Born May 12 1907 in Hartford Connecticut Katharine Hepburn’s acting career spanned more than 50 years beginning with her screen debut in the David O. Selznick – George Cukor – Clemence Dane drama A Bill of Divorcement (1932) as John Barrymore’s daughter. Ironically she first struck gold in only her third film (Morning Glory (1933)) playing a wannabe actress; Eva Lovelace is a small town girl with stars in her eyes that makes her way to New York in hopes of becoming a star. When first we see her she is wistfully admiring the paintings of Ethel Barrymore & Sarah Bernhardt that hang on the walls of a theater lobby. She then makes her way to the offices of a successful producer (Adolphe Menjou) where after receiving some advice from a veteran character actor (C. Aubrey Smith) and catching the eye of the producer’s writer-friend (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) she eventually gets her star-making vehicle. For helping to establish this role that’s become cliche Hepburn received her first Best Actress Academy Award. Two years after receiving her second Best Actress nomination (playing the title role in Alice Adams (1935)) she would revisit this cliched story in the ensemble Stage Door (1937) – again with Menjou as well as Ginger Rogers Gail Patrick Constance Collier Andrea Leeds Lucille Ball Eve Arden and Ann Miller (among others) – which was her thirteenth film and 13 would prove to be unlucky for the actress. Hepburn’s next film (her second with Grant) was Bringing Up Baby (1938) a screwball comedy classic today that bombed so badly then that it cost director Howard Hawks his job on (another Grant film) Gunga Din (1939). When combined with a string of several other movies that were financial failures the actress was dubbed "box office poison".
After the release of Holiday (1938) – her third feature with Grant – Hepburn returned to the stage where she would play Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story on Broadway. Given the film rights as a gift by Howard Hawks the actress would make a triumphant return to the screen to play Lord opposite Grant’s C. K. Dexter Haven (and James Stewart’s Oscar winning role as reporter Macaulay Connor) in the Joseph L. Mankiewicz-Cukor romantic comedy The Philadelphia Story (1940) for which she earned the third of her 12 Best Actress nominations. Hepburn’s last movie with Grant was followed by her only other one that was produced by Mankiewicz Woman of the Year (1942) which not only won the Academy Award for its original screenplay but marked her first pairing with Spencer Tracy and her fourth Best Actress nomination. This Hepburn-Tracy collaboration led to several classic hits (and only a few misses) including the actress’s last two of eight with director Cukor Adam’s Rib (1949) & Pat and Mike (1952). Sandwiched between these two in her filmography is the movie which earned the actress her fifth Best Actress nom (and Humphrey Bogart his Best Actor Academy Award) – The African Queen (1951).
After 28 movies in 20 years Hepburn took a break. She returned to the screen three years later to work with director David Lean in Summertime (1955) and it was clear that she’d be more selective in the future. With few exceptions the roles she chose enabled her to work with others she hadn’t and better demonstrate her dramatic abilities – from a wilting spinster that blooms with help from Burt Lancaster‘s Bill Starbuck aka The Rainmaker (1956) with Elizabeth Taylor as a frighteningly mysterious eccentric (and ultimately evil) widow in the Mankiewicz directed Tennessee Williams drama Suddenly Last Summer (1959) to her next role as a morphine addict in Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) directed by Sidney Lumet. She received Best Actress Oscar nominations for each of these four films.
While taking care of her ailing off-screen partner of 25 years Hepburn refused all offers for five years until she and producer-director Stanley Kramer could convince Tracy to return the screen after four years for (what would be his final role in) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967); it was the last of nine movies they made together and she earned the second of her record four Best Actress Oscars. The following year she would make history as the first to win three Best Actress Oscars for her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O’Toole’s Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) a feat only she could improve upon years later when she starred opposite Henry Fonda’s Best Actor performance in On Golden Pond (1981). Between these Hepburn chose to work with John Wayne who reprised his Oscar winning character from True Grit (1969) in its sequel Rooster Cogburn (1975).
Despite these accomplishments and accolades received from peers and others that she worked with throughout her career Hepburn has been criticized by some who feel that she was not a great actress that she unduly benefitted from good timing (e.g. her pairings with Grant & Tracy) that her range was limited or even that she was unable to portray a character strongly enough to overcome her (perceived off-screen) personality. Of course this last criticism could be used to malign virtually any of the greats (male or female) from the classic era when audience loyalty to a particular star was cultivated by their studios such that one knew what to expect from a Garbo or a Bette Davis film (and denying any actress her due because one doesn’t like their personality is ridiculous). To spend much time trying to answer such critics borders on the absurd. In fact Hepburn herself avoided the public and ignored the Academy which probably emboldened these nay-sayers and added to their ranks. But for Kate’s supporters one the best defenses (against the nonsensical viewpoint that she shouldn’t be counted among the great actresses) is the simplest: unlike many of the other actresses of her day Hepburn wasn’t afraid to play opposite the best of her male counterparts; she even sought them out contributing to their performances several of which were the most recognized of their careers. It’s also interesting to note that the majority of the actresses listed by such critics as better actresses rarely if ever appeared in comedies as if success in that genre doesn’t demonstrate one’s range or require any skill.
Whether you believe that Katharine Hepburn was the best actress ever (and I don’t) or not there is no denying her greatness.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog