In 1999, the American Film Institute named Katharine Hepburn as the greatest female star of classic Hollywood Cinema. She won four Oscars for Best Actress, a record that might not be broken. Not even Meryl Streep, who has more acting nominations than her.
If Hepburn was regarded with high esteem, then some would wonder why she didn't play Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind". Hepburn was one of the actresses who vied for the coveted role, which went to Vivien Leigh. â€œI can't see Rhett Butler chasing you for 12 years,â€ David O. Selznick quipped. And he may be right. Hepburn, who was born on May 12, 1907, was ahead of her time. She was seen as strong and independent, and many of her roles didn't deviate from her true persona. In fact, most stars of the studio era were renowned for their distinctive personalities. It could be seen in the roles they played, which the likes of Streep wouldn't do. Interestingly, Hepburn called Streep her least-favorite actress.
Hepburn began her film career in screwball comedy, which was in demand during the 1930s. But studio producer saw her as box-office poison. "Bringing Up Baby", which Hepburn co-starred with Cary Grant, was a commercial and critical disappointment during its initial release. Nowadays, Howard Hawks' comedy is considered one of the finest in its genre. The native of Hartford, Connecticut was pretentious yet amusing, often brought down by her more grounded leading man. Hepburn's background would be the reason behind it, as she was brought up to think (and debate) on any topic she wished. Her neighbors didn't share her family's progressive views, which didn't deter the young actress at all.
Hepburn was known for wearing trousers, which wasn't fashionable back then. She had a relationship with Spencer Tracy, which the public hardly known back then. In fact, Hepburn and Tracy could be considered the greatest on-screen pair in the history of cinema. (She wasn't any woman, which intimidated most men. He was undaunted, often assured that she would end up in his arms. And she did.) Hepburn frequently portrayed an aging spinster later in life, which happened to be the most interesting period in her career. She appeared in big-screen adaptations of award-winning plays. She won three Academy Awards during her twilight years.
Some would argue that Streep was more talented than Hepburn, as she had the ability to lose herself in the role. Hepburn would counter it, calling it her being too reliant on technique. Perhaps Streep might struggle against the leading ladies of classic Hollywood Cinema, but she would find one supporter. Better Davis, who happened to be the other actress being considered the greatest. But let's get back to Hepburn.
Let's look at some of her memorable performances:
The Philadelphia Story (1940) by George Cukor. Hepburn, Grant, and James Stewart make a perfect trio. And Hepburn had never been more outrageous.
Woman of the Year (1942) by George Stevens. Behind a strong woman was a man, who could teach her how to cook. Hepburn was fun to watch while she separated the egg yolk from the egg white.
Adam's Rib (1949) by George Cukor. It was a classy case of the Battle of the Sexes. Here's to difference, cheers to Hepburn and Tracy.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) by Stanley Kramer. William Rose's screenplay was an insightful look into the raging issues during the 1960s, but Kramer's camera would cast a sentimental look into Hepburn and Tracy. This was their final work together. And there won't be another pair like them.
Love Affair (1994) by Warren Beatty. Hepburn was 86 years of age when she filmed this feature, her final work. Her few scenes would still be recalled by those who have seen this romantic picture. She may be frail, but there was no mistake about her strong presence.