Katharine Hepburn 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.
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 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,' " said Elizabeth Taylor, who starred with Hepburn in the film "Suddenly Last Summer."
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.
Critical to her success were her collaborations with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and, most famously, Spencer 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 and her romance with the married Tracy endured for more than 25 years until his death on June 10, 1967.
Hepburn began her acting career on the stage. By the fall of 1928, freshly out of Bryn Mawr College, 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.
By the early 1930s, RKO had 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.
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.
By her third movie, "Morning Glory," Hepburn had become a Hollywood phenomenon. For the masterful performance as Eva Lovelace, she won her first Oscar.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
|1932||Best Actress||Morning Glory||Win|
|1935||Best Actress||Alice Adams||Nomination|
|1940||Best Actress||The Philadelphia Story||Nomination|
|1942||Best Actress||Woman of the Year||Nomination|
|1951||Best Actress||The African Queen||Nomination|
|1956||Best Actress||The Rainmaker||Nomination|
|1959||Best Actress||Suddenly, Last Summer||Nomination|
|1962||Best Actress||Long Day's Journey Into Night||Nomination|
|1967||Best Actress||Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?||Win|
|1968||Best Actress||The Lion in Winter||Win|
|1981||Best Actress||On Golden Pond||Win|