In the 1950s, Hollywood didn’t seem to know what to do with Katharine Hepburn. Of course, there were a lot of things Hollywood didn’t know what to do with during that decade: television, actual Communists, suspected Communists, black actors except for Sidney Poitier, etc., etc.
Hollywood thought it knew what to do with waifish, talented Audrey Hepburn, who was just launching her film career during this period. Hollywood’s solution for Audrey was to pair her with its Golden Age male stars, several of whom were years—in some cases decades—her senior. Perhaps these May-November romances didn’t seem so creepy at the time, but in retrospect they can make me squirm in discomfort.
But let’s get back to Katharine Hepburn, who seemed to present a special problem for 1950s filmmakers. Some would say she always had been both—special and a problem. Today, in considering her most productive period (the 1930s and '40s), we are most likely to remember her triumphs: the self-dramatizing, tomboyish Jo in Little Women, the high-flying yet down-to-earth aristocrats of Stage Door and Holiday, the blithely relentless pursuer of Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, culminating in the tailor-made Tracy Lord of The Philadelphia Story. (Her pairings with Spencer Tracy, which began with 1942’s Woman of the Year, were special in their own way—more on them later.)
Yet these now-classic films were interspersed with more than enough strange near-misses and outright flops for Hepburn to be labeled “box office poison” late in the 1930s. Even the now-beloved Bringing Up Baby was a flop in its first release. Today it has its legion of admirers, although many see it as more of Howard Hawks’ win than Hepburn’s. Hepburn saw which way the wind was blowing and the parts she wasn’t getting, and she beat a retreat to Broadway, which is where she and playwright Philip Barry helped engineer her triumph in The Philadelphia Story. She also cannily captured the movie rights so that she would have a ticket back to Hollywood should the play succeed. It did, and she did, and the rest is—still a very checkered, though remarkably long and varied, film career.
The late critic Walter Kerr, in a 1970s-era survey of Hepburn’s career, pinpointed her dilemma in his discussion of the 1935 Alice Adams, a film that’s still surprisingly funny and surprisingly painful at the same time. Hepburn is a pretentious, somewhat silly but basically nice small-town girl from a lower middle-class family who is trying way too hard to get in with the “right” crowd—which of course sees through her every move. The pivotal scene is a dance where Hepburn is ignored by everyone (except the least attractive man in the room), and she does the smiling-through-tears, trembling-lip thing as well as anyone.