She was one of the leading lady’s in the history of the medium to sustain a major career over six decades and was of the few movie stars who had performed regularly on the stage and was a model for at least three generations of women.
She was an actress who knew how to stay in the game and force men to play at the top of their game just to keep up. The modern woman that Katharine Hepburn symbolised in her heyday kept the men on their toes for years to come.
Cary Grant was never so jaunty and appealing as when he was playing off Katharine in Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story; Spencer Tracy was never so spunky and attractive as he was when keeping up with Katharine in Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib;
Jimmy Stewart was never so lusty and swaggering as he was in The Philadelphia Story, the only role for which he won an Oscar; Henry Fonda was never so prickly as he was On Golden Pond, in the role for which he won his only Oscar.
And Humphrey Bogart never proved himself so doughty as when he played the Character of Charlie Allnut in The African Queen opposite Katharine which also won him his only Oscar. Coincidence?
As a sensitive teenager going through an awkward period in her life Katharine dealt with her renewed feelings of isolation by role playing – becoming stronger, prouder, even haughtier.
She learned to mask her feelings, to create one persona that would greet the world while she hid another that she would fight to keep private. She would cloak her loneliness and insecurities with a personality that would entrance. She was becoming an actress.
By the time she graduated from college she appeared at the theatre and was hired on the spot – evidently on looks and personality alone.
She had a small part in a play and managed to learn her lines and blocking quickly. She was taught how to apply makeup and how to make an entrance – a rapid walk and a slow discovery of the audience.
She was urged to invest whatever money she had in voice lessons and was forced to perform all sorts of exercises like blowing out candles, speaking with marbles in her mouth, reciting phrases that emphasised certain sounds and syllables.
Although she never mastered breath control from the diaphragm, which she claimed, caused her voice’s premature rasp.
Her parents didn’t think much of her acting career but Katharine decided to move to New York and pursue her career as an actress.
She was accepted as an understudy to the lead in a play called The Big Pond and as luck would have it the lead was suddenly dismissed at the last minute allowing Katharine to take on her role on stage.
Her theatrical career over the following years was quite rambunctious. Choosing not to have an agent she would sit in producers offices and get parts for herself – giving charming interviews and readings.
More than once the jobs were as understudies to the female leads, and more than once she got fired.
Even after several more plays, including a season of summer stock of plays Katharine was still getting fired almost as often as she was hired.
The problem was not, as was often suspected, her know it all attitude and troublesome stubbornness. It was really because according to one playwright ‘She was simply not good.’
Undaunted, she continued to make the rounds acquiring contacts and becoming known. In early 1932 a leading lady role fell from the skies into her lap in a play called The Warrior’s Husband.
Originally the roll was meant to go to a bigger name but after a few anxious weeks they decided to settle on her. She soon became the talk of the town.
David O Selznick, then head of production for RKO in Hollywood, was preparing a film version of a play called A Bill of Divorcement for John Barrymore, the greatest actor of the day.
Both Selznick and the director, George Cukor, were looking to create a new movie star by casting a first time film actress in the ingenue role. Katharine’s timing was more exquisite than that.
Katharine went up for a screen test that Sleznick and Cukor were holding but when it came time to shoot the test, she refused to play the scene they handed her instead preferring to perform a scene from another film, a part she had honed and which would show her off to better advantage, rather than the one she was stepping into cold.
The test did not bowl over the producer or the director but Cukor liked one particular moment when Katharine lowered a glass and set it on the floor, a moment he found real and theatrical and graceful at the same time.
Eventually the role for A Bill of Divorcement was offered to Katharine and she was whisked off to Hollywood to begin the filming which she took to the process immediately being fascinated in her own words by the romantic medium.
While she argued every possible reading of every line with the director, she realised that she and her director were, in fact, generally of the same mind.
Getting a sense of the Studio system Katharine realised that actor were considered second class citizens in Hollywood, especially women. She quickly realised that if she wanted to remain at the head of the pack of actors she would have to take charge of her career – to the extent of scouting and securing the best possible material for herself.
On one occasion she came across a script on one of the Selznick’s assistants desks and walked off with it making sure to arrange an appointment with the wanna-be producer, Berman, after she’d read it.
‘This must have been written for me’ she told Berman after reading the script for Morning Glory but Berman brushed her off saying the part had been written for another actress from the silent screen era who’s making a comeback.
Not giving in Katharine spent her time meeting everybody that was connected to the production, talking up this ‘thrilling’ screenplay until she convinced them that she was born to play this part.
Having given a remarkable performance in Morning Glory which she was praised for revealing new dimensions as an actress and for bringing originality to potentially trite material, Katharine confessed she had borrowed heavily from another actor in her role.
An actress who performed in a play called A Church Mouse, in which she spoke in a monotone voice, conveying both eagerness and nervousness. Katharine stole from her and proved to be one of the studio’s prime assets.
On the production of Little Women, again directed by Cukor, Katharine played the role of Jo March.
She enjoyed playing with her entire cast but from the luminous cast it was Katharine’s portrayal as Jo that shone in the public eye.
In less than a year she had become more than a Hollywood leading lady. She was a star.
Katharine always liked to return to the theatre between her Hollywood performances. She said that there really is nothing as generous as an American audience especially for a movie star trying to stretch.
She was always amazed that more movie stars, especially the actresses who hit their forties and fifties and complained that Hollywood isn’t writing any parts for them anymore, don’t take to the stage.
She went on to say that there were hundreds of wonderful theatres all over the country who would be thrilled to have them. Actors should act.
She decided to take on the play of The Philadelphia Story, written by the play writer Philip Barry who she had a good relationship with.
The play received rave notices, and Katharine begged the producers to keep the show on the road as long as possible, building up good word of mouth before coming into Broadway.
She also controlled the film rights to the play and forbade her agent from telling anyone about it yet.
Of course, all the major studios called hoping to buy the source material but upon his client’s instructions the agent stalled them.
Meantime, Katharine carried on her stage performance in the show to nightly acclaim, playing more than four hundred performances on Broadway.
Studios were knocking at her agents door willing to throw money at making her play into a film but Katharine held out for knowing exactly what she wanted.
Until Louis B. Mayer showed just as much interest and Katharine told him that the property that she owned was not about making money.
She would sell it to him for exactly what she paid for it, without a dime of profit. It wasn’t simply about getting a good part for her with a reasonable salary for herself, what she really wanted from him were two stars.
She requested Clarke Gable and Spencer Tracy to be in the film, aiming for the top but eventually settled for Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. She was even allowed to choose her director which she of course went ahead with George Cukor.
For all her assertiveness, Katharine’s interests were always what was best for the picture. She always felt that moviemaking was about the survival of the fittest, but it was never about just one person – it’s a collaborative medium, but it’s not a democracy.
She would always speak her mind but after she had her say she knew to shut up. She listened to the directors and learned from them. She was smart enough to know that if everybody around her looked good, then she looked good.
Later in her career, between 1950 and 1962, as most of the female movie stars of Katharine’s age were being put out to pasture, her choices grew increasingly purposeful.
She spent time in deepening her friendships with several older actresses including Ethel Barrymore and Constance Collier, spending time and performing great plays with the great ladies of the theatre.
Everyone had agreed the Katharine was the only movie star of her caliber working on a stage, performing Shakespeare at that. It proved to be a period in which she truly came into her own.
Through the 1970s, Katharine remained in perpetual motion, tackling one project after another.
By the 1980’s most of the male movie stars of Katharine’s generation had died and the few remaining female stars of her vintage had fallen from sight.
Katharine, although frail looking, still had strength and energy within her. She went on to star in various films acting opposite Warren Beatty and Nick Nolte but it was On Golden Pond which made her clinch her 4th Oscar award for best actress.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Katharine’s personality was that she never expected to be considered a movie star or had any sense of entitlement. She made plenty of demands and she knew how to get what she wanted long before she was a star.
She always remained grounded. For all her impatience there was always a sense of humility and humanity, even a sense of gratitude for her good fortune.
She was never above making a bed, cooking a meal, chopping wood, or working her garden since she found pleasure in those activities. In short, she never lost her work ethic.
She believed that actors shouldn’t walk away from the audience as long as the audience aren’t walking away from them. As long as people are buying what she was selling, she was still selling.
Katharine never understood how people got stuck in jobs they didn’t enjoy.
‘Life’s tough for everybody’ she once said, ‘and that’s why most people become its victims.’
She lived most of her life as a contestant in that great struggle, always pushing herself hard, riding the wave and sometimes swimming ahead of it.
‘The natural law is to settle’ she said. ‘I broke that law.’