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      What Katharine Did

      "I often wonder whether men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."

      - Katharine Hepburn

      More than any other Hollywood heroine, Katharine Hepburn embodied dynamism, courage and idealism. Although compromised by many of her roles, she opened up visions of a fuller life to generations of women.

      After her bright entry into the firmament of Hollywood in the early Thirties, including an Oscar for Best Actress in Morning Glory (1933). Katharine Hepburn's career took a dramatic plunge. Commercial failures such as Sylvia Scarlett, Mary of Scotland, A Woman Rebels (all 1936) and Quality Street (1937), left her and RKO producer Pandro S. Berman despondent. Despite the overwhelming popularity if Stage Door (1937) and the critical acclaim the delightful comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) received, Harry Brandt, President of the Independant Theatre Owners of America, pronounced her 'box-office poison'. Hepburn decided that her career needed a new direction, so she bought herself out of her contract at RKO.

      The Forties, despite a 'flat' period in the middle of the decade, were to re-establish her position as a top-rank performer, defining the two major qualities which may be seen as informing both her films and her status as a star - her image as an 'independant' lady and her commitment to left-of-centre politics.


      A mind of her own

      Her independant image dates back to 1933 and her second film, Christopher Strong; the compromises which her roles in this and subsequent films demanded were often wholly subverted by her strong, vivacious personality. Bringing Up Baby, however, was the first of her films to show that her headstrong independance could be a major asset; she and Cary Grant went on to make Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940), which confirmed her comic talent.

      hepburn
      bringing up baby
      (1938)


      Her next film, Woman of the Year (1942), turned out to be crucial both for her career and her private life. It marked the beginning of her long relationship with the picture's co-star, Spencer Tracy, and was a forerunner of the pair's later and better known comedies on the equality of the sexes, Adam's Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952).


      The meaning of love

      These two films, together with The African Queen (1951) in which Hepburn starred with Humphrey Bogart, are her most interesting explorations of women's place in society. Not only do they directly confront the issue of the potentialities and role of women as the equals of men and the possibilities for heterosexual relationships under those circumstances, but they do so without unduly compromising their heroines' struggles for self-fulfilment with lame 'male-chauvinist' endings.

      In addition, Pat and Mike and The African Queen cast Hepburn as a woman who does not have any advantages of wealth, education or social position - elements which had coloured her earlier roles as an independant woman in films like Christopher Strong (1933), Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelhia Story with a fantastic quality. In Pat and Mike Hepburn plays a sportswoman whose confidence is completely destroyed by her fiance. A small-time sports promoter (Tracy) treats her as an individual and builds up her belief in herself; eventually they fall in love. In The African Queen, a rough, alcoholic, Canadian steamer captain ( (Bogart) finds himself fleeing the Germans with a virgin spinster (Hepburn). Their growing love and respect are intelligently and movingly represented. The film avoids any suggestion that her sexual awakening is a 'gift' bestowed on her by Bogart, but represents each of the protagonists as giving and learning in equal measure.

      Hepburn's nine films with Tracy seem to form a central and seperate part of her career, to the point where her other work appears peripheral. After Woman of the Year they made Keeper of the Flame (1942), in which Hepburn played her first directly political role. As Christine Forrest, the widow of a national figure, she tries to protect her former husband's good name from the investigations of a journalist (Tract) who correctly suspects him of having been a fascist. The film was aimed at alerting the USA to fascism at home, but sadly it is melodramatic and liberal in the worst sense. Frank Capra's State of the Union was another political film, in which Hepburn helps her husband, a presidential candidate (Tracy), recognize that he is being manipulated by crooked politicians.

      hepburn
      stage door
      (1937)


      Rude awakenings

      After Pat and Mike, Hepburn's career was largely a matter of fine performances in mediocre films. In Summer Madness (1955), she plays a repressed spinster who finds love with Rossano Brazzi in Venice; in The Rainmaker (1956) she plays Lizzie, another unhappy, small-town spinster who meets Starbuck (Burt Lancaster). In his biography of Hepburn, Kate, Charles Higham wrote that Starbuck's:

        '...physical assurance and powerfully masculine charm break through her protective shell. Starbuck promises to bring rain to the parched soil of the southwestern state, and his promise is metaphorically fulfilled when he enriches Lizzie's sterile and sexless existence.'

      Following the disastrous The Iron Petticoat (1956), (virtually a remake of Lubitsch's Ninotchka, 1939), and the likeable but unremarkable Desk Set (1957), which was another permutation on male-female relationships with Tracy, Hepburn was cast in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams' outrageous Suddenky, Last Summer (1959). She plays a wealthy widow who tries to hush up the circumstances of her homosexual son's murder by having a pre-frontal lobotomy perforned on the only witness, her niece (Elizabeth Taylor). The film is remarkable only for its repressed sense of homosexuality and its representation of a demonic and its representation of a demonic and destructive mother besotted with her dead son, although the film did seem to prompt the confrontation of taboo subjects in later films.

      hepburn
      the philadelphia story
      (1940)


      Having given a good performance s the drug-addicted mother in Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), Hepburn made no films for five years in order to nurse an ailing Tracy. Then, in 1967 they made together Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. This was an excruciating, albeit genuinely motivated, liberal 'message' film about the horrors of racial intolerance. Hepburn, however won her second Oscar.

      Although she won her third Oscar for her performance in The Lion in Winter (1968), her major acting achievement in the Sixties was not on film but on the stage, in the 1960 musical Coco, based on the life of Coco Chanel.

      In 1975 she played opposite Laurence Olivier in Love Among the Ruins, a delightful comedy of lovers meeting again after many years. Directed by George Cukor for American TV, it is a gentle reprise if the theme of male-female relationships explored by her earlier films, and particularly delightful for its portrayal of elderly people rediscovering the excitement of love. Hepburn's next film, The Corn is Green (1978) was also made for TV and directed by Cukor. Sadly, its story of a schoolteacher who helps a young boy miner win a scholarship to Oxford was simplistic and poorly realized.

      tracy
      adam's rib
      (1949)


      A free spirit

      Apart from her four Oscars (she won the last for her role in the gentle On Golden Pond in 1981; she is the only 4-time Oscar recipient for acting), Hepburn was nominated another eight times; she was rightly always regarded as a vital force in American cinema. Her extraordinary personality and unconventional private life (not least her wearing of men's clothes) combined with her passionate desire for privacy, particularly during her long affair with Tracy, gave her an aura of freedom. Many of her more successful films capitalized on this image, and for generations of women she offered a vision of life's potential, although with hindsight her career can be seen as entrenched in the ethos of the Hollywood dream factory. Born in 1907 (there had been alot of confusion in regard to her actual birthdate as for years she used her brother's birthdate of 1909 as her own) into a wealthy and privileged upper-middle-class family (although of sound socialist beliefs), many of her roles in the Thirties as an 'independant' heroine were of women from the same moneyed and privileged-class. Later on, her roles in Summer Madness and The Rainmaker could only be seen as conforming to inveterate male attitudes towards female virginity.

      Her political films suffered not so much from a lack of genuine commitment as from the soft-centredness which liberalism, by definition, produces. On the other hand, given these observations, can she really be criticized for the faults which her films can now be seen to contain? In this regard it is apt to compare her with Jane Fonda, who had all the advantages of access to contemporary political theory and practice. In hindsight, Fonda's political naivety is both inexcusable and irrelevant, but Hepburn's ingenuousness was not in itself halmful to the positive image she offered - indeed it was part of it. To see Hepburn in the Thirties and Forties us to glimpse not only someone ahead of her time but someone, as David Thomson says in his biographical dictionary, whose:

        'beauty grew out of her own belief in herself and from the viewer's sense that she was living dangerously, exposing her own nerves and vulnerability, along with her intelligence and sensibility.'

      In the later years of her life she lived quietly at her home in Connecticut. Her privacy was jealously guarded even by her neighbours. She died in 2003 at the age of 96 in Old Saybrook

      For someone so concerned with her privacy it seemed astonishing that in June 2004, less than a year after her death, her Estate had organised an auction of many of her personal belongings with Sothebys'. Thus the private world of a private person was bought into the public domain and fell into the hands of the public collectors. All for the colour of money.

      The Estate was better off by over $2 million but it hardly seems a very fitting way to remember Ms Hepburn.



      { F I L M O G R A P H Y }


        1932
        - A Bill of Divorcement

        1933
        - Christopher Strong
        - Morning Glory
        - Little Women

        1934
        - Spitfire
        - The Little Minister

        1935
        - Break of Hearts
        - Alice Adams
        - Sylvia Scarlett

        1936
        - Mary of Scotland
        - A Woman Rebels

        1937
        - Quality Street
        - Stage Door

        1938
        - Bringing Up Baby
        - Holiday

        1940
        - The Philadelphia Story

        1942
        - Woman of the Year
        - Keeper of the FFFFFllame

        1944
        - Dragon Seed

        1945
        - Without Love

        1946
        - Undercurrent

        1947
        - The Sea of Grass
        - Song of Love

        1948
        - State of the Union

        1949
        - Adam's Rib

        1951
        - The African Queen

        1952
        - Pat and Mike

        1955
        - Summertime

        1956
        - The Rainmaker
        - The Iron Petticoatttt

        1957
        - Desk Set

        1959
        - Suddenly, Last Summer

        1962
        - Long Day's Journey Into Night

        1967
        - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

        1968
        - The Lion in Winter

        1969
        - The Madwoman of Chaillot

        1971
        - The Trojan Women

        1956
        - The Mountain

        1973
        - The Glass Menagerie (TV)
        - Delicatttteeeeeee Balance

        1975
        - Love Among the Ruins (TV)
        - Roosteeeerrrrr Cogburn

        1978
        - Olly, Olly, Oxen Free

        1979
        - The Corn Is Green (TV)

        1981
        - On Golden Pond

        1984
        - Grace Quigley

        1986
        - Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (TV)

        1988
        - Laura Lansing Slept Here (TV)

        1992
        - The Man Upstairs (TV)

        1994
        - This Can't Be Love (TV)
        - Love Afffffaaaaaiir (TV)
        - One Christmas (TV)





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