It’s hard to believe Katharine Hepburn died almost ten years ago. It often astonishes me that the media continues to refer to her glamorous sensibility. Flip through almost any fashion magazine and you’ll find a reference to some young starlet pronounced the new Katharine Hepburn. Her uniform, a classic suit with wide trousers was considered risqué in her day, but her remarkable style led the Council of Fashion Designers of America to award her a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986. Kate was named the top female screen legend of the 20th century by the American Film Institute in 1999. I grew up admiring her and watching her movies again and again hoping some of her magic would rub off on me. For me, these five films demonstrate her incredible range over many decades and how her indomitable personality could shine through every role she assumed.
Little Women (1933 RKO)
Kate was a natural as the headstrong Jo March in Little Women. Her most cherished ally George Cukor directed her as the feisty daughter who sacrificed her one beauty (a long wig in the film) to help her injured father return home from the Civil War. With her New England upbringing, she perfectly embodied a young girl who would leave her cozy transcendentalist family to create a new life for herself in New York.
The Philadelphia Story (1940 M-G-M)
After a string of flops, Hepburn was labeled “box-office poison” and returned to her family home in Connecticut. Never one to give up, she triumphed once again on the stage in a high society farce called The Philadelphia Story written expressly for her. She bought the rights from playwright Philip Barry, returned to Hollywood to star as the lead and the film went on to break box office records. With her co-star Cary Grant, she made a number of winning romantic comedies including Bringing Up Baby and Holiday. In this scene, she toys with Jimmy Stewart. It’s yare…
The African Queen (1951 Romulus Films)
Kate traveled to the Belgian Congo to film The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart. She played a straitlaced missionary, who convinces Bogey, as a scallywag sea captain, to ambush an enemy WWI warship in his boat the African Queen. While on safari, Kate was almost stampeded by a herd of elephants, attacked by an army of ants, and saw hippos and crocodiles swimming in the Ruiki River. Despite the intense heat, sickness, and having to haul the African Queen from the bottom of the river after it sank, she was so thrilled by it all she wrote a book about their wild jungle adventures entitled The Making of the African Queen.
The Lion in Winter (1968 Haworth Productions)
Although she believed awards were “a bunch of hooey,” she was nominated for twelve and collected a record four Academy Awards for Acting, more than in any other actor. Kate’s most brilliant film roles came to her much later in her life. She won a third award for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter with Peter O’Toole as Henry II and a young Anthony Hopkins as Richard.
On Golden Pond (1981 IPC Films)
At the age of 73, Kate won her fourth and final Academy Award for her portrayal of Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond. Her co-star Henry Fonda also won for his performance as her crotchety husband suffering with dementia. Together they made screen magic as an elderly couple spending one last summer at their vacation cottage in Maine. She memorably said to him in her trademark quavering voice, “You’re my knight in shining armor!” Here’s that famous scene:
Kate’s philosophy handed down from her bold suffragette mother always remained, “Don’t give in. Fight for your future. Women are just as good as men. Make your own trail. Don’t moan. Think positively.” After her death in Old Saybrook on June 29, 2003, they dimmed the lights on Broadway in her honor. --Nicki Richesin