Classy Film Feminist Had Brains, Beauty, That Voice

Times Staff Writer

Katharine Hepburn, who transcended her screen roles by showing several generations how to be a woman in a way that combined sublime beauty and sexuality with fiery intelligence, died Sunday. She was 96.

Her executor, Cynthia McFadden, said Hepburn died at 2:50 p.m. EDT at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn. She was surrounded by her family and died of complications associated with aging, McFadden said. Hepburn had been in declining health for several years, suffering from tremors similar to Parkinson’s disease and from the effects of hip replacement surgery.

With Hepburn’s death, America’s connection to the great era of the “talkies” and her great voice is over. And whose voice has been more memorable? Any American older than 40 had only to hear one line of that throaty upper-crust diction and know it was Hepburn. She eroticized lockjaw.


But even more than for her voice, Hepburn will be immortalized for the ground she broke for women. With her unique personal style -- the trousers and the sleek high-necked dresses -- she played a strong female presence within traditional boy/girl stories. The American Film Institute recently named her the top female screen legend.

“I think every actress in the world looked up to her with a kind of reverence, a sense of ‘Oh, boy, if only I could be like her,’ ” Elizabeth Taylor, who starred with Hepburn in the film “Suddenly Last Summer,” said Sunday. “We never looked at her with envy or jealousy, because she worked with such grace and wit and charm. You only wish that one day you could be like her. I am so glad that she and Spence are finally together again,” referring to Hepburn’s longtime companion, the late actor Spencer Tracy.

Sidney Poitier, who starred with Hepburn in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” said Sunday from his home in Los Angeles: “We’ve lost a truly remarkable artist, a fantastic human being, a spectacular presence in the American cinema and a first-rate lady.”

Hepburn effortlessly created characters, such as Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940) and Tess Harding in “Woman of the Year” (1942), who had all the force of the feminists to come two decades later, without violating the decorum of the day. The similarities between Hepburn’s film persona and her own strength of personality and will made her a role model for generations of women. In both areas, she had the added quality of privilege, which, as she acknowledged, played a huge part in her success.

“I was a success because of the times I lived in,” she told The Times in 1991. “My style of personality became the style. I was sort of the New Woman at a very early point.”

Her patrician good looks also set a new standard for beauty. She was stunning -- with alabaster skin; high, pronounced cheekbones; and a Modigliani neck -- but in a complicated way that, if you knew anything about class in America, was understandable.


One of the rare Hollywood icons whose performances lived up to her legendary status, Hepburn displayed a remarkable longevity. Her film career spanned seven decades, and she won three of her four Oscars for best actress after the age of 60. No one has surpassed her record of four Oscars for best actress and 12 nominations in the best actress category. (Meryl Streep bettered Hepburn’s nominations total only this year with 13 nominations, but they came in both actress categories.)

Hepburn won Oscars for “Morning Glory” (1933), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), “The Lion in Winter” (1968) and “On Golden Pond” (1981).

In a screen career that spanned the evolution of movies from the first talkies to films in surround sound with space-age special effects, Hepburn stayed true to what she believed was any movie’s true foundation: good acting.

But of acting, she once told The Hartford Courant: “I think you either can do it or you can’t do it.... I don’t think it requires any special brilliance.”

And although Hepburn began her long acting career far ahead of her time, years later she was known for her capacity to keep pace with actors half her age.

Critical to her success were her collaborations with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and, most famously, Tracy, whom she first appeared opposite in “Woman of the Year” in 1942.


Though she was romantically entangled with dashing men of her day, notably millionaire Howard Hughes and agent Leland Hayward, Tracy was the love of her life. Their on-screen chemistry carried nine movies, with Tracy proving the perfect backboard -- a strong, secure man -- for Hepburn to bounce her feminist ideals off. Her romance with the married Tracy endured for more than 25 years until his death on June 10, 1967. Tracy, a devout Roman Catholic, and his wife, Louise, had long been separated, but they never divorced.

“Her best films were when she was presented as a woman on her high horse with slightly pretentious, often comically stated ideas about the world,” said Richard Schickel, Time magazine film critic and film historian. “It was for men to bring her down and get her to reveal herself as quite a good gal, sporty and democratic. We liked the idea that aristocratic people would be humanized by democratic values -- in her case, by slightly rough-necked and good-natured males.”

Hepburn’s upper-class background was good training for the characters she would play in the movies. The second of six children of Thomas Norval Hepburn, a prominent New England surgeon, and Katharine Martha Houghton, a committed suffragette and early crusader for birth control, Hepburn adored her parents and was devoted to the family atmosphere of spiritual freedom and physical discipline.

She once said: “The single most important thing anyone needs to know about me is that I am totally, completely the product of two damn fascinating individuals who happened to be my parents.”

Several records, including the Film Encyclopedia, cite her birthday as Nov 9, 1907, and place of birth as Hartford, Conn. In fact, she was born on May 12 that year. The confusion was created by Hepburn herself, who for many years claimed the birthday of her brother, Tom, whom she had found hanging from the rafters in a house they were visiting. She was 14 and he was 16, and it was “Kath” who cut him down. The family could not accept that he might have committed suicide and never mentioned Tom after the day of his funeral. But in her 1991 memoir, “Me: Stories of My Life,” Hepburn revealed that his death had always mystified her.

She was drawn to the stage at age 12 and played roles in student productions through her years at Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia. After graduation in 1928, she made her professional debut as a lady-in-waiting in a Baltimore stock production of “Czarina.”


It was also in that year that she married a Philadelphia socialite, Ludlow Ogden Smith. But she neglected him for an acting career in New York and was divorced after six years. In her memoir, she confessed: “What the hell would I have done without Luddy -- my protector? I would have been frightened away from this big city, and I would have shriveled up and died. And Luddy -- all he wanted was me, and of course all I wanted was to be a great big hit star in the movies.... I am horrified at what an absolute pig I was.”

By the fall of 1928, she was on Broadway, playing a wealthy schoolgirl in “These Days” and earning a reputation -- less for great performances in front of an audience than for clashing with directors and crews behind the scenes. In 1932, she was hired, fired and then recast for the leading part in Broadway’s “The Warrior’s Husband,” which was a big hit.

After that, RKO offered her a film contract. Having no apparent interest in Hollywood, she demanded what was then considered an absurd $1,500-a-week fee. To her surprise, the studio accepted her terms, and she headed west.

There, she also went against the mold, refusing to take the typical starlet route -- declining interviews, turning away autograph seekers and shunning the usual parties.

With her head held high and her arrogance apparent, she also assumed she had, and in fact received, the respect of studio moguls such as Louis B. Mayer, who weren’t quite used to such a woman. Despite her antics and lack of experience in the movies, director George Cukor cast her as Sydney Fairfield in “A Bill of Divorcement,” the first of eight films and two TV programs that they would do together.

The film, in which she played a daughter who abandons her own happiness to take care of her once-great but now mentally ill composer-father, played by John Barrymore, was also her first unqualified success.


By her third movie, “Morning Glory,” Hepburn had become a Hollywood phenomenon. For the masterful performance as Eva Lovelace, she won her first Oscar.

In many of her early films, such as Cukor’s “Little Women” (1933) and “Sylvia Scarlett” (1936), in which she disguised herself as a boy, and “A Woman Rebels” (1936), she presaged the concerns of 1960s feminists, while at the same time baffling audiences with her boyish body and sometimes metallic voice.

“What she brought us was a new kind of heroine -- modern and independent,” said Jeanine Basinger, chairman of film studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. “She was beautiful, but she did not rely on that. Her angular physical statement said, ‘I will not be your soft, pliant beauty.’ ”

Basinger pointed out that Hepburn, unlike such contemporaries as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, could afford to be different. “The others had no one behind them -- many came from abject poverty or had sordid backgrounds. Hepburn had a substantial family.... She had social graces; she understood fashion; she had class.”

Yet her early film career was burdened with bombs like “Spitfire” (1934). She also failed in her early attempts on Broadway -- her performance in “The Lake” inspired the famous remark from the writer Dorothy Parker that Hepburn ran “the gamut of emotion from A to B.”

The actress was often criticized for being too self-contained. Even her fetching 1938 performance with Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ “Bringing Up Baby” didn’t redeem her.


But true to her independent style, Hepburn resurrected her own career -- first by buying out her contract with RKO and then, with the help of playwright Philip Barry, acquiring the film rights to his play “Holiday” and selling the package, along with Cukor as director, to Columbia. With that success behind her, she took on the starring role in a new play by Barry, which he wrote with Hepburn in mind.

She starred in “The Philadelphia Story” on Broadway and then, after boyfriend Howard Hughes bought her the rights to the play, she negotiated with MGM to make the movie with Grant and added Jimmy Stewart to the mix. The movie was a tremendous success, earning Stewart an Oscar and shaking the label of “box office poison” that had plagued Hepburn at the end of the 1930s.

David Freeman, a Hollywood screenwriter and novelist, once referred to that movie, in which Hepburn played the spoiled socialite tamed by her co-stars, as “a summit meeting of memorable voices.”

Hepburn “had an inner strength that came through in everything she did in her life,” Freeman said. “She showed girls how to be girls and showed boys what to desire.”

When Stewart died in July 1997, Hepburn became the last surviving member of an unparalleled class of Hollywood originals.

Through most of the 1940s and ‘50s, Hepburn, in her multiple billings with Tracy, demonstrated the value in a relationship between equals, a view that was quite different for its time.


Despite endings that often found the willful Hepburn dissolving girlishly into the arms of a strong man, her films never really had her betraying feminist principles.

Although it’s true that, at the end of “Woman of the Year” (1942), she becomes a flummoxed domestic goddess as she amusingly tries to make coffee and waffles for Tracy, his admiration for her in this and other roles -- as in “Pat and Mike” (1952), where her intelligence and natural athletic ability shine -- rescue her from stereotype.

“It’s the touch of poetry in that it saves her from being a harsh, unlikable figure,” Basinger said.

In the “African Queen” (1951) with Humphrey Bogart, Hepburn began playing women who were slightly odd and in need of a man but still independent.

Such films included “The Rainmaker” (1956), “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) and, even later, “Rooster Cogburn” (1975), opposite John Wayne.

She took time out between films in the 1950s to indulge her love of Shakespeare, playing in “The Merchant of Venice,” “Twelfth Night” and “Antony and Cleopatra” on Broadway and in Stratford, Conn.


In 1962, she gave one of her most praised performances as the drug-addicted Mary Tyrone in Sidney Lumet’s memorable film version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

After that, Hepburn took time off to help care for the ailing Tracy, whom Hepburn often referred to as “really the greatest movie actor.” His health improved just enough in 1967 for them to do a last picture together, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

That Stanley Kramer film ends with a scene of them together that most assume reflected their great affection for each other. The picture also revealed an unusually emotive Hepburn. Tracy died shortly after the production finished, and Hepburn went on to win an Oscar for her performance.

The very next year, she won again for the hyper-theatrical “The Lion in Winter” and was back on stage, taking her eccentric persona to Broadway in the musical “Coco” (1969), in which she played Coco Chanel.

Lights on Broadway will dim at 8 p.m. Tuesday night in her honor.

Although “On Golden Pond” brought her another Oscar in 1981, some consider her best work of this period to be in TV movies -- notably in “Love Among the Ruins,” for which she won an Emmy playing opposite Laurence Olivier, and in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” She returned to the big screen in “Love Affair,” the Warren Beatty/Annette Bening 1994 remake of “An Affair to Remember.”

That same year, she made her last TV appearances in the CBS movie “This Can’t Be Love,” with Anthony Quinn, and in NBC’s “One Christmas,” based on a Truman Capote story that was adapted to include a Hepburn-like character, Cornelia Beaumont. In a sequence reminiscent of Tracy’s final speech in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Hepburn was allowed to hold forth, summing up her life.


“I have always lived my life exactly as I wanted,” she said in that soliloquy. “I’ve tried to please no one but myself and very likely displeased a great number in the process.... But I’m entirely content. I can sit back in my old age and not regret a single thing. It’s what I wish for you, my dear. A life with no regrets.”

During the publicity campaign for her 1991 memoir, she told several interviewers that she regretted neither having no children nor not marrying Tracy. The book, however, prompted her to finally break her silence about this most important bond in her life. Reporters brought up Tracy, and she talked frankly, often poignantly, about the joy and frustrations of her life with the complicated actor.

She ended the chapter titled “Love” this way: “I have no idea how Spence felt about me. I can only say, I think that if he hadn’t liked me, he wouldn’t have hung around. As simple as that. He wouldn’t talk about it, and I didn’t talk about it. We just passed 27 years together in what was to be absolute bliss. It is called LOVE.”

An extremely private person throughout her life, she ended a few of her interviews telling reporters that one of the best things about death would be that it meant “no more interviews.”

Hepburn is survived by a brother, Robert Hepburn; a sister, Margaret Hepburn Perry; and 13 nephews and nieces.

Burial will be private.

Times staff writer Myrna Oliver contributed to this report.