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By Susan M. Kelly

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1935 Katharine Hepburn Dixie PremiumAs the daughter of a suffragette, individualism was a birthright for Katharine Hepburn.  It would become her hallmark throughout life and throughout one of the most successful and storied careers in Hollywood history.  This was a woman unafraid to speak her mind despite the consequences and she remained unbowed and unapologetic to the very end.

Katharine was born on May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, into a family known for its unique views and from the start she was encouraged to follow her own path, wherever it might lead.  A classic tomboy, young Katharine was very close to her brother, Tom.  His tragic death, an apparent suicide, when she was just 14, devastated her and she withdrew, becoming quite shy.  After years of home schooling, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College and it was here that she discovered the lure of the stage.

After graduation, she followed the standard path of the struggling actor, from amateur theatricals to summer stock and finally to Broadway, where she began getting small roles.  She made the step to films in 1932, playing John Barrymore’s daughter in “A Bill of Divorcement”.  The film was a hit and she was immediately signed to a deal by RKO.  The following year, she won the first of her Academy Awards with her performance as a naïve, impulsive actress trying to crash Broadway in “Morning Glory”.

She appeared in a string of films over the next few years but her fierce independent streak and her stark refusal to fall into the typical “Hollywood starlet” mold, made her as many enemies as she had friends.  She managed a few successes, including 1935’s “Alice Adams” for which she nabbed her second Oscar nomination, but there were just as many flops and 8x10 Promotional Still from Keeper of the Flame starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburnshe was eventually labeled “box office poison”.  Dissatisfied with the Hollywood life, she returned to Broadway in 1938 to star in “The Philadelphia Story”.  When the play became a smash, the shrewd Ms. Hepburn quickly bought up the film rights, giving her the perfect vehicle to return to Hollywood – on her own terms, of course.

The film version of “The Philadelphia Story” (1938) was a success as well, earning her a third Oscar nomination and returning her to bankable status.  Now a verified A-list star, Hepburn was able to choose her films more carefully and her next vehicle, 1942’s “Woman of The Year” would be a fateful choice.  Not only did the film bring her more big screen success and yet another Oscar nomination, it also paired her opposite the irascible Spencer Tracy.  The two would spark onscreen and off, becoming one of Hollywood’s most legendary couples and remaining together until his death.

1930's Editorial Bruguera Cromos Cinefoto featuring Katharine Hepburn and Cary GrantOver the course of the next 25 years, Spencer and Tracy co-starred in eight more films.  A few of them were standard dramatic fare, including “Keeper of the Flame” (1942) and “The Sea of Grass” (1947), but the most memorable were the humorous films, highlighting the pair’s classic battle-of-the-sexes.  Titles such as “Adam’s Rib” (1949), “Pat and Mike” (1952) and “Desk Set” (1957) would become instant Hollywood classics.

After the early successes of the 30’s and 40’s, Hepburn truly hit her stride in the 50’s and 60’s, picking up an astonishing five more Oscar nominations for her work in “The African Queen” (1951), “Summertime” (1955), “The Rainmaker” (1956), “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) and “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (1962).  It seemed everything she touched turned to cinematic gold, yet in another nod to her independent spirit she suddenly decided to take a brief break, returning after five years to star opposite Spencer Tracy again in what would be his last film, 1967’s landmark “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”.  Once again, Ms. Hepburn was breaking ground, in a film which touched on the sensitive subject of interracial relationships, and not surprisingly she shone, earning her second best actress Oscar.  The win would be bittersweet, though, as her beloved Spencer Tracy died just weeks after completing the film.

Her career continued to flourish, though, and the next year she earned her eleventh Oscar nomination and third win, with her performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter”.   She followed that success by making her Broadway musical debut as the couturier Coco Chanel in “Coco”, then segued into a string of made-for-television films including “The Glass Menagerie” (1973) and “The Corn is Green” (1979).  She continued to make the occasional film, pairing with the legendary John Wayne in “Rooster Cogburn” (1975), but by this time her career was beginning to ebb.

Then, in 1981, she appeared opposite another screen legend, Henry Fonda, in “On Golden Pond”.  The performance, which would prove to be one of her best, earned her a twelfth Oscar nomination and her fourth win – the latter a record for an actress which still stands to this day.  She made a few more TV movies during the 80’s and her last feature film “Love Affair”, as Warren Beatty’s aunt, in 1994. 

With her health declining, she once again chose to live by her own terms and retired from public life to spend time on her beloved Old Saybrook, Connecticut estate.  She died there at the tender age of 96, leaving behind one of the most unique legacies in Hollywood history.  Carving her own way with tenacity and drive, she had become one of the most honored, admired, and imitated actresses in Hollywood.  Hers was a spirit so tenacious, in fact, that even death couldn’t prevent her from gaining accolades.  In 2004, Cate Blanchett won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress - for her role as Katherine Hepburn in the film “The Aviator”.  The win made Ms Hepburn the first Oscar winner to become an Oscar winning movie role, a fact which she would have no doubt found ironic.  To the legions of fans she left behind, it just served as more evidence of her unique hold on Hollywood and their hearts.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey.  Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other Katharine Hepburn Pages:

Katharine Hepburn Dead at 96 -- Hepburn's obituary on published June 30, 2003.
Katharine Hepburn: Woman of the Year -- Detailed Hepburn site with a great collection of Kate images including magazine covers, plus tons of info about Hepburn and her career.  Very well done site.