Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was, according to the American Film Institute, the greatest female star ever to grace American cinema.
Hepburn, or "The Great Kate," had quite possibly the longest starring career ever seen in Hollywood. Her first film, A Bill of Divorcement, hit theaters in 1932; her last, Love Affair, was released in 1994. For those who hate math, Hepburn was a big-screen regular for six decades.
Her first real success was in the 1933 release of Little Women, playing Jo March; Hepburn broke box office records as the feisty, red-haired heroine. Before Little Women was ever released, however, she had already won her first Oscar. She wouldn't win her next for over thirty years, but when she did, she went an unheard-of three for three on her last three nominations, nominated (and winning) in 1967, 1968 (one of only two actresses to win back-to-back), and 1981.
After Little Women, Hepburn unfortunately hit a rough patch. For a number of years, she was given unsuitable roles by RKO, in films such as The Little Minister, Mary of Scotland, Sylvia Scarlet, and Quality Street. Even parts well-regarded now, such as her turn as the title character in Alice Adams, Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby, Terry Randall in Stage Door (which provided her Signature Line, "The calla lilies are in bloom again..."), and Linda Seton in Holiday failed to break her reputation as "box office poison." Hepburn's box office woes were not helped by her reputation for being difficult to work with due to her Hair-Trigger Temper. However, 1939 marked her triumphant return as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story and the film of the play the following year.
A long string of memorable films followed, among them The African Queen (opposite the equally legendary Humphrey Bogart), Long Day's Journey Into Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Lion in Winter. She also made nine films — largely romantic comedies — with Spencer Tracy, whom she met on the set of their first film, Woman of the Year. The couple became romantically involved during that film and, in spite of Tracy's marriage to another woman whom he refused to divorce, remained together until Tracy's death in 1967. Hepburn categorically refused to watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, their last film together, because the memories of Tracy were too painful for her.
Hepburn is famous for winning four Academy Awards out of twelve nominations, all for Best Actress. Her next closest competitor, the great Meryl Streep, has seventeen nominations under her belt — fourteen for Best Actress, three for Best Supporting Actress — and three wins, two for Best Actress and one for Best Supporting Actress.
Cate Blanchett won the 2004 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Hepburn in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, making Hepburn the only Oscar winner to be played by someone who would win an Oscar for the role.
She was also noted for:
- Never attending the Oscar ceremony as a nominee (she did attend as a presenter in 1974).
- Rarely, if ever, wearing skirts or dresses offscreen — she preferred slacks.
- Penchant for going barefoot or wearing sandals offscreen, even for formal occasions.
- Being tart and abrasive, which led some of her Hollywood detractors to nickname her "Katharine of Arrogance."
- Writing a best-selling book, The Making of The African Queen: or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, a memoir of her time making the eponymous film.
- Her striking face and auburn hair.
- Her height — she was one of Hollywood's tallest leading ladies from that time period at 5'7" (most leading ladies were only a little over 5'3").
- Making a lot of films with George Cukor, with whom she got on famously.
- Being something of a Deadpan Snarker.
Her mother, also named Katharine Hepburn, was one of the founders of what eventually became Planned Parenthood.
She's not related to Audrey Hepburn, who was from across the pond. The two did become close friends and Katharine nicknamed Audrey "my little daughter".
Some notable films Katharine Hepburn appeared in include:
- A Bill of Divorcement (1932), as Sydney Fairfield
- Christopher Strong (1933), as Lady Cynthia Darrington
- Morning Glory (1933), as Eva Lovelace. Her first Academy Award-winning role; she lost the Oscar statue after a hurricane destroyed her house in 1938.
- Little Women (1933), as Jo March
- The Little Minister (1934), as Babbie the Gypsy
- Alice Adams (1935), as the title character. Oscar nom.
- Sylvia Scarlett (1935), as the gender-bent eponymous Sylvia/Sylvester. The first of her four films with Cary Grant.
- Mary of Scotland (1936), as Mary, Queen of Scots
- Quality Street (1937), as Phoebe Throssel
- Stage Door (1937), as Terry Randall. As noted, provided her Signature Line, spoken as a character in a play. The full speech runs:"The calla lilies are in bloom again — such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died."
- Bringing Up Baby (1938), as Susan Vance. Her second film with Cary Grant.
- Holiday (1938), as Linda Seton. Her third film with Cary Grant.
- The Philadelphia Story (1940), as Tracy Lord. Her fourth and final film with Cary Grant. Oscar nom.
- Woman of the Year (1942), as Tess Harding. The first of her nine films with Spencer Tracy. Oscar nom.
- Dragon Seed (1944), as Jade Tan. In a very unconvincing yellowface role.
- Song of Love (1947), as Clara Schumann. A Biopic of German composer Robert Schumann.
- State of the Union (1948), as Mary Matthews. The fifth of her films with Spencer Tracy.
- Adam's Rib (1949), as Amanda Bonner. The sixth of her films with Spencer Tracy.
- The African Queen (1951), as Rose Sayer. Oscar nom.
- Pat and Mike (1952), as Patricia Pemberton. The seventh of her films with Spencer Tracy.
- Summertime (1955), as Jane Hudson. Oscar nom.
- The Rainmaker (1956), as Lizzie Currie. Oscar nom.
- Desk Set (1957), as Bunny Watson. The eighth of her films with Spencer Tracy.
- Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), as Violet Venable. Oscar nom.
- Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), as The Alcoholic Mary Tyrone. Oscar nom.
- Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), as Christina Drayton. The ninth and last of her films with Spencer Tracy, and the second of her Academy Award-winning roles.
- The Lion in Winter (1968), as Eleanor of Aquitaine. The third of her Academy Award-winning roles. Shared the Oscar with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl, after the vote ended in a tie. She's also a descendant of Eleanor, both through Eleanor's marriage to the King of France (Louis VI) and Eleanor's later marriage to the King of England (Henry II).
- The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), as Countess Aurelia. The first of a series of revivals of classic plays, done mainly for television.
- Coco (1969), as Coco Chanel (Broadway musical)
- The Trojan Women (1971), as Hecuba
- A Delicate Balance (1973), as Agnes
- The Glass Menagerie (1973), as Amanda Wingfield (TV movie)
- Love Among the Ruins (1975), as Jessica Medlicott, opposite fabled actor Laurence Olivier.
- Rooster Cogburn (1975), as Eula Goodnight, opposite John Wayne as the eponymous bounty hunter.
- The Corn is Green (1979), as Lilly Moffat (TV movie)
- On Golden Pond (1981), as Ethel Thayer, opposite Henry Fonda. Her fourth and last Academy Award-winning part.
- Love Affair (1994), as Ginny. Her last cinematic release.
- One Christmas (1994), as Cornelia Beaumont (TV movie)
Tropes associated with her work:
- Bifauxnen: Many of her roles, such as the titular character in Sylvia Scarlett.
- Hostility on the Set: Notably deliberately prevented on the set of The Lion in Winter when Hepburn, well aware of co-star Peter O'Toole's habit of drinking and turning up late to set, made it clear in no uncertain terms that if he wanted to star in a movie with her, he was going to show up on time and act professional. He did and they got along just fine — helped by the fact that they mutually admired and respected one another's work.
- Fiery Redhead: Loads of Hepburn's roles in the early years of her career occasionally had her characters defying expectations or being passionate about her interests or her job.
- Reality Subtext: When Spencer Tracy did his "If it's half of what we felt, it's everything" speech in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Hepburn is seen standing to the side with tears spilling down her cheeks. That wasn't acting — Tracy's monologue was very obviously about his real life relationship with Hepburn.
- Those Two Actors:
- What Could Have Been: Katharine vied hard for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, practically demanding to be handed the role only for the movie producer David O. Selznick to bluntly state, "I can't see Rhett Butler chasing you for twelve years" as he believe she had no sex appeal for the part.
- What the Hell Is That Accent?: Hepburn might as well be the best example of the Mid-Atlantic accent: the typical dialect that many movie stars were using in their films at the time. What made it her trademark was that she never changed her voice, no matter what character she was, making her a member of Small Reference Pool of old/outdated dialects. (Although, the accent did manage to give her a convincing posh southern-English accent for the missionary Rose in The African Queen.)