Ever since I was a girl, just looking at Katharine Hepburn has made me feel powerful. There’s the proud tilt of her chin, the direct line of her posture, the graceful sweep of her hair — the steely eyes, the delicately strong cheekbones, the beautifully set mouth. And when she opens that mouth, it only gets better, as her high, melodic voice runs circles around whomever or whatever stands in front of her. For millions, Hepburn was proof positive that Hollywood stardom wasn’t all peroxide blonde and vapid sighs. Along with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, Hepburn suggested that intelligence and verve were beautiful — and that people would pay to watch these beauties go head to head with their male co-stars.
Hepburn broke all sorts of unspoken rules: she was an unabashed snob, and her voice rang with the sort of class that people outside New England love to hate. She insisted on cold showers as a sign of character, she insisted on doing her own stunts because the stuntwomen never stood up straight enough, and she reveled in her Yankee austerity. Her hair was red and untamable, and she wore trousers in private and public, pissing off the studio publicity heads who worked so hard to craft an image, any image, besides "stuck-up tomboy." In other words, she was awesome. She hated Hollywood but loved movies, hated the process but loved the product.
Because of her stubbornness, her star image became a rounded-corners version of her off-screen self — one that played up her independent streak and the private romances that seemed to mirror the tornado-like courtships she engaged in onscreen.
During her career, Hepburn went from being one of the hottest new talents in Hollywood to being “box office poison,” but a series of savvy business decisions eventually returned her to the screen, where she went on to star in nine films with the man who became the love of her life. That man, a notorious drunkard, was still married, and his Catholicism required that he remain married even as he and Hepburn spent the rest of their lives together. Their affair was an open secret, obvious to anyone who looked hard enough, but still ostensibly hidden from the rest of the world. And it, along with tailored trousers, has come to define Hepburn’s enduring star image.
It would be difficult to find a more Yankee upbringing than Hepburn’s. The daughter of a Connecticut urologist and suffragette, Hepburn was the second of six children, and grew up doing all sorts of progressive things like helping lobby for birth control rights and being an all-around liberal hippie before the word even existed. As Hepburn later recalled, “I learnt early what it is to be snubbed for a good cause,” which is exactly how I feel every time I tell a book club that the The Help is racist. Hepburn’s parents encouraged their children to cultivate their minds and bodies, and all the children played sports. (I’m envisioning lots of badminton.) Katharine took up golf — a sport she would play for the rest of her life, and a perfect opportunity for flagrant trouser-wearing.
At the age of 14, Hepburn discovered the body of her older and much-beloved brother Tom, who had apparently hung himself. Her family refused to deem it a suicide, however, insisting it had happened by accident, but Tom’s death, and her family’s avoidance of it, traumatized Hepburn and would affect her for the rest of her life. She began using Tom’s birthday as her own, dropped out of high school, and slid through her education with the help of private tutors. She eventually went to Bryn Mawr, her mother’s alma mater, where she got bad grades and was caught smoking in her room.
But then, a light: Hepburn realized that if she raised her grades and stopped [getting caught] smoking, she could try out for the play — a natural outlet for the theatrical posturing she'd learned during all-out debates at the Hepburn family dinner table. One role led to another, and fastforward several years to Hepburn doing lots of off-Broadway understudying. At some point, Hepburn married her college sweetheart, Ludlow Ogden Smith, a man eight years her senior. In typical Hepburn fashion, she forced him to change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow so that her own legal surname wouldn’t be something as dreadfully ordinary as Smith. You can see where this is headed.
Hepburn was a force to behold: she was tall, athletic, pushy, and, in the beginning, rather lacking in talent. But in 1932, she read for the lead in The Warrior’s Husband — a Greek fable that went well with Hepburn’s most accentuated qualities. She won the role, did a lot of posturing in a Greek warrior costume that made the most of her flat chest and fantastic posture, earned great notices, and caught the attention of Hollywood, which, in the wake of the transition to sound, was continually fishing for actors with performance styles more suited to sound films. (Acting for the silent cinema was an entirely different animal — more emphasis on physicality, less on articulation.)
RKO had her screen-test for A Bill of Divorcement with George Cukor, then an up-and-coming director who'd moved to the studio to work with up-and-coming producer David O. Selznick. (In short order, both men would become giants within their fields, and it was Hepburn’s fortune that she collided with both at a such a young age.)
When Cukor saw her screen test, he knew there was something there — as he later recalled, “there was this odd creature ... she was unlike anybody I’d ever heard.” He moved to cast her as the daughter of John Barrymore (yes, grandfather to Drew), but Hepburn, spitfire that she was, demanded $1500 a week — an unheard of salary for a brand new, untested, odd bird of an actress. Cukor encouraged RKO to submit to her demands, and they agreed to short-term contract: just long enough to see if the film would float.
Would you look at those shoulder wings! That smooth hair! Those vampy eyes! The Hepburn from The African Queen would call her a total ninny! But at this point, Hepburn wasn’t yet Hepburn: she was just another stage actress transplant, albeit with a bit more piss and vinegar. (Which, by the way, is a totally weird phrase; am I suddenly my granddad?)
A Bill of Divorcement was a huge hit, but, more importantly, it won her a long-term contract with RKO and marked the beginning of her relationship with Cukor, who’d collaborate with her nine more times over the next two decades. She followed Divorcement by playing a quasi-Amelia Earhart in Christopher Strong, and then there was Morning Glory, a ‘30s recital of the “star is born” tale that Hollywood loves to make and audiences love to watch. Hepburn plays a young, inexperienced stage actress aching for a breakthrough; as evidenced by the clip below, she has the cloying overeagerness down pat.
She toils and suffers and receives all sorts of pointers and acting lessons before a handsome man (well hello, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.!) agrees to cast her in a small role in a new show. But the star of this new show (blonde, demanding, and a total wench) starts making huge contract demands, leaves the show, and what do you know, Hepburn is there to take her place and springboard into stardom. While the film wasn’t an exact recreation of Hepburn’s own path to stardom, it was close enough for the fan magazines to run with it, and then, as now, audiences loved the idea of a star recreating his/her creation myth onscreen. For her performance, Hepburn won an Academy Award, but Hepburn mania was already well underway, stoked by her turn as Jo in the Cukor-directed version of Little Women, released in late 1933.
Now, to be clear, Winona Ryder will always be my personal version of Jo, and Kristen Dunst will always be that brat Amy. But Katharine Hepburn might be the most perfect Jo of all time, and I wish I could’ve accessed this version of the film before Ryder’s version rooted itself in my mind.
I mean look at her with Laurie!
And blasted Professor Bhaer!
Hepburn’s image was already Jo-like: she was a leader of her family and an independent woman: intelligent, vivacious, and lacking the traditional beauty of her sisters/peers but secure in her decisions and the happiness they brought her. Publicity for the film made a big deal about Hepburn requesting that one of her dresses be modeled on a dress of her grandmother’s, preserved in a tintype. Hepburn was a Yankee; Jo was a Yankee. Hepburn was uppity; Jo was uppity. Recall that Little Women was then, as today, a touchstone text, and any actress who could convincingly embody Jo would be fixed as such in the minds of the audience. In this way, the one-two punch of Morning Glory and Little Women established a star image that structured the remainder of Hepburn’s career.
But attempts to exploit this star image over the next six years backfired. She played the titular character in Spitfire (1934), a bold middle-class social climber in Alice Adams (1935), and pulled off an amazing cross-dressing performance in Sylvia Scarlett, which has, in the years since its release, become a greatest hits go-to text for feminist and queer film theory. If you write a paper on filmic gender performance, there's an unspoken rule to include this photo, even if only as a weird feminst-gif at the end.
I mean seriously: that is one beautiful boy. But as hilarious as audiences have long found men dressing as women (and the resultant buffoonery), women cross-dressing is, ironically, more transgressive and, as such, unpopular. For (many) men, a woman cross-dressing is tantamount to a woman publicly declaring that she no longer needs to concern herself with being attractive to men. And that petrified men even more than a woman gaining the right to vote. To dress like a man was to disregard codes of femininity; to disregard those codes was to say screw-you to patriarchy. Hepburn did this on- and off-screen, but she was never slovenly: she was just ... casually preppy, pulling off the sleek lines we now associate with J.Crew androgyny. But the idea that Hepburn was sexless, or at least without sex appeal, began to gain traction.
Which was interesting, because at about this time, Hepburn began a dalliance with one Howard Hughes — millionaire, debonair, man-about-town, burgeoning weirdo. Cary Grant introduced them while she was filming Scarlett, and if The Aviator is to be believed, they did some golfing on some very technicolor green fields, they went flying, and then Hughes insisted on making her his wife. (Oh, PS, she and The Husband had divorced a few years after Hepburn moved to Hollywood to pursue her career.) The fan mags loved it, as Hepburn’s Barbie-toothed smile at a glowering Hughes depicts:
Hepburn embodied power in Mary of Scotland and gave birth to a child out of wedlock in A Woman Rebels. She always had a romantic interest, but both films, like so many of her films, make it clear that her real romance was with herself. In Stage Door, she played an actress who moves into a boarding house filled with other actresses (played by Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball, among others), only to alienate them with her haughty manners and self-regard — a nice play on Hepburn’s widely reported attitude toward Hollywood in general. Stage Door earned a nomination for Best Picture, but it, like the rest of the films following Little Women, was a relative disappointment. Melodrama and historical pieces had earned Hepburn her notice, but she had exhausted that currency. RKO clearly had no idea how to transform the smarty-pants spitfire into a women who both male and female audiences wanted to watch onscreen.
So the studio tried something different. In 1938, it paired Hepburn with Cary Grant in the first of what would become Hepburn’s new signature role: screwball comedienne. Bringing Up Baby had Howard Hawks as director, Grant with adorable science-nerd glasses, and all manner of lions and tigers, but what is now regarded as one of the best comedies of the 20th century was a HUGE BOMB, losing $365,000, which was a King’s Ransom in classic Hollywood dollars. It lost money because it didn’t gross much money, but Hawks also allowed the production to go way over budget — apparently wrangling cheetahs is expensive?
One more, just for kicks.
That beautiful sneer!
Hepburn’s situation was only getting worse. With a string of misfires behind her, she had set herself on playing Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s highly anticipated adaptation of Gone With the Wind. But Russell found her lacking in raw sexuality, and cast a smoldering Brit in her place. Hepburn, however, had plans of her own. RKO offered her a role in a crappy B-picture (Mother Carey’s Chickens! That shrieks “B-Picture” almost as loudly as Pootie Tang). Hepburn said no thanks, instead opting to buy out the remainder of her contract. Way back during her time on the stage, she’d understudied the lead role in Holiday — a role that had become close to her heart. She convinced Columbia to make the picture, with Cukor directing and Grant as her co-star.
Holiday took everything exquisite about Hepburn’s image — the spunk, the obstinance, the frustration with the connotations of wealth, her radiant intelligence — and used them as man-bait.
In Holiday, Grant begins the film engaged to the well-heeled, traditionally beautiful sister, but slowly realizes that what he really wants is a playmate: a woman, like Hepburn, who appreciates his own somersaulting silliness, weaves complex verbal blankets of argument, and calls him on his bluffs. Just watch their glorious first encounter below:
In short, Grant realizes he wants a smart lady who’ll always challenge him. Give me this premise over any of today’s rom-coms — except maybe 13 Going on 30, but I’m only keeping that one for the massive-closet-getting-dressed montage and hotness-on-a-hipster-stick Mark Ruffalo.
Holiday was a huge success ... IN MY HEART. I’ll watch it over Bringing Up Baby any day, and I’m ready to fight you in the comments. In real life, which is to say life that does not take place in AHP’s bodily organs, the film did okay, but Hepburn was nevertheless deemed “box office poison,” a phrase bandied about liberally during Hollywood's golden age.
Back before movie theaters were all owned by giant fluorescent companies, they were a mix of studio-owned (“Paramount Theater” = owned by Paramount) and privately owned. Every year, the studios would survey theater owners to figure out which stars reliably brought in crowds and which stars audiences avoided. This highly scientific survey — in which theater owners literally created lists off the tops of their head — was then translated into “Top Stars” lists. If a star ended up on the “Box Office Poison” list, there was all the more reason for the studio to dump crappy projects on them until their contracts were up. It’s also a clever way of placing blame for the success or failure of a picture squarely on the star, ignoring what the studio, director, screenwriter, supporting actors, publicity department, and/or exhibitors themselves might have done to buoy or sink a film.
Hepburn thus traded Hughes and Hollywood for New York and the stage. Playwright Philip Barry tailored a script specifically for her, creating a role that, like her turn in Holiday, would emphasize the most endearing and charismatic components of her star image and performative strengths (i.e. being a happy drunk). The result, The Philadelphia Story, was a smash.
And here’s where it gets so good: Hepburn, savvy smartypants that she was, optioned the rights to the play, and after its run returned to Hollywood, where she entertained supplicant bids from the studios. Hepburn decided on MGM, but stipulated that the adaptation would be directed by Cukor. When the two men she wanted for the job (Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy) were unavailable, she “settled” for Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, which is kind of like Lady Mary “settling” for Cousin Matthew when her Other Cousin Fiancé dies on the Titanic.
Hepburn knew that audiences were expecting more of the vintage Hepburn image — the very image that repelled them through the late ‘30s. So she focused on usurping expectations: not only did she enter the film by falling flat on her back, literalizing what most people wanted to happen to her, but she requested MGM’s top costume designer, Adrian, to create a wardrobe that would combine the square silouette (most associated with Joan Crawford) with a more glamorous cut. It was if he were giving the Hepburn image soft edges while making sure its vivacity and structure remained. The dresses, and Hepburn in them, are aces.
The film version of A Philadelphia Story was a monster hit. If you’ve seen it, you understand why: there’s so much fast talking, so much round-abouting, so much Jimmy Stewart being hilarious and drunk instead of didactic (every other film of his save the ones he made for Hitchcock) or creepy (every film he made for Hitchcock). The timing is perfect, the dresses are perfect, everything’s perfect except the annoying little sister (who also pops up in The Women, where I also want to hurt her).
If you haven’t seen it, I don’t know if we can be friends until you do — don’t worry, I’ll host a party and we can get giddily plastered while watching the drunk scene and its beautiful aftermath. Watch it! Right now! If I could look the way that Hepburn does after drinking all night and stringing along three men . . . . . my life would be very different.
After the film's success, Hepburn approached MGM with another project, Woman of the Year. As her costar, she again wanted MGM star Spencer Tracy, a man she'd never met but whose work she admired. Hepburn also wanted a long-term contract, complete with approval of all stories, scripts, and directors. MGM went for it, and just like that, Box Office Poison became one of the most powerful stars in Hollywood.
The shoulders, the beautiful shoulders!
Woman of the Year marked the beginning of Hepburn’s contracted MGM career — and the beginning of her romance with Spencer Tracy, which would endure until his death in 1967. Before signing with MGM, Tracy had earned a reputation at Fox as a drunk and a philanderer, and his short temper had landed him in numerous fistfights, including one with a Fox parking employee. To put it simply, Tracy was the worst kind of adult frat-boy. In 1934, he left his wife and children for a year-long affair with Loretta Young, but Tracy, a Catholic, refused to divorce his wife, and after his relationship with Young fell apart, he continued to live separately from his wife and made periodic visits to his children. Fox grew tired of Tracy’s antics, but MGM made him one of its most valuable stars, playing up his “everyman looks” (read: his busted face).
When Tracy won Best Actor for his turn in Captains Courageous in 1938, he was unable to attend the ceremony. MGM said he was recovering from a hernia, which was the 1940s way of saying “hospitalized for exhaustion,” if you’re picking up what I’m putting down. The studio arranged for Tracy’s wife to accept the award in his stead, as a gesture towards the supposed strength of their marriage. With all the audience fully aware of how Tracy had neglected and mistreated her, Mrs. Tracy walked the stage. But the Academy had a sense of humor: the award was inscribed not to Spencer, but to Dick Tracy. ROUGH.
MGM would periodically force Tracy to “dry out” after massive benders — not out of kindness, but so that they could force him to do his next film. During this period, he was living at the Beverly Wilshire and constantly on the prowl — one MGM exec purportedly claimed that “No one gets more sex than Spencer Tracy.....except Joan Crawford.” (<3 u, Joanie.)
Such was the situation in 1940, when Tracy and Hepburn fell in love while filming Woman of the Year. As is true any time two stars actually fall in love while pretending to fall in love on screen, the chemistry was palpable, and audiences flocked to it. Today, when two people do well together on screen, the studio will just make a sequel and stretch out the chemistry until it self-destructs; then, they got all the same people back together, but put them in a different-yet-similar-script, and remade the magic that way.
Nearly every year brought a new Spencer-Hepburn collaboration, kind of like how every year brings us a new collaboration between Michael Bay and a sea of robots. Without Love, The Sea of Class, State of the Union, and, my personal favorite, Adam’s Rib, which is so complicatedly feminist my mind knots up just thinking about it. Hepburn and Tracy make lawyering as a couple look so appealing: they have a swanky New York townhouse, a bucolic farm somewhere upstate, and spend their days fighting over cases that simultaneously challenge and ratify their personal beliefs. Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, this film might be responsible for a whole generation’s decision to go to law school.
MGM kept the romance under wraps, collaborating with Hepburn as she nursed Tracy back to physical and mental health. So long as Hepburn kept him sane, relatively sober, and on the job, the studio heads were happy to cover their tracks. But Tracy was widely rumored to have continued his philandering, even under Hepburn’s care, and gradually re-succumbed to alcoholism.
Is this bit of information, and the way that it seems to victimize Hepburn, the reason that Tracy leaves me cold? Or is it that he’s too Country Club Dad? Is it the gruffness? Is it the simple and stunning fact that he is not Cary Grant? Or somehow not equal to Hepburn? Because here’s where my desire to hold Hepburn as a paragon of feminist self-respect runs into a roadblock: how could she do this to herself? It sticks in my craw that Tracy was too bound by religious ideologies to divorce his wife and publicly own his relationship with Hepburn. Not because religious ideology is necessarily stupid, but because Tracy was so flagrantly breaking the spirit, if not the letter, of his religion’s law. Am I assuming that Hepburn was blinded by love, and thus put up with the shit that Tracy brought her way? That she settled?
It’s like when your best friend falls in love with a tool: you understand that she’s happy, and she’s her own woman, and we each lead our own lives to our own ends. But still.
Then again, maybe Hepburn wasn’t settling at all. As she famously declared, “if you want to give up the admiration of thousands of men for the disdain of one, go ahead, get married.” In other words, no offense married ladies, but us unmarried ones got the game figured.
But still. I’m so confused.
Over the next 30 years, Hepburn continued to make films — she could still play the romantic lead, but now she was somewhat-older-lady romantic lead, her harping turned a bit shrill. She was insufferable-turned-humble in The African Queen, apparently inventing the computer in Desk Set, Liz Taylor’s aunt in Suddenly, Last Summer, and very politically correct in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, her last film with Tracy and a sort of benediction to their romance and mutual appreciation society. Tracy died shortly thereafter, and out of respect for his long suffering family, Hepburn did not attend his funeral. She won Best Actress for the role, in part, one assumes, because the Academy wanted to acknowledge and authenticate her grief.
For the next 20 years, Hepburn’s on-screen appearances grew further and further apart, yet her brassiness endured, shining even brighter with the luster of accumulated years. The smooth, alabaster face may have wrinkled, but the spryness, the wit, and the vim and vigor remained.
To me, she only grew more beautiful — as critic David Thomson observes, “she [was] so remarkable, she may have given the misleading impression that Hollywood is interested in old people,” as evidenced by the triumph of On Golden Pond, featuring the equally well-preserved Henry Fonda, which became the second highest grossing film of 1981 and earned Hepburn her fourth Best Actress Oscar.
Over the course of her career, Hepburn transitioned from the plucky misfit to the arch mother to the vinegary great aunt, becoming, as people like to say about the aging process, even more essentially herself. According to Hepburn, with age, even people who once thought her as shrewish gradually “grew fond of me, like some old brick building.”
When Hepburn died in 2003, at the age of 96, it was not so much a single woman dying as it was the death of an age of female film stardom — an age when a woman with nontraditional beauty, a powerful voice, and a disregard for Hollywood rules could be a major star for half a century. When Barbara Walters asked her if she even owned a skirt, she replied, “I have one, Ms. Walters. I’ll wear it to your funeral.” That. That is what I’m talking about.
It’s clear that I still love Hepburn, and that she still makes me feel fucking awesome. But that doesn’t mean I have to particularly love Spencer Tracy, or her with him, or all that their relationship seems, at least to this feminist, to represent.
Previously: The Destruction of Fatty Arbuckle.
Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.