Smarts Sold Better Then: Katharine Hepburn

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You can keep your spinster Kate, the high-minded, stiff-necked and prudish grande dame of The African Queen and A Lion in Winter. Give me Katharine, the whip-smart, cunning, sexy comedienne of the late 1930s. Then, she was something else. She seemed to glow from within, suggesting that while the exterior was crisp and cool, the interior was white-hot. No wonder that she became, and remained, the only woman who could overpower Cary Grant.

Like most movie icons, Katharine Hepburn made only a handful of films that define her. They arrived in rapid fashion: Bringing Up Baby in 1938, The Philadelphia Story in 1940, and Woman of the Year in 1942. After those, just as she was re-establishing herself in Hollywood, age, audience expectation, and changing times flattened her.

The African Queen

This generation is more likely to know Hepburn through her jittery, matronly performance in On Golden Pond and though those who, like Martin Short, made comedic currency out of imitating her signature vocal quivering. (In On Golden Pond, her stalled-engine call to “the loo-ooo-ns” served as a kind of self-parody.) But even by the time of her celebrated performance opposite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, she had become institutional and calcified, a museum piece to be admired but never touched.

What satisfaction is found then, in revisiting her earlier work. Here she is vibrant, personable, exciting, someone to be pursued, not simply applauded. In her films of the 1930s and ’40s, Hepburn portrayed confident, intelligent women who came at men as an equal, while acting as a superior. She was no wisecracking dame like Rosalind Russell or goofy, well-meaning wife like Irene Dunne. She was self-reliant, headstrong, ambitious. She did what she wanted to do regardless of what the men in her life preferred, whether it was babysitting a leopard in Baby or interviewing foreign heads of state in Woman of the Year.

Hepburn was the rarest of film actresses at that time or any other time, her own person entirely. Ultimately, those traits would manifest themselves in characters who kept their emotional distance, first in the series of films with Spencer Tracy — all operating within the same template, in which A Man of the People lassoes a frosty, orbiting goddess and reels her to Earth — and later in maiden aunts, matriarchs, and scolds.

Bringing Up Baby

But in Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn is still light on her feet and sizzling, not yet suffocated by her screen persona. Her Susan has Cary Grant’s befuddled paleontologist overmatched from the start. Only occasionally does she pause for him to catch up. Her lilting laugh when Grant tells her he is engaged suggests that marriage is for mortals, not for the two of them. (“Tomorrow I’m getting married,” Grant says. “What for?” she asks.) So dominant is Hepburn’s presence that Grant, the bigger star at the time, is relieved of his burden of carrying the movie. So masculine is she that Grant can dress in drag in a 1938 film and pull it off with no loss in luster. (“I just went gay all of the sudden,” Grant exclaims when discovered.)

But Hepburn was already 31 when she made Baby, and her career was spiraling downward. After she scored her first Academy Award in Morning Glory (1933) and followed with a notable performance as Jo in Little Women (1933), audiences turned their backs on Hepburn. Perhaps it was their discomfort with the Bryn Mawr grad’s patrician bearing. Her films in the mid-1930s flopped at the box-office. Baby, which first teamed her with Grant under director Howard Hawks, did no better. She looked to be finished.

The Philadelphia Story

Rather than cooperate with efforts by her studio, RKO Pictures, to re-cast her as a lighter, more passive presence, Hepburn made the unusual decision to take charge of her own career. She bought out her contract, purchased the rights to the play Holiday by Philip Barry, and sold the project to Columbia Pictures. The film (1938), which again paired Hepburn with Grant, is an underrated comedic gem. She repeated the strategy with Barry’s hit play, The Philadelphia Story, and the result was a film legend.

In the picture, Hepburn plays a character certainly no great leap from herself. Spirited socialite Tracy Samantha Lord is perceived by all around her, even her family, as standoffish and brittle, a woman who would rather cut a man down to size than make love to him. She is, in a word, untamable. Grant plays her charismatic first husband. (It is a small wonder that, in the film’s opening scene when Grant shoves Hepburn to the ground after she throws him out, Grant doesn’t come off a bully and she’s not a victim.) James Stewart plays the tabloid reporter out to publicize Tracy’s wedding to an insufferable would-be politician (John Howard).

Hepburn surprises all — her suitors, her family, and the audience — by emerging as warmer, more human, and more tender than ever before, without once surrendering her ferocity or glamour. Tracy Lord is routinely mocked as a virgin queen throughout the film, yet she does seem to walk the clouds above us. To its credit, the movie doesn’t try to humiliate her. If its makers had used the paint-by-number plots of today, Hepburn’s romance with the homespun Stewart would have served as the film’s resolution instead of its tease. High-and-mighty Tracy learns Good American Values by marrying a working man. Thankfully, smarts sold better then. Hepburn ends up with Grant instead, the one possible finale that remained true to the strength of the actors. They deserved only each other.

Hepburn with Spencer Tracy

Hepburn’s subsequent pairing with Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year and eight films thereafter would define the remainder of her career, as well as provide her with some box-office love. Ironically, the match was based on the very dynamic between Hepburn and Stewart that Philadelphia Story exploited but never consummated.

But the affable, earth-bound Tracy was never the glimmering twin to Hepburn that Grant offered. Their chemistry in their three films together was based the sexiest traits of all: intelligence, confidence, and crack timing. Although Grant’s career would blaze brightly for more than two decades after their collaboration, he would never find another partner like her. Instead, the parade of ever-younger actresses who replaced Hepburn, such as Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly, only bantered with Grant in an effort to seduce him; they never rattled him like Hepburn did. And Hepburn would never rollick with Tracy as her younger self played with Grant.

Woman of the Year

Still, Tracy and Hepburn formed a fine team, and Woman of the Year mines comic gold. The story concerns a New York sports columnist (Tracy) who becomes enamored with the paper’s erudite international correspondent (Hepburn). The forceful, careerist Hepburn keeps Tracy off-balance, speaking multiple languages, shielding political refugees, and adopting a Greek orphan. Unfortunately, in a harbinger of things to come, the film forces Hepburn to renounce some of her spirit in exchange for domestic peace with Tracy. Audiences didn’t mind. Their winning formula would be repeated again and again, most successfully in Adam’s Rib (1949), where they play lawyers on the opposite sides of a murder case. In that film, Hepburn’s feminist leanings are given full voice, as she makes her case for equality in all things.

Her regular work with Tracy supplied Hepburn with some bankable cushion against the perils of getting older, no small thing in a business where the first commandment is that actors never age while actresses burn like candles. By the 1950s, fussy, scowling Kate was emerging, her hair in schoolmarm bun, her neck covered by a Victorian collar. American culture retrenched as well. The emancipation of women during the Depression and World War II was giving way to a concerted societal effort to stuff them back into the home and scale back their ambition. The Hepburn of Woman of the Year was a dangerous relic.

She adapted by reducing her film work, returning to the stage (George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess on Broadway, Shakespeare plays in Connecticut), and adopting a less threatening persona. In The African Queen (1951), her strength, once used to encourage Grant to hedonism in Baby, now pushed Humphrey Bogart toward the straight-and-narrow. She was an aging Ohio spinster desperately searching for love in Venice in the sentimental Summertime (1955). Before then, Hepburn had never been in desperate need of anything.

On Golden Pond

She made fewer and fewer films, but was honored like never before. She received Oscars for her last film with Tracy, the heavy-handed Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968), in which she, as Eleanor of Aquitaine, traded stagy Medieval barbs with Peter O’Toole. She exuded power in the role, as if that was all that was left of her. After turning briefly to television, she received the last of four Academy Awards for her work as Ethel Thayer, gentle wife of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981). While the Oscar felt more like a lifetime achievement award, the role invested Hepburn with the kind of humanity and concern for family that helped contradict her late-career screen image.

That Hepburn lived to 96 with her dignity intact is another testament to a personal strength that rarely wavered. Even at her advanced age, her death came as a shock. She seemed determined to endure and she typically got her way. Much of her career now seems distilled through her on-screen and off-screen relationship with Spencer Tracy.

That in one sense is regrettable, as it distracts from her other accomplishments. At the same time, it explains Hepburn in a more definitive way than her movies ever could. Tracy, a Catholic, never left his wife during his 27-year romance with Hepburn. Yet, that arrangement appeared perfectly fine with her. It allowed some distance, for a certain share of Hepburn to remain exclusively hers. And if Katharine Hepburn ever proved anything, it was that being alone is nothing to fear.