May 12, 2007

A Century of Eccentricity

They call her Kate the Great, and with good reason. She's played a fierce lawyer and a con man, a hard-hitting reporter and a heartbroken widow, a battle-embroiled queen and a barefoot mountain girl. She's come to us as an East Coast socialite (many, actually - usually rich, lacking pretentions), a minister's daughter of the Old West, a concerned California mother and a Chinese peasant in the throes of oppression. She wore slacks and loafers in an age of platinum-blonde sexpots in slinky gowns, she balked at the Hollywood code of behavior, refused interviews and hid from the press, and, for over six decades, she remained a mainstay of then-contemporary cinema despite the fall of the studio area and the ushering in of innumerable new genres of movies. I'd say Kate the Great may be just the moniker for inimitable screen queen Katharine Hepburn, who, were she living, would be 100 years old today.

Katharine Houghton Hepburn hailed from Hartford, Connecticut, where she was born in 1907 to liberal and well-educated parents. The elder Hepburns' high-minded social ambitions, namely to educate society on such delicate and unmentionable issues as personal hygiene and birth control, combined with her mother's vocal discontent at being an educated woman relegated to merely running a household, contributed to the general air of eccentricism, self-assurance, and gender-blind aspirations in which Kate was raised and with which she later pursued her acting career. After obtaining a degree at Bryn Mawr, Kate heeded her mother's advice, eschewing the typical life assigned to women of the day: that of wife and mother, playing "nursemaid to the upcoming generation" as Hep herself called it, and instead, she set out determined to find her worth as a person, unrelative to her status as a female in what was then largely a man's world.

Through what she considers a lucky break, Hepburn was noticed by talent scouts while performing a role on Broadway and, within the same year of 1932, found herself starring opposite John Barrymore in the film Bill of Divorcement. It didn't know it then, but Hollywood would never quite recover from the arrival of the enigmatic starlet, though her icon-status would be years in the making.

Despite a rocky period of film failures in the 1930s which caused studio heads to deem her "Box Office Poison", Hepburn's popularity with filmgoers and movie moguls alike was essentially cemented with her performance in both the stage and screen versions of The Philadelphia Story (1940), in which she starred opposite fellow screen icons Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and a host of superb supporting players. 1942 marked Hep's first pairing with the inimitable Spencer Tracy, whom she quickly developed a deep affection for and friendship with during the production of Woman of The Year; their mutual respect and attraction is evident in the film even today and, while not as incendiary as most romances of the era tend to be, theirs is an incredibly warm and affectionate romance to witness as it unfolds onscreen. The couple's real-life relationship lasted until Tracy's death in 1967, just days after the two finished work on another distinguished gem in their career, Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?.

She earned an astonishing twelve Academy Award nominations in her career and took home the statue an unprecedented four times, although, disinterested in the politics of the Oscar-giving process, Hepburn was never actually present to accept her awards (and the fourth, earned in 1982, she gave to an ailing friend to spur on his recovery). In her later years, Kate focused on spending time with her extended family in their Connecticut summer home, keeping a relatively active schedule, reading and responding to fan mail and conversing with historians and authors like A. Scott Berg, who published a book of his experiences with the actress after her 2003 death at age 96.

Whether she is putting her way to golf superstardom or taming leopards with song, battling court cases or scrambling to make breakfast for screen hubby Spencer, Katharine Hepburn remains an unforgettable face, an inimitable voice, a deft professional touch in some of classic cinema's most revered scenes and stories. Kate the Great, indeed...and one hundred years of her screen magic for posterity to delight in make her all the greater.

""I always wanted to be a movie actress. I thought it was very romantic. And it was."

Katharine Hepburn

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