A lady in trousers

Submitted by AWL on 22 July, 2003 - 10:48

Clive Bradley looks at the life and career of Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn, who died at the beginning of July at the age of 96, was not alone among her generation of Hollywood aristocratic ladies in preferring to wear trousers. But the other two women most associated with such manly apparel-Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich-were European, so they probably didn't count.

Hepburn, on the other hand, was from a patrician New England family, educated at an Ivy League university, and even spoke in that almost-British accent which marks out the American upper bourgeoisie.

Nevertheless, her family were radicals, her father a surgeon who knew British Fabians like Bernard Shaw, and her mother a suffragette and campaigner for birth control. They were shocked, even so, by her decision to go on the stage.

Dorothy Parker, famously, was unimpressed by one of Hepburn's early performances, commenting that she "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B". But Hepburn picked up her first Oscar in 1933 (for Morning Glory, in which she played an aspiring actress).

With a glittering career dating right back to the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, when the studios reigned supreme, it is with some justification that Hepburn is often described as the last of the real stars, the last of the old-style royal family of American film.

In fact she went out of favour from time to time, commercially, and also politically. As early as 1934 she supported the socialist novelist Upton Sinclair in his campaign for the governorship of California; newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst (soon to be immortalised as Citizen Kane), along with most of the Studios, waged a vicious campaign against Sinclair, who lost. Later, too, as McCarthyism was beginning to tear through Hollywood, she publicly supported Henry Wallace for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1947.

But her four Oscars, if nothing else, guarantee a permanent place for her as a screen goddess. The other three were for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond. The second of these, in which she plays Eleanor of Aquitaine against Peter O'Toole's Henry II, gave her my own personal favourite line-addressing a young Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lion Heart, she admonishes: "Quiet, dear, mummy's fighting". She was born to play bitchy queens, and indeed played several, including Mary Queen of Scots, twice.

Her best-remembered royal role, though, saw not her, but a boat, as the African Queen, alongside Humphrey Bogart, fighting World War One Germans in the African jungle. By then (1952), Hepburn was gracefully becoming middle aged.

Earlier, as a leading lady, she had the same imperious manner-notably in The Philadelphia Story (1940), playing Cary Grant and James Stewart off against each other. No less upper class, but a little less hateful, she had already matched verbal skills with Grant in the archetypal screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938), in which she co-starred with a leopard, or rather two, one of them almost as sharp-clawed as herself.

For 25 years, Hepburn had a love affair with Spencer Tracy (who was married, meaning not to her), which the gossip columnists chose to keep secret from the public eye. She starred in a number of films with Tracy, which to modern eyes do not seem entirely feminist-such as Adam's Rib (1949), in which they swap barbs as husband-and-wife lawyers on opposite sides of a case. For the time, the image of career-oriented, self-confident woman that Hepburn projected was pushing the limits of American liberalism, at least.

Hepburn has been much imitated-a favourite of mimics, but also a role model. (She is practically reincarnated in the daily re-runs of Star Trek Voyager in the shape of Captain Janeway.) A feminist icon, at least for an older generation, and something of a gay icon, too, I think, she certainly has no like among the Hollywood starlets of today.

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