When Katharine Hepburn realized she was a hit on the New York stage in The Philadelphia Story, she bought the rights to the play and returned to the Hollywood that had shunned her. With George Cukor directing, she starred in the 1940 film version as Tracy Lord, a wildly self-possessed but oblivious society heiress on the eve of her second marriage. She wore pants (as Hepburn did in real life, to much notoriety). She sneered at authority. She made people fall in love with her when she wasn’t trying. Hepburn revived her career, cast off the title of “box-office poison” that had saddled her after a string of flop comedies in the 1930s, and solidified a persona that established Hollywood’s benchmark for the strong woman. She died at home on June 29, at the age of 96.
Hepburn had found herself on-screen. Her movies of the 1930s—Little Women, Stage Door, Alice Adams—pressed her to adapt to their plots and ideas of femininity. There is something weird about Hepburn in these movies, something just off. Even Bringing Up Baby, which tanked in 1938 but is now revered as a screwball favorite, feels forced, with Howard Hawks urging Hepburn and Cary Grant into unnatural slapstick that grows more grating the longer the film drags on. Playing an uptight paleontologist, Grant is on the verge of marrying a proper woman when he trips over the klutzy, spoiled Susan, played by Hepburn, who dogs him for the rest of the story, tricking him, stealing his clothes (Grant does look wonderful in that fluffy dressing gown) and forcing him to chase down a tame leopard. She is prominent and determined, but without a point or a function.
Holiday is the best of the lot in that decade, again pairing her with Grant. Hepburn plays Linda Seton, the black sheep in a wealthy New York society family who falls for Johnny, her sister’s fiancé, played by Grant. The story is really about Johnny, who quickly realizes that the charming girl he proposed to on holiday is in fact tightly bound to the stiff demands of her milieu. Unlike her sister, Linda cloisters herself in the playroom and wears slacks. She is protective of her sister and happy for her, but deeply unhappy herself, and Johnny’s appearance releases her from a life’s fiction. Holiday creaks a bit with preachiness and its stage origins, but is nevertheless an appealing fantasy, and a model of sisterhood. Johnny becomes desperately important to her, but her ethical respect for her sister makes her deny herself, and this tension between wanting and not having, between performance and reality, becomes the foundation of Hepburn’s on-screen persona.
Hepburn managed her own career, which was a rarity in Hollywood’s Golden Age—not only among women, but among all actors, who were mostly contract players, no matter their star status. This confidence of choice emanates from her performances, so much so that some are difficult to distinguish from others—Tess Harding in Woman of the Year, Amanda Bonner in Adam’s Rib, Pat Pemberton in Pat and Mike. But they’re still a thrill, these women, mannish and regal and composed, proudly black-sheepish, smart but never wily. In Woman of the Year, as an important international media figure, Hepburn falls for Spencer Tracy, playing a humble sports writer. Will their courtship work, with Tess so clearly consumed with herself? She visits him in the press box of a ballgame, an utterly foreign stage to her, and her fashionable, oversized hat dominates the entire scene with arrogant entitlement.
When Hepburn was good, she told on herself, dissolving her own icy image in spite of her intentions. She was perfect to look at, perfect and eerie to listen to, her famous voice like nothing found in nature, but sirenous all the same. When she was bad, she was a parody of herself.
Hepburn began making movies 75 years ago. Some readers may know her only from her late period sap, such as On Golden Pond, or any number of TV movies she made throughout the ’80s, or from Martin Short’s Saturday Night Live impersonation of her quivering head. There are plenty of Hepburn movies that aren’t much good, but she is good in them: Rainmaker, in which she’s meant to be a plain, small-town virgin headed for spinsterhood until the conniving Burt Lancaster arrives in town; Desk Set; Suddenly, Last Summer; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; Rooster Cogburn…You can avoid these movies, although they won’t hurt you.
The latter part of Hepburn’s career really began with her portrayal of the contained and prim Miss Rose Sayer in The African Queen, a woman on the edge of her life until Bogart takes her to the end of the earth. John Huston tortured his cast and his crew in making the movie, and her heroic strength in suffering that ordeal bleeds onto the screen.
After The Philadelphia Story experience, Hepburn insisted on parts that gave her a lot to do, roles for women driven and intent about their work but also vulnerable to the surprise of emotion. For men, Hepburn’s appeal is that of an ice queen who is meltable, an impossible conquest who becomes a possibility. For women, she made everything sexy except sex—a bold statement that inspired women to promote themselves with pride.
Hepburn was never a sex symbol, but a life symbol, a way to be, an instruction in what women could and should do.