It was her defining role: life

Times Staff Writer

It will take more than death to put Katharine Hepburn into the past tense.

It's been years since she starred in any film, granted an interview or even been photographed, but say her name and there she is, in the collective mind's eye, just as she was when she played Tracy Lord, Mary Tyrone or even Eleanor of Aquitaine. That relentless right angle of a jaw, those expressive eyebrows, the simple unending length of her, limber even in "On Golden Pond," which she made when she was 73.

More than a movie star, Katharine Hepburn was the patron saint of the independent American female. Spirited, direct, in charge of her own fate, but not above falling head over heels in love, often scandalously. She was well-spoken, well-educated and very disciplined. She played tennis, ran before it was fashionable; for decades, she famously swam every day, often in the frigid ocean, and it showed.

She was quick and funny; she knew how to flirt and how to wither a man, or a woman, with a glance. On screen, even her faults were enviable -- she was too outspoken, too determined, too sure of herself. She did not have an unhealthy relationship with heroin or Haagen-Dazs. She did not sit around wondering whether some man really loved her or not.

Off screen, she wasn't much different.

Her career is an opera-length string of superlatives; Hepburn has been a movie star longer than the average lifespan, has been a movie star through the coming-to-film-consciousness of several generations. She starred in seven jillion movies, won all those Oscars but that was not the point, in the end. Katharine Hepburn was loved for her self, for being who she was. She aged in front of our eyes, gorgeously, unapologetically, but she never really changed.

"She was, above all, a woman of character," says James Prideaux, screenwriter and author of "Knowing Hepburn and Other Curious Experiences." "She believed in the importance of character."

Her life had its share of tragedy and personal travail -- as a child, she found her older brother's body after he hanged himself; the love of her life was a famous drunk who never would divorce his wife -- but one cannot imagine Hepburn on the cover of People talking about "moving past the pain" or offering Oprah her insights into co-dependency. Her 1991 autobiography "Me" was long on characteristic digression and short on details. "Just get on with it," was her mantra -- the book was, of course, an instant bestseller.

"There is something very admirable in the way she conducted her life," says Molly Haskell, film critic and author of "From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies." "She was not afraid to portray over-the-hill romances. She did not seem that invested in her looks. As she got older, she got on with it, kept on working."

"Admirable" is a word one doesn't often hear applied to anyone in the entertainment industry these days. And as Haskell points out, the very things that earned Hepburn cultural immortality -- her lack of sentimentality, her sublime self-assurance, her confident expectations of those around her -- worked against her as a young actress. "She wasn't universally loved in the early years," Haskell says. "She was spiky and sort of provocative. She wore pants and shirts. Now everyone loves her, but it's important to remember that they didn't always."

Yet from the moment she appeared on screen in the 1932 "A Bill of Divorcement," people began using the words they use when they have no idea how exactly to describe what they're seeing. "Unique." "Extraordinary." "Original." Her face was a conspiracy of angles; she moved with a long, loping grace; and her voice was like nothing anyone had ever heard. "You wouldn't accept Kate as dumb because she wasn't," says Prideaux. "She had to be intelligent; she had to speak her mind. I think it came down to her looks -- with those looks you can't be cheap."

She was not, however, he adds, vain, which was surprising, considering her profession. "I remember she came to visit me once after she had had some blemishes burned off her face, and they had left black scabs. All over that famous face. And I thought, 'Oh, dear, I guess we'll just stay in this week.' But when I told her I was going to the library, she said, 'Oh, yes, let's go, let's go.' Didn't give it a thought."

"She was wealthy and privileged and not feminine in conventional ways," says David Ehrenstein, author of "Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998." "She was angular and pushy, but she knew how to play with it. She refused to go away, and pretty soon we all loved her."

Hepburn always said her liberal upbringing was a larger cause of her success than any talent. The money didn't hurt either -- Hepburn said repeatedly that she was able to succeed in Hollywood because she didn't really need Hollywood. She could afford to speak her mind. And she did, even when a string of flops famously labeled her box-office poison.

"She came out of an era when there were other strong women -- Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford," says screenwriter and former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Faye Kanin. "Other women play wallpaper around men, but they never did. And even among those strong women, Kate was unique. I loved that when I called her on the telephone, she answered. No secretary, no assistants, just Kate."

"George Cukor always said the most extraordinary thing about her was that she didn't ask to be loved, or even liked," says Gavin Lambert, co-author of "On Cukor." "She was naturally independent; she treated men as equals but she had great humor about it. She was a feminist without saying it all the time, which was a relief. And she was capable of sacrificing for a man, which of course she did, for Spencer Tracy."

"There was not an ounce of self-pity in her," he adds. "She believed in looking life in the eye and not having any illusions, which many of her contemporaries could not do, and that destroyed them. People came to admire her fearlessness."

It would be disingenuous to call Katharine Hepburn humble or even modest. She was an actress, after all. It never occurred to her that, after making her decision to become famous, that it might not work out. In "Me," she speaks candidly of her early marriage to Ludlow Smith, whom she promptly dumped the moment her career took off. "I was a pig. It was all me me me."

And the idea that she could afford to turn her back on Hollywood is true only in the literal sense. She left Hollywood during those "poisoned" years, but she went to Broadway. She didn't, for example, enroll in pre-med at Yale or become a social worker. She could walk away from the screen, but not from the work.

In feminist terms, she was complicated as well. Certainly she stood up for herself, on and off screen, and was outspoken in promoting birth control and other liberal causes. She is considered an astute businesswoman, with the ability not only to play to her strengths but also to convince others -- directors and screenwriters -- to play to them as well. Her film career was salvaged by her procuring the film rights to "The Philadelphia Story," but Howard Hughes, her then beau, picked up the tab.

More important, many of her movies involve her character being taken down a peg, or two pegs, being reminded that the most important thing a woman can do is love and stand by her man. "She had to do some kind of self-abasement," says Haskell, "to stay on the good side of the audience. She was beautiful and upper-crust, men felt she was intimidating, she had to give them something. 'The Philadelphia Story' was written for and about her, and it's really quite mean. It shows you all the contortions a woman has to go through to have a full life."

In later years, Hepburn dismayed many feminists by saying often that she didn't think women could "have it all," that she could not have had her career if she had chosen to remarry or have children.

"I don't know if I would call her a feminist icon," says Robin Morgan, founding editor of Ms. magazine. "She considered her mother the real feminist. But she was a remarkable role model in that she was a full human being, an artist, a career woman, and clearly she had a real love life. She was her own woman when that simply wasn't done."

"She knew how to pick herself up," says Lambert. "On her own terms. Very few of [her peers] knew how to do this and that's why they did not survive. I remember she once said to me, 'Have you ever noticed how the egomaniacs never stay the course?' She stayed the course."

And perhaps that's why it's hard to think of Katharine Hepburn in the past tense. Because even now, she still very much is.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction Screenwriter's name -- The first name of screenwriter Fay Kanin, a former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was misspelled as Faye in an appreciation of Katharine Hepburn in Tuesday's Calendar. For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction Katharine Hepburn -- A July 1 Calendar section photograph of Katharine Hepburn on the set of the movie "Grace Quigley" was identified as a file photo. It should have been credited to photographer Carol Bernson.
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