Katharine Hepburn, who says she’s “revered rather like an old building,” always makes the lists of the world’s most admired women. Her career spans more than six decades, and she is the only actor or actress who has been nominated for twelve Academy Awards and the only woman to win four as Best Actress–three of them after the age of sixty.
The tomboy daughter of a surgeon and a suffragette, Hepburn did things her way from the start. She arrived in Hollywood in 1932 sporting slacks and a Bryn Mawr accent. She was arrogant and independent, but maybe she had a right to be: her debut opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement was an instant success. Her third picture, Morning Glory (1933), earned her an Oscar and her fourth, Little Women (1933), was another enormous hit.
Hepburn starred opposite Cary Grant in the ultimate thirties screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938), but she left La-La Land in a snit when her next five films sagged and a leading exhibitor dubbed her “box-office poison.” She also had to contend with being rejected for the role of Scarlett O’Hara and with gossip columnists snooping into her romances with Leland Hayward (Hollywood’s first superagent) and Howard Hughes.
Hepburn returned to Broadway in 1939 for The Philadelphia Story. While starring in the play, she bought the movie rights, and then starred in the 1940 screen version; the film broke box office records and earned Hepburn a third Oscar nomination. Her next effort, Woman of the Year, marked the beginning of her relationship with Spencer Tracy. Tracy was unable to divorce his long-suffering Catholic wife, so he instead settled into a liaison with Hepburn that lasted until his death twenty-five years later. The two co-starred in nine classics. Hepburn also gave dazzling performances in The African Queen (1951), with Humphrey Bogart, and in Suddenly Last Summer (1959). (Incensed with the latter film’s director, Joe Mankiewicz, for his treatment of co-star Montgomery Clift, she spit in Mankiewicz’s face when the movie wrapped.)
In the sixties, Hepburn won Cannes’ top honors for Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962). Soon after Tracy’s death, she took home a third Oscar for The Lion in Winter (1968); she then spent much of the seventies in TV fare such as Love Among the Ruins, with Laurence Olivier, a movie which earned them both Emmys. She continued to work despite her deteriorating health, and she won a fourth Oscar for 1981’s On Golden Pond. Hepburn was nearly killed in a car crash in 1984, but survived to carry on her regimen of work, icy showers, and chocolate candies. The title of her memoirs, Me, might seem a little vain, but for someone of her stature, it also seems appropriate.
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