepburn teamed with Cary Grant in Sylvia Scarlett (in their first of four films together) as an embezzler’s daughter whose love life is complicated when she is forced to disguise herself as a boy.
Her popularity continued to decline with A Woman Rebels (1936) as a 19th-century Englishwoman who defies Victorian conventions by refusing to get married and deciding to stand on her own, all while scandalously raising a child by herself; John Ford’s historical Mary Of Scotland (1936) did somewhat better for her, while the classic costume comedy/drama from George Stevens Quality Street (1937) did not fare well. With the notable exceptions of Alice Adams (Oscar-nominated) and Stage Door, her projects were received indifferently by the public and pounced upon by critics. In 1938 she had better success in Holiday, a slick George Cukor comedy in which free-spirited Cary Grant is introduced to his fiancée’s stuffy society family but falls in love with her sister (Hepburn). After the bust of director Howard Hawks’ now-heralded screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (another pairing with Grant), Hepburn bought out the balance of her RKO deal and left Hollywood to regroup. She did so with a triumphant Broadway return in the tailored vehicle The Philadelphia Story; after shrewdly procuring the film rights to the play, she extracted multiple concessions from MGM for its 1940 screen adaptation, including a guarantee for her casting. The resulting critical and commercial hit, co-starring Grant and Best Actor Oscar-winner James Stewart, brought her another nomination from the Academy and reignited her career.
Her follow-up assignment in ’42, Woman of the Year, not only brought another Oscar nod, but heralded another significant phase in her resumé and her life. Paired for the first time with Spencer Tracy, the actors’ immediate affinity for one another was wholly apparent, and it would carry over off-screen; the relationship endured despite Tracy’s disinclination to divorce his wife on religious grounds. MGM paired them again later that year in the gripping melodrama, Keeper of the Flame about a newspaper reporter (Tracy) set to write about the life of a war hero killed in an auto accident, with Katharine as the hero’s reclusive widow.
It was their co-starring projects that most notably marked Kate’s body of work over the balance of the ’40s, although she did appear with other actors: Stage Door Canteen (1943) had Kate joining the cast in what was billed as the greatest collection of stars in an “All Out for Victory” musical blockbuster; and in Dragon Seed (1944), Hepburn is a Chinese patriot who leads a resistance movement against Japanese forces. Without Love (1945) brought her together with Spence again as sparks fly after widow Hepburn rents a room to scientist Tracy.
Undercurrent followed in 1946,a film noir fave that had Kate discovering that her new husband (Robert Taylor) is full of dark secrets. In the classical-themed biographical drama Song Of Love (1947), she was Clara Schumann, a pianist who devotes her life to popularizing the music of her late, emotionally troubled husband, composer Robert Schumann (Paul Henreid); Robert Walker co-starred. And in 1947’s sprawling, Elia Kazan-directed western melodrama, The Sea of Grass, she and Tracy tackled new territory with Spencer as a ruthless cattle baron who uses both legal and illegal means to keep homesteaders off of his New Mexico land, while driving wife Katharine into the arms of his courtroom rival, crusading attorney Melvyn Douglas. Walker returned to co-star, this time playing her son.
Frank Capra’s adaptation of the Broadway hit State of the Union in 1948 was tailor-made for the talents of Tracy and Hepburn, and the following year continued their streak of box office successes with the witty “battle of the sexes” comedy from Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin, Adam’s Rib. Husband-and-wife lawyers Spencer and Katharine faced the biggest case of their professional lives when they take opposite sides in the trial of a woman accused of trying to shoot her philandering husband. With the coming of the ’50s and her middle years, Hepburn’s missionary-turned-adventuress in John Huston’s The African Queen (her first and only screen pairing with Humphrey Bogart) brought another Academy Award nomination in 1951 and set the tone for the “spinster roles” that she would begin to inhabit.
Highlights from the Eisenhower era would include her continued teaming with Tracy in 1952’s Pat and Mike. Crisp direction from George Cukor and yet more “cherce” Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin dialogue delighted fans with this comedy about shady sports promoter Spence and his latest find, college gym teacher Kate. And the spry romantic office-setting comedy Desk Set (1957) found the actress as a corporate research department leader pitting her workers’ wits against the electronic brain being brought in by efficiency expert Tracy.
In between those two Tracy co-starrers, Kate appeared in some of her most beloved films. Her Oscar-nominated effort in Summertime, David Lean’s 1955 classic romantic drama of a middle-aged American woman who, while on vacation in Venice, has a doomed love affair with a handsome Italian (Rossano Brazzi), was a hit with audiences; and The Rainmaker (1956) with veteran actor Burt Lancaster brought yet another Oscar nod. 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer, based on the Tennessee Williams play, showed fans another facet of her talents, with her playing a widow eager to keep her troubled niece (Elizabeth Taylor) from revealing the shocking truth behind the death of Hepburn’s son. It earned the actress an eighth Academy Award nomination.
The advent of the ’60s found the hard-living Tracy’s health in serious decline, and after completing Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Hepburn took a five-year career hiatus in order to care for him. They’d make one final screen appearance together, as the parents whose progressive postures get tested by their daughter’s engagement to physician Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Tracy died soon after the production wrapped; Hepburn’s efforts resulted in her second Best Actress Oscar.
She’d have an unprecedented third win the following year for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, opposite Peter O’Toole. Indomitable even in her seniority, the actress took another stab at Broadway for an acclaimed, Tony-nominated run in Coco, as fashion icon Coco Chanel. In the course of the ’70s, Kate’s big screen activity was largely marked by filmed plays: The Trojan Women (1971) with Irene Papas and Vanessa Redgrave; A Delicate Balance (1973) with Paul Scofield, Lee Remick and Joseph Cotten; and Tennessee Williams’ classic drama The Glass Menagerie later that year.
The True Grit follow-up Rooster Cogburn (1978), an African Queen follow-up of sorts, paired her with an unlikely co-star in John Wayne. She followed that the same year with Olly, Olly, Oxen Free, a delightful family film about an eccentric junkyard owner who helps two youngsters repair their late grandfather’s magnificent hot-air balloon. She found a regular outlet via more telefims, notably 1975’s Love Among the Ruins (her sole co-starring vehicle with Laurence Olivier), and The Corn is Green (1979), in which she was a British spinster teacher trying to help a brilliant young Welsh miner fulfill his potential. Her appearances on The Dick Cavett TV Show remain well-remembered by her legions of fans of all ages; when Cavett asked her what star quality is, she quipped, “It’s either some kind of electricity or some kind of energy. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, I’ve got it!”.
Although growing increasingly tremulous, Hepburn continued to work, and showed that she had more triumphs left in her; paired with Henry Fonda for 1981’s sunset story On Golden Pond, she’d complete her career Oscar run with 12 nominations and a perhaps never-to-be-matched four wins. Afterwards, she moved largely into retirement, working on a 1991 autobiography. She’d surface intermittently over the next decade in made-for-TV projects: Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (1986), the moving culture clash romantic comedy about a wealthy WASP widow who falls in love with her Jewish doctor (Harold Gould); in the warm and winning 1988 comedy Laura Lansing Slept Here as the title character, a famed author who–as part of a wager–moves out of her Manhattan penthouse to live with a typical suburban family, and is soon running her new household’s lives.
In 1994, after one final bow on the big screen (the Warren Beatty-Annette Benning Love Affair) and the small screen holiday-themed One Christmas, in which she helps Henry Winkler realize his dreams, Kate’s health forced her to call it a career. The hardy Hepburn thereafter lived quietly until her passing in 2003 at the age of 96. Always fascinating, she once said, “I welcome death. In death there are no interviews!”
And now, enjoy Hepburn along with her favorite co-star in the 1942 theatrical trailer for Woman of the Year: