Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #1: Katharine Hepburn

First Movie I Saw Her In: The African Queen (1951; on DVD March 23---finally!!!)

Three Favorite Movies: Holiday (1938); The Philadelphia Story (1940); The African Queen (1951)

Honorable Mention(s): Stage Door (1937); Woman of the Year (1942)

Favorite Movie with Spencer Tracy: Adam’s Rib (1949)

Oddly Interesting: Dragon Seed (1944)

Favorite Performance(s): Alice Adams (1935); Holiday (1938); Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962); Lion in Winter (1968); On Golden Pond (1981)

Why I Like Her: Yeah, yeah, yeah I know it’s fashionable these days to hate Katharine Hepburn but we live in a mad, mad, mad, mad world so what’s a little backlash against my favorite actress of all time?

Katharine Hepburn is probably the coolest woman that ever lived. I am in awe of her progressive, New England personality borne of a solid upbringing. I admire her feisty independent spirit and even her prickly personality.

When I watch a Katharine Hepburn movie I’m not watching it because I necessarily love that time period—though I do—but every Hepburn film I’ve seen, period piece or not, has a sense of timelessness about it. It’s her performances that remain fresh all these years later. Hepburn was the first “modern” woman in film I ever saw. Other actresses were strong-willed but were very much of their time. Hepburn’s confidence and focus is another part of what’s so great about her. Hepburn is much like Cary Grant in that her personality transcends the time in which her films were made. She’s not just a “1930s actress” or someone exclusive to any other decade.


The Hepburn I like best is in the roles where she’s vulnerable and tender. It’s no coincidence that my favorite Hepburn performances: Alice Adams, Holiday, On Golden Pond, etc., all have Kate in “Tender Mode.” If you’ve only seen her in her tough, pre-feminist roles give that other side of her a try and I think you’ll be won over.

In the looks department, she’s another Golden Age actress who was not “conventionally” beautiful yet Hepburn’s distinctive speaking voice, steely stare burns with a fierce intelligence that is quite attractive. My wife and I disagree as to whether Hepburn is good looking or not—you probably know which end of that argument I’m on…

Fashion wise, Hepburn had a natural, easy style about her. No, not the “rags” as she called the Kate-uniform she wore in her later years but rather the sporty, athletic, and tastefully-casual style she had in the 1940s-50s. Hepburn had a natural glamour. One of my favorite photos of her is from 1938 with the freckled, beaming Hepburn amid the destruction of her Connecticut home that ruined 95% of her personal belongings.

Hepburn’s never had a “down period” because she didn’t work as often as her contemporaries. She endured the “Box Office Poison” tag in the 1930s something that’s long-been consigned to the realm of historical trivia. She wasn’t helpless, drug-addled, or self destructive. Hepburn was a survivor who was level-headed and who credited her parents with raising her right. I like my heroes to be long-lived, happy, and honored while they’re still among the living. Hepburn had all that. We know about the four Academy Awards, the twelve nominations, and her long affair with Spensuh; all that’s legend now.

So there you have it, Hollywood Dreamland’s Ten Favorite Actresses. Kate’s ruled the roost for a number of years in my personal top ten but I’m not above having her knocked off the top of this heap if I suddenly find a new favorite to obsess over. It may not ever happen; but I’ll have a blast looking.

One More Thing: One of my favorite Hepburn-related websites is the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Center. "The Kate" is the theatre built in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. I plan on dragging the wife up there to see The Land Where Kate Lived (how is it in Summer?). The Center has a great blog, which gave Hollywood Dreamland a plug when we were just getting started. I'm grateful for that. It was special to have something connected to Katharine Hepburn wish us well, though I'm surprised we're still around!


  1. Fashionable to hate Kate the Great? Point me towards those psychos :) I love her so much it's not even funny. So I definitely agree with your choice for #1. She is absolutely wonderful. Lovely writeup.

  2. I do love the film Holiday-it's so overlooked. But favorite is Adam's Rib!

  3. Why is it fashionable to hate Katharine Hepburn? Maybe for people with no taste.

  4. Recently, I'd read a few things from bloggers that were less-than-favorable towards her and that stuck in my craw when I started writing my entry. Of course they're entitled to their opinion but I find it hard to find fault with a wonderfully original performer like Katharine Hepburn.

  5. I like all her movies, except for those with Spencer Tracy (just can't stand the man). I must try and find some which I have wanted to watch for a long time, like "The Rainmaker," "Sylvia Scarlett," or "Undercurrent."

  6. She was one of few actors that had meaning in their eyes, in most cases she stole the scene and was able to fill the screen alone.

    My favourite film is "Bringing Up baby", together with "The Philadelphia Story", it's like great operas performed by great singers, they never sour even on repeated watching -- true art is timeless.

    Movies like these are the epitome of high comedy, with both Katharine and Cary Grant being at their peak in terms of charm, good looks, class and mastery of their trade.

    Every time I see Cary Grant make his first appearance in these movies, it feels like sitting in some Royal Palace park and getting dazzled by a splendid peacock suddenly parading on to the stage (both are stage animals after all).

    For the sake of justice, I have to add that in these masterpieces all players, including walk-on actors, gave vivid picturesque and memorable performances.

  7. A great choice - I think she is great too and especially like the movies she made with Spencer Tracy, as they work so well together. I think her voice is wonderful, so distinctive, and can't understand all the people who criticise it. All the three films you have picked as your favourites are worth watching time and again, as is 'Adam's Rib' - I also think 'Sea of Grass' is an underrated Hepburn/Tracy film. Judy

  8. C.K., you covered Hepburn so thoroughly that there's not much I can add. You mentioned nearly all the great performances. Personally I would put her at #2 behind Bette Davis. (What would they have been like together? I've read that Davis wanted Hepburn to play the Mary Astor part in "The Great Lie"--that's something to think about!) But if I sit down and list all the great performances by each of my favorite actresses, she just leaves any competitors behind in the dust. The sheer number of great performances is astounding. "Adam's Rib" is also my favorite with Spencer Tracy, followed by "Woman of the Year" and "Pat and Mike," which seems to get ignored. I saw her recently in "The Sea of Grass," a good but not remarkable movie directed by of all people Elia Kazan, but Kate was just amazing in it--it seems she put her soul into every part she ever played. I watched her last night in "Summertime" and would definitely add that to the great "tender and vulnerable" roles. What a fantastic woman and actress--how could anyone not love her?

  9. She was on the top of my list too, CK. I guess great minds think alike. That picture of Kate in the low cut blouse and black skirt is crazy sexy.

    I would put Summertime up there right after her performances with Grant. I also love Lion in Winter even though it exhausts me. Stage Door and Mary of Scotland are great too...I could go on an on.

  10. Great list of fabulous actresses! Do you plan on doing a series of your favorite actors? I really enjoyed this!

  11. Mary: You can find my top ten actors by going to June 2009 in the blog archive, located on the right side under the poll--hope you voted! :)

  12. Great post. I would also include "Little Women" as one of her great roles. The movie may be regarded as hearts-and-flowers type stuff, but to fans of the novel there's lots of passion in the story, and Kate understood that. She was the best "Jo" among any of the esteemed remakes. Perhaps because the role embodied so much of her personality that you've pointed out: the prickly impatience, the strength and intelligence, and the vulnerability as well.

  13. I've been a Hepburn fan for 50 years -- I found her or she found me when I was 12 -- she's always been my favorite actor, she always will be. Her appeal for me goes far beyond her marvelous acting -- it's her style, intelligence, wit, wisdom, progressiveness, modernity -- in other words, I find everything about her to be perfect -- obviously a lot of other people feel the same way about her and that's why she is a role model and an icon.
    Thanks for the write up about this woman most worthy of our admiration.

  14. Katharine Hepburn is god! Seriously she is Ahhhmazing!

  15. Oh My god yes!!!!! I'm named after her but with a C. I am 12 and absolutely adore her movies!!!!!

    But yes, she is my all time favorite, even though my friends think I'm weird for that.

    YOU ROCK!!!!! ILY KATE!!!!


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