Katharine Hepburn Was The Best Actor Ever

When Katharine Hepburn made her final big-screen appearance in Warren Beatty's 1994 romantic drama, "Love Affair," it marked the first time in her 62-year film career that she played a supporting role (aside from a cameo in 1943's "Stage Door Canteen") -- and this is all the more amazing when you consider how much she struggled at various junctures to maintain her leading lady status.

Hepburn's options were plentiful at birth. The Connecticut-born daughter of a wealthy urologist and a suffragette campaigner, Hepburn was raised in a permissive environment where societal limitations existed to be disregarded. She cut her hair short, excelled at sports like tennis and golf, wore pants, and smoked cigarettes. She pursued social justice causes at an early age, and received a liberal arts education at Bryn Mawr College (graduating with decidedly unladylike degrees in history and philosophy).

There was nothing performative about Hepburn's interests. She was appreciative of her good fortune, using the security it provided to push every available envelope. Hepburn could've been anything, but like so many of us, she fell under the flickering, 24-frames-per-second spell of moving pictures. She was going to be a star, and she had no idea how hard an unenlightened, traditionalist populace would push back against her glamour-flouting impudence. Or maybe she did, and she just didn't give a rip.

Hollywood and the country ultimately came around on Hepburn. She holds the Academy Awards record for Best Actress victories (four), while her eight collaborations with co-star Spencer Tracy set both the template and an unsurpassed gold standard for romantic comedies. Hepburn was always out front, and almost always spectacular. But she struggled to find her way as an actor, and almost washed out of the studio system in the 1930s. Katharine Hepburn came so close to not happening.

The Breakout

Hepburn's first obstacle to stardom arrived at Bryn Mawr, when her poor grades kept her from performing in school plays. Her difficulties stemmed in part from her having been privately tutored after the apparent suicide of her older brother Tom. Hepburn discovered the body, and she never fully recovered from this trauma. Once she re-acclimated to being in the company of peers, her marks improved and she landed -- what else? -- the lead role in the college's production of John Lyly's "The Woman in the Moon."

Hepburn made her Broadway debut in 1928 in Katharine Clugston's "These Days," a flop that closed a little over a week after opening. Hepburn found work in East coast summer stock, where she gained instant disfavor from playwrights who objected to her mannerisms. What these artists failed to understand was that Hepburn was still figuring out her labor-intensive process. She had a captivating, self-assured presence, but she was not a natural actor. She devoured each script, learning everyone's lines so that she could be at ease in every moment. According to Charles Higham's "Kate: The Life of Katharine Hepburn," after directing her in 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Stanley Kramer said, "She can work until everyone drops."

Hepburn finally made good on her promise in Lowell Sherman's hoary, pre-code hit "Morning Glory," wherein she emotes to the back of the theater as a small-town girl who hits the Big Apple with dreams of Broadway stardom. It's a lot of acting, but this is a cliched melodrama that demands all the sawing of the air. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Adolphe Menjou glaze every inch of the ham, but this is Hepburn's showcase, and she dazzles with her rapid-fire line readings. Her deeply inebriated interpretation of the balcony scene in "Romeo and Juliet" was probably the scene that earned her the Best Actress Oscar and turned her into an overnight sensation. This was only her third movie, and she'd summited the industry's mountaintop. A backlash was certain, and it hit with stunning swiftness.

The Career

Perhaps more important than the Oscar triumph was the commercial success of George Cukor's 1933 adaptation of "Little Women." This was the first sound take on Louisa May Alcott's novel, which gave Hepburn first crack at the role of Jo, a brashly intelligent young lady determined to carve out a career as a writer. It was a part seemingly written for Hepburn, and, apologies to the very worthy Winona Ryder and Saoirse Ronan, her performance remains definitive.

This, strangely, is when the trouble started. Hepburn scored a hit with 1934's "Spitfire," but she was horribly miscast as a hillbilly wild child. Hepburn returned to Broadway in a production of Dorothy Massingham and Murray McDonald's "The Lake," and drew critic Dotothy Parker's infamous ire: "She runs the gamut of emotions all the way from A to B." Hepburn retreated to Hollywood, and knocked out a series of bombs. Even the great films -- and they don't get any better than Howard Hawks' screwball classic "Bringing Up Baby" -- fell far short of expectations at the box office. The nation's theater owners were so alarmed, they coined the phrase "box-office poison" to urge RKO from giving her more leading roles. In their view, people just didn't like Hepburn's haughty demeanor. She was anti-glam. She had to go.

It worked. When RKO offered Hepburn a dire B-comedy called "Mother Carey's Chickens," the wealthy Hepburn bought out her contract to the tune of $75,000. Realizing she was persona non grata in Hollywood, she opted to return yet again to Broadway for Philip Barry's "The Philadelphia Story." This was her salvation.

The Defining Performance

Enamored of Hepburn's performance in George Cukor's filmed adaptation of his play "Holiday," Barry wrote the character of free-spirited socialite Tracy Lord expressly for the star. The show was a Broadway smash, and Hepburn keenly viewed it as her opportunity to buy back into Hollywood. Howard Hughes gifted the rights to the play to the actor, and she hit up Cukor to direct the movie. Through a series of shrewd moves, Hepburn landed James Stewart a role in "The Philadelphia Story" as society reporter Mike Connor, and with Cary Grant cast as the carousing, good-hearted drunk Dexter "Dex" Haven, the film had the makings of a blockbuster.

But Grant hadn't been enough to save the box-office fortunes of "Bringing Up Baby." How could Hepburn once again win the hearts of audiences? According to A. Scott Berg's biography, the star knew exactly what they wanted to see. "I don't want to make a grand entrance in this picture," she said. "Moviegoers ... think I'm too la-di-da or something. A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face." So Grant literally pushed her down by her face onto her keister. This probably wouldn't fly in 2023, but this creative decision is the only reason we're still venerating Katharine Hepburn today.

The formula was a tad problematic. Hepburn excelled at playing women who bucked the status quo, only to accept a middle ground where both characters are on equal footing. She could only disrupt so much. And yet men were attracted to her headstrong personality. She wasn't va-va-voom, nor was she a flighty blond. Physically, her closest comparison at the time was probably Barbara Stanwyck, but she wasn't cold around the heart. There was no mystery to Hepburn. She was here to live her life on her own terms, and if you couldn't hang, you could kick rocks. She could do comedy and she could do romance, but she was always going to do Katharine Hepburn.

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