Since it was Katharine Hepburn’s birthday on Thursday, May 12, Backlots is acknowledging the occasion with a short biography of the legend, and a celebration of some of her great films and roles.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut on May 12, 1907, Katharine Houghton Hepburn was the second of 6 children born to Thomas Norval Hepburn and Katharine Houghton (yes, she was indeed named after her mother), a progressive couple well-regarded in the Hartford community. A generally happy childhood (marred, however, by the suicide of her older brother Tom, which had a tremendous effect on her throughout her life–she consistently listed her birthday as November 7, which was Tom’s) was followed by attendance at Bryn Mawr college, where she began her theatrical career in university productions. At the age of 25, she made her first onscreen appearance opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), which was followed the next year by Morning Glory (1933) which garnered her the first of her 4 Academy Awards (the other three for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) The Lion in Winter (1968, for which she tied with Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl”) and On Golden Pond (1982). Her career spanned 6 decades, she influenced women’s fashion by popularizing pants, and was a true independent spirit. Her final film was made in 1994, and she remained active well into her final days. Reports say that she continued to ride a bicycle until a hip problem in her late 80’s precluded it, and she was sharp and witty right up until her death in 2003 at the age of 96.
Hepburn was an immensely versatile actress, capable of playing comedy and tragedy with equal skill, as evidenced in part by the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) and the royal tragedy Mary of Scotland (1936), along with the hilarious The Philadelphia Story (1940) and the dramatic The Lion in Winter. She is widely considered to be the best actress of all time, and given her track record, Backlots does not dispute it.
Here are some of her best roles. I will start with her Oscar-winning performances:
Morning Glory (1933)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). The young girl at 0:38 is Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton. She plays the main character in this film (although truthfully the movie is centered more on the older generation than the younger, in a commentary about changing times), and though she’s not a great actress, it’s interesting to watch her.
The Lion In Winter (1968). Hepburn plays Eleanor of Aquitaine, opposite Peter O’Toole. Katharine Hepburn was known for not attending the Oscars, and this fact was made clear when she shared the Oscar with Barbra Streisand in 1968, who was all too happy to give her speech while Hepburn did not attend.
On Golden Pond, 1982, opposite Henry Fonda. A lovely performance, also featuring Fonda’s daughter, Jane.
Some other greats:
Bringing Up Baby, 1938. One of my personal favorites. It’s the perfect screwball comedy, and Cary Grant is hilarious as well. Interestingly, shortly after this movie was made, Katharine Hepburn was voted “box office poison,” due to her string of flops, but “Bringing Up Baby”was loved by the critics.
The Philadelphia Story, 1940. Considered to be one of the best Hepburn films, I think she deserved the Oscar that year, though she was up against some tough competition (Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca,” and Ginger Rogers in “Kitty Foyle,” who won). It’s a very dignified comedy, and boasts great performances all around.
Holiday, 1938. Another one of my personal favorites. The story of a young spirited girl stifled by her society family, Hepburn is completely at ease in the role and it’s great fun to watch. Highly recommended.
In addition to the films I’ve profiled here, I would also recommend:
- Little Women (1933)
- Alice Adams (1935)
- Woman of the Year (1942)
- Adam’s Rib (1949)
- The African Queen (1951)
- Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Truthfully, I think you can’t go very wrong with Katharine Hepburn. With the exception of Spitfire (1934) and Dragon Seed (1942, where she plays a Chinese person. No, really), I don’t think she really made a completely bad film, even the “string of flops” that earned her the “box office poison” label in the late 1930’s are not so bad.
To close, I leave you with an interview clip that truly shows how much respect she had in the industry. She was known for being assertive and for being a powerful woman, and it shows here. Watch the tech guys as they cave to her every demand. They are just putty in her hands. Katharine Hepburn was more than a legend, she is immortal. Happy birthday, Kate!