If acting prowess is to be assessed by awards, Katharine Hepburn wins hands down with four Oscars for acting — the most ever — right from her third film to her third-last in an over six decade career as a leading lady. But famous for portraying feisty, independent-minded women, as she was herself in real life, could make one wonder how much effort she needed to put in.
Be it the “skinny maid” of “The African Queen” (1951), the supportive mother in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) or the imprisoned but irrepressible Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion In Winter” (1968), Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907-2003), whose 110th birth anniversary is on May 12, was not only a gifted performer whose metier spanned screwball romantic comedy to costumed dramas, but also a model of the “modern woman”.
Outspoken and assertive, she believed in living her life and shaping her career on her own terms. One example is telling: Fond of wearing trousers in the 1930s – much before they became accepted fashion for women, she once walked around the studio in her underwear when the costume department “stole” her pair from her dressing room, refusing to put anything else on until they were returned.
Fiercely private, she never sought publicity, once recounting: “Once a crowd chased me for an autograph. ‘Beat it’, I said, ‘go sit on a tack!’ ‘We made you’, they said. ‘Like hell you did’, I told them.”
Hepburn appeared in 52 films (including eight TV movies) from 1928 to 1994 where her rather sharp features and distinctive voice set her apart. Apart from the three Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated roles above in which she held her own against male stalwarts like Humphrey Bogart, Peter O’Toole and Spencer Tracy, she had many other memorable roles.
These include as eager starlet Eva in “Morning Glory” (1933, which won her first Oscar), Jo in the adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women” (1933), as a flighty heiress opposite Cary Grant in “Bringing up Baby” (1938), as Soviet woman pilot Vinka in Cold war comedy “The Iron Petticoat” (1956) to more demanding roles in films based on literary works in her later career – as a manipulative mother in adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Southern Gothic mystery “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) and as a morphine-addicted mother in a dysfunctional family in Eugene O’ Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (1962).
But as she once said: “Who is Katharine Hepburn? It took me a long time to create that creature” and it was a long journey.
Born in a progressive family — both her father, a doctor, and mother, a feminist, campaigned for social change — Hepburn owed her independent nature to her parents who encouraged their children (she was second of six) to speak and think freely.
A tomboy who liked to call herself Jimmy, and cut her hair short, Hepburn went to study in the renowned Bryn Mawr women’s college where she graduated with a degree in history and philosophy. It was here she picked her desire to become an actress.
Her initial foray on the stage in 1928 was not very successful but in what one of her performances in the early 1930s that led to her being a break in Hollywood. Despite her third performance being Oscar-winning, her next few films bombed and she began to be called “box-office poison”.
But a doughty Hepburn didn’t give up, fashioning her comeback with the adaptation of the play, “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), made on her own terms.
There was no looking back.
Married in 1928 but separated amicably from her husband in 1934 (confessing she had treated him rather badly), she went on to have a quarter-century-long relationship (never publicised) with Spencer Tracy, with whom she did many films. However, she was never interested in marriage quipping: “If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married”, or children.
Her last screen appearance was in TV movie “One Christmas” (1994) where in her last line, she delivered what could be her own epitaph: “I can sit back in my old age and not regret a single moment, not wish to change a single thing….”
Which other actor was so lucky?