May marks the centenary of the birth of three of cinema’s biggest stars – Katharine Hepburn (May 12), Laurence Olivier (May 22), and John Wayne (May 26). Over the course of the month I’ll be revisiting some of my favourite films featuring these iconic stars.
First up is Katharine Hepburn, an actress who could turn her hand to high drama or screwball comedy with equal dexterity. Hepburn wasn’t your typical Hollywood star, something that she made clear from the start by demanding $1500 a week to appear in films (she wasn’t even making $100 for her stage appearances at the time). It set the tone for one of the most successful careers the movie capital has ever known.
With just three films under her belt, she won her first Oscar for Morning Glory in 1933 and the same year stared in the smash hit Little Women, widely regarded as the best version of the oft-filmed Louisa May Alcott novel. It wasn’t all wine and roses though; after early hits she suffered a string of flops and in 1938 was one of the stars voted “box office poison” in a poll taken by motion picture exhibitors (she was in good company though – Fred Astaire also made the list).
A return to the stage would lead to her next cinematic smash. The reviews for her stage performance in The Philadelphia Story were excellent and a hugely successful film version followed. It is a measure of the influence she wielded that she had director and co-star approval in her contract.
It’s often the case that two stars will be indelibly linked in the public's mind, both on and off screen; Burton and Taylor, Bogart and Bacall, Newman and Woodward. Possibly the greatest of these pairings was Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. All in all they made nine films together between 1942 and 1967, including such classics as Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which earned Hepburn another best actress Oscar. While the pair were romantically involved off screen, they never married, and in typically un-Hollywood Hepburn fashion tried to keep their relationship as much out of the limelight as possible.
In her 40s she appeared in possibly her most famous role as Rose Sayer opposite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. The film was shot on location in Africa, causing discomfort for most of the cast and crew, Hepburn included. She would later write about the experience in her book, The Making of The African Queen or How I went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. In 1975 she starred in the critically mauled Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne, effectively a western version of The African Queen.
All told she received twelve Oscar nominations, a feat only bettered by Meryl Streep, and holds the record for the most wins by an actress, taking the trophy on four occasions. On top of those already mentioned she won for The Lion in Winter (sharing the award with Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl, the only time the result has been tied) and On Golden Pond for which Henry Fonda won the best actor award.
She continued acting well into her 80s, making her final acting appearance in the TV movie One Christmas in 1994. She died of natural causes on June 29, 2003, at the age of 96, leaving behind a body of work that has rarely been equaled. She refused to play the Hollywood game, doing things her own way and not afraid to speak her mind.
Here are a few choice Hepburn quotes:
"I often wonder whether men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then."
“Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living. After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.”
“If you’re given a choice between money and sex appeal, take the money. As you get older, the money will become your sex appeal.”
"If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married."
“Life is hard. After all, it kills you.”
Over the next few days I’ll be reviewing both The African Queen and Rooster Cogburn.