I once had the opportunity to see Katharine Hepburn in personand she wasn't on the job. In 1978, her close friend and frequent director, George Cukor, was honored at a Film Society of Lincoln Center gala. After a number of his colleagues introduced film clips from his renowned career, out strode the surprise guest on to the stage of Avery Fisher Hallto the audible gasps and cheers of the thrilled audience. Clad as always in her trademark informal slacks (which she and Greta Garbo had pioneered in the '30s), she introduced Cukor and took over the ceremony, standing at his side and coaxing the somewhat shy old gentleman to open up and tell us his stories. "Now George," she ordered, "tell the folks" such and such, and this and that. She was commanding but not pushy. From what I saw that Sunday afternoon, I know that what we see on the screen is to a large degree the real Hepburn.
Katharine Hepburn was the last of the great stars of the Hollywood Golden Age of the '30s and '40s. Others have written about her truly unique features, manner and speech, her far from traditional feminine beauty, and her most un-Hollywood genuineness. Her forcefulness and confidence carried all before her for seven decades, ever since her movie debut in "A Bill of Divorcement" (directed by Cukor), released when Herbert Hoover was in the White House, back in 1932. Like her great leading menCary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda (these two late in her career) and, of course, Spencer Tracyand like all the big stars of her era, Miss Hepburn wasand isan actor the audience looked up to: a symbol, an icon, an ideal, in some respects resembling a mythic figure from ancient literature whose timeless adventures we follow in her movies. It is ironic that movies, that most democratic of mass entertainments, in their early years gave birth to actors who raised the sites of the audience to something outside of and above themselves. Looking at the movie stars of our day, that age was aristocratic compared to the extreme egalitarian epoch in which we now live.
The busiest period of Miss Hepburn's movie career was the '30s and '40s. Like all female stars (but unlike the great male stars), the roles tended to become fewer in number after she reached her own late forties. Her best parts and films of this period are "A Bill of Divorcement," as the daughter, Sydney who tries to rescue emotionally her dear, long lost father (the great John Barrymore) who has escaped from an asylum. She won her first of a unique four Oscars as best actress playing a young aspiring thespian in "Morning Glory" (1933). One of her best roleswhich this New England daughter of a suffragette and birth control pioneer was born to playremains the independent tomboy, aspiring novelist and proto-feminist Jo March in "Little Women" (1933), also directed by Cukor and still by far the best and most faithful movie version. (The 1994 version with Winona Ryder that ignorant critics acclaimed as a resurgence of family entertainment, in truth completely bowdlerizes the moral, Biblical heart of the book, which teaches how in life we must "conquer ourselves" in order to live uprightly.)
Miss Hepburn's other three triumphs of the '30s are as the awkward social-climbing small town girl in Booth Tarkington's "Alice Adams" (1935), directed by George Stevens; as yet another aspiring young actress in a boarding house teeming with them (including the young Lucille Ball) in the comedy-drama "Stage Door (1937, featuring her famous line, which only she could deliver with just the right quaver: "The calla lilies are in bloom again."); and as the daffy, ever-maddening Susan, driving to distraction Cary Grant's dinosaur expert David Huxley, who is in search of a certain bone, in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), directed by Howard Hawks. This is the one with the pet leopard, "Baby," and stands as one of the absolute greatest screwball comedies ever made. (the public ranks it 119 out of the top 250 movies of all time on the Internet Movie Data base.) Mention also should be made here of her cult film, the picaresque "Sylvia Scarlett" (1935), directed by Cukor, in which she appears much of the time disguised as a man with a troupe of entertainers wandering across rural England. The suggestive reversal of sex roles has piqued the interest of movie aficionados. This film also is the first in which Cary Grant assumes the persona he was to embody for the next three decades of his career.
"Bringing Up Baby" was not a success at the time and Miss Hepburn was tagged with the dreaded label, "Box Office Poison." Typically, she took the offensive, returning to the Broadway stage as Tracy Lord, the Main Line goddess created for her by Philip Barry in "The Philadelphia Story." Most unusual for those times, when stars were contractually bound to one of the big studios, she was able to negotiate the film rights with the mighty M-G-M (having obtained them in the first place with the financial help of her sometime lover, Howard Hughes). The 1940 movie, directed by Cukor, with the co-stars she selectedGrant and James Stewartwas a big hit and made her secure in Hollywood forever after.
Which brings us to her next film, the decisive move of her life and career. The comedy "Woman of the Year" (1942) paired her with Spencer Tracy and was directed again by George Stevens. Miss Hepburn herself told the story of her first meeting with Tracy outside the Thalberg building at MGM. She wondered aloud whether tough-guy Spence was tall enough for her, to which he abruptly replied, "Don't worry. I'll cut you down to size." Well, it apparently was true love ever after, 'til his death in 1967, aged 67.
"Woman of the Year" was another proto-feminist role for Miss Hepburn, playing Tess Harding, famous high-flying news columnist who falls for Tracy's rough-hewn sports reporter Sam Craig. A vintage Hepburn scene is when he takes her to Yankee Stadium for her first baseball game. She doesn't understand a thing, having to start with the real basicsstrikes, balls, bases, etc. As her beau attempts to explain the game in progress amidst her barrage of questions and outspoken opinions about the rules (the lady-like etiquette of the time never applied to her), the wise-cracking sportswriters seated just behind are made speechless in exasperation; they also miss the action, their view blocked by her wide-brimmed '40s hat. The couple manage, of course, to overcome the crises occasioned by the gulf in their stations, and in the end Miss Hepburn is tamedin a long comedy sequence featuring her battle with the kitchen, gamely trying without success to prepare her new husband's breakfast. This scene undoubtedly will inspire rabid boos at the next Hepburn retrospective.
Following three forgettable pairings (they made nine movies together), Miss Hepburn came in as a late substitution as Tracy's wife in "State of the Union" (1948), Frank Capra's adaptation of the stage hit. Tracy plays a Wendell Wilkie-type, idealistic young Republican businessman who runs for president, only to recoil in true Capra fashion against the moral corruption of the politicians who control the process.
Next came the best Tracy-Hepburn pairings, two comedies directed by Cukor and written by friends Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon: "Adam's Rib" (1949) and "Pat and Mike" (1952). The first is perhaps the outstanding pre-1970 proto-feminist movie, with the stars as married lawyers on the opposite side of a controversial attempted murder: a spurned young wife (Judy Holliday) who catches her straying husband (Tom Ewell) in flagrante. Miss Hepburn for the defense and Tracy for the prosecution. "It's the hilarious answer to who wears the pants!" was the movie's innocent '40s promo line, in the days long before gender roles came into question. By now, the easy, spontaneous repartee of the couple is quite evident and unique in movie pairings; they were the only long-term lovers to star together in a series of movies, and their relationship makes these films special.
In "Pat and Mike," Miss Hepburn is an accomplished athletewhich she washere in tennis and track, who is promoted by Tracy's tough guy trainer. He makes the observation that is always cited in the Hepburn canon: "Not much meat on her but what's there is 'cherce.'" This one also has my favorite Hepburn scene. At the opening of the film, she is the wife of a university president who has to endure a round of golf with the nagging wife of a big donor; to keep the old girl and her monied husband happy, Miss Hepburn is asked by her husband to allow the nag to win the round. Well, by the 18th green she has heard all the ridiculous golf advice she can take from a golf inferior. She marches off the green to the practice tee and shuts the woman's jaw tight by smashing one long, straight drive after another, drives that would do Annika Sorenstam proud!
The year before Miss Hepburn scored one of her greatest triumphs as the spinster missionary Rosie Sayre, sailing down a river in the Congo and even taking on a German warship in the company of Humphrey Bogart's smelly, gin-soaked Academy Award winner, Charlie Allnutt, in "The African Queen." Later in the '50s, she showed her integrity as an actress by doing Shakespeare on stage at the annual festival in Stratford, Connecticut. After playing an office head to Tracy's computer efficiency expert in the comedy "Desk Set" (1957), she turned to heavy drama, as Mary Tyrone in the 1962 film of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."
Her final film with Tracy, completed just two weeks before his death, was "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), one of director Stanley Kramer's social-consciousness movies about the then daring subject of interracial marriage. Tracy's swan song is his speech at the end of the film, when he gives his blessing to the couple (Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton, Miss Hepburn's real-life niece) and expresses his hope they will share the same deep love that he has shared with his wife (Miss Hepburn). She surely knew this was the end for them, and in the shot where she is watching him speak, tears welling up in her eyes, the movies and life have merged.
The quarter-century affair of the couple actually was not widely known until publication of their friend Garson Kanin's book, Tracy and Hepburn, in 1970. This breach of confidence appalled Miss Hepburn and she refused to speak with the author thereafter. She did not speak publicly of her relationship with Tracy until after the death of his widow, Louise, in 1983. (Having been brought up Catholic, Tracy would not divorce his wife. The deafness of their son, John, also is said to have damaged their marriage.) When he died, Mrs. Tracy was called to their cottage (on Cukor's Beverly Hills estate) and reportedly commented acidly to Miss Hepburn that it appeared the "rumors" were true after all. Miss Hepburn did not appear at the funeral. Having been born well before the Baby Boom generation and its progeny, she respected what used to be known as propriety.
In later years Miss Hepburn hosted a television documentary about her life. In an extraordinary disclosure for this private woman (she did few interviews and never appeared in person to accept her Oscars), she read to the camera a letter she had written to Tracy near the end. She asked sorrowfully why this man who was acclaimed by his fellow actors the screen's greatest dramatic actor found life so difficult at times. Watching his visible physical deteriorationfrom drinkon screen in his last films during his final decade, one can appreciate what she meant, and how hard it must have been for her to stay with him and take care of him. But she stuck with himbecause she loved him.