Katharine Hepburn, ranked the number one female in the American Film Institute’s “50 Greatest Movie Legends,” died at the age of 96 in 2003. Throughout her career, she won four Academy Awards for best actress, a record (she was nominated 12 times). On May 12 this icon of both independence and film will be commemorated with a first-class stamp by the U.S. Postal Service, an entry into its “Legends of Hollywood” series.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) is my all-time favorite film. The combination of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant sparkles. She’s a silly socialite, he’s a stuffy paleontologist, and they are both very eccentric. Loving this film may explain why I’m not sympathetic to those involved in the production of comedies loaded with sex, bathroom humor, vulgarity, and disrespect. They may make fortunes, but there was a time in this country when money could be made with class.
Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant possessed two of the most beautiful faces to grace the silver screen. Because they were so elegant, their performances in screwball comedies were hilarious and luminous.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) was another pairing of these two great stars (from a time when stars were truly great) in a dippy, yet pathos-tinged story, that teamed their acting chops with their comedic talents. Hepburn was radiant, Grant was handsome, and they were both silly. Despite their characters’ flaws, Hepburn and Grant emanated class.
Katharine Hepburn was, and always will be, my idea of the perfectly realized human being. She was an individual who did not try to be what others thought she should be; she was self-created and self-actualized. Hepburn was a liberated woman long before those words described a movement.
Complex and self-critical, Hepburn led her life to suit herself, never planning to be the role model for other women. Even in her later years, she was an independent spirit and voice, an inspiration to women, young, old, married, single, rich, poor.
Dorothy Parker is widely quoted for her criticism of a young Kate Hepburn (“She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B”) but years later Pauline Kael decreed that Hepburn was “our greatest tragedienne.” Not many actresses can present a résumé that competes with Hepburn’s, which is all the more impressive because she didn’t accept roles, as she grew older, that were just work and not up to her standards.
“To keep your character intact you cannot stoop to filthy acts. It makes it easier to stoop the next time,” said Hepburn, and one is hard-pressed to find one cheap or exploitative movie in her filmography. Her philosophy, as simple as “Without discipline, there's no life at all,” provides cues for living a responsible, rewarding life.
In expounding on personal responsibility, Hepburn said “We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It's never your fault.” She disagreed and continued, “But it's always your fault, because if you wanted to change you're the one who has got to change.”
Taking responsibility for the course of our own lives is the attitude of pioneers—people who make their own way—not those who surrender to “destiny,” “heredity,” or “custom.” Hepburn's belief in the concept of "discipline" clearly referred to self-discipline. The fact that she lived these principles is what sets her above others who give lip-service to the right sentiment at just the right time.
Being independent, ignoring passing fads and fancies and concentrating on the real and valuable, and learning that the only person you will ever please is yourself (so work on that!) isn’t easy. Life’s lessons are hard, especially when they lead to a life well lived.
Katharine Hepburn was deeply aware of this; and her dedication to her own values and principles was evident throughout her life. Was it easy? Hell, no. “Life is hard. After all, it kills you.”
I miss Katharine Hepburn—not just the actress, but the person, the philosopher, the free spirit.