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Katharine Hepburn

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Personalities: The incomparable Hepburn is woman of the year, every year

By Larry Swindell,
 Star-Telegram Staff Writer

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 11, 1997

For her third Broadway turn and first leading role, she was an Amazon heroine in 'The Warrior's Husband;' and her entrance was a spectacular 15-foot leap to the stage. Night after night, that breathtaking leap, never a broken bone or even a sprained ankle. She was an athlete.

Broadway never had seen even a near equivalent of her, and Hollywood of course beckoned. She said no, the stage was her destiny. The RKO Radio company was persistent, she named an outrageous figure . . . and the studio agreed to it. Every 22-year-old girl has her price.

That's how old Katharine Hepburn supposedly was when she met the great John Barrymore in 1932 and commenced working with him for the film of 'A Bill of Divorcement.' Almanacs, movie yearbooks, Who's Who -- every source listed her birth date as Nov. 8, 1909.

But when she produced her autobiography four years ago (reportedly without ghostly assistance), she came clean, offering that she was born on May 12, 1907, "despite whatever I may have said earlier."

So here's Katharine Hepburn at 90, attaining that milestone tomorrow. Hers has been an eventful life, often tumultuous, certainly triumphant, garnished by what now is acknowledged as one of the world's great love stories for two famous people.

Her career? Nothing ever quite like it, Lillian Gish perhaps apart. Kate Hepburn is a phenomenon of American life, and it's time to take stock of an incomparable nonagenarian.

"Box-office poison"

She was an immediate movie sensation. David Shipman in his now-standard work `The Great Movie Stars' accords her the highest praise among all those monographed, noting that she was "a star from the word go." Critics the world over -- England's Graham Greene, Russia's Sergei Gerasimov, America's Pauline Kael -- put her above Garbo, above Bette Davis, in a galaxy all her own. But not just yet.

Her screen debut in 'A Bill of Divorcement' was historic. Watch it today and she still captivates, as modern as tomorrow. She and Barrymore didn't get on well, but a few years later he rated her the finest actress he'd worked with in a marathon career.

She gained above-the-title billing in her second film, 'Christopher Strong,' enacting an aviatrix with Amelia Earhart overtones; took her first Oscar for 'Morning Glory,' her third movie opus; and for her fourth outing was the best Jo March in the best of all movie versions of 'Little Women.'

But she took some getting used to, and toward that end was not very cooperative. She strode through the film colony in trousers, sassed the press and the movieland establishment at every turn, denied having been married although she had been, briefly. When once asked about children, said, "I have five. Three of them are colored."

She was her own calculated act and it worked for a time, while the pictures were accomplished and entertaining and profitable. For RKO she registered superbly in 'Alice Adams,' 'Stage Door' and 'Bringing Up Baby.'

But she made a disastrous return to the stage in `The Lake,' inciting Dorothy Parker's classic quip that "Hepburn ran the gamut of emotions from A to B". She was further defamed by pictures that flopped despite her valiant work in them -- 'Spitfire; Break of Hearts; Sylvia Scarlett; Quality Street.' So Hollywood chose to scorn her.

In 1938 a major exhibitor's report labeled her "box-office poison," along with such luminaries as Marlene Dietrich, Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford, all of whom kept their calm. But an enraged Hepburn settled her contract with RKO. After contributing a glowing performance at Columbia in 'Holiday' for her most frequent director -- George Cukor -- she left Hollywood for the stage, vowing to return only on her own terms.

Philip Barry wrote 'The Philadelphia Story' especially for her, and as Tracy Lord her second conquest of Broadway was absolute, supported by such then-unknown players as Van Heflin, Shirley Booth and Joseph Cotten. In seeking movie rights to the play, MGM's Louis B. Mayer learned that Hepburn herself owned them. Mayer capitulated to her salary demand, and gave her the stellar leading men she requested -- Cary Grant and James Stewart.

To this day the 57-year-old 'The Philadelphia Story' is the screen's supreme comedy of manners and it rehabilitated Hepburn permanently. She joined the MGM star family just as Garbo and Norma Shearer were slipping into retirement. Her contract even gave her script and director approval.

For 'Woman of the Year' her chosen director was George Stevens, with whom she had an amorous fling earlier when he directed her in 'Alice Adams' and 'Quality Street.' As Mary Stuart in the 'Mary of Scotland' film made between those two, she had a semiscandalous romance on and off the set with director John Ford. She was also entangled with Howard Hughes near the same time, while he made news circling the globe in an airplane. But permanent love eluded her until 'Woman of the Year' teamed her with a top male star she hadn't met previously.

Anti-feminist slant

In her memoir Hepburn noted that Spencer Tracy at this time "probably thought I was a lesbian." She coyly added "Not for long." They were a combustible item soon after the project went before the camera . . . and for 26 years afterward.

Katharine Hepburn in her frequent returns to the stage often essayed Shakespearean heroines -- Viola in 'Twelfth Night;' Portia in 'The Merchant of Venice;' a particularly winning Beatrice in 'Much Ado About Nothing,' all at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. But the role she was born to play and didn't is Katherina in 'The Taming of the Shrew.' She did, however, enact the role in life, with Tracy the only Petruchio who could tame her.

Indeed, some of their subsequent co-starring exercises, cued by 'Woman of the Year,' were variations on their own relationship; 'Adam's Rib' and 'Pat and Mike' come especially to mind. The Hepburn character typically is in fussy, demonstrative high gear until the Tracy character muffles her, and she likes it. It's ironic, of course, that Hepburn is an icon for feminists, when some of her more memorable movies reveal an anti-feminist slant.

That they ultimately appeared in nine films together was a benefit to Tracy and Hepburn both professionally and personally. Tracy, a tormented Irish soul, had been a careening vessel, mortgaged to alcohol, until Hepburn gave him an anchor.

Contrary to popular belief, they could have married. Religion usually was cited as the reason they didn't, with Tracy beheld as unable to divorce the mother of his children. But Louise Tracy was not Catholic, and she and Spencer were married not in a religious ceremony but by a justice of the peace. Tracy and Hepburn did not marry simply because Kate believed it best not to.

Through their years together, both stars bloomed. Hepburn the terror metamorphosed into lovable Kate, causing her to remark some 20 years ago that "People have grown fond of me, like some old building."

Nor was the steadily upward curve of the Hepburn movie career dependent upon the Tracy connection. She gave memorable performances in a broad range of Tracy-less ventures -- in 'Song of Love' (as Clara Schumann); in 'Summertime,' whose director -- David Lean -- said bowing to Kate's every whim proved his redemption; in 'The Rainmaker,' a sharp teaming with Burt Lancaster; and in two of the richest performances ever put on film -- perfectly matched with Humphrey Bogart in John Huston's 'The African Queen;' and greater still as the dope-ravaged matriarch of Eugene O'Neill's `Long Day's Journey Into Night.'

From a once-hostile movieland community, Hepburn finally attained absolute worship. Their love and her stature are certified by four starring Academy Awards -- no other player has more than two -- and her first and last Oscars were 48 years apart. Her 12 nominations also are record, and look at them: two in the 1930s, two in the '40s, four in the '50s, three in the '60s, and the valedictory nomination and award for `On Golden Pond' in 1981. Rather like Tracy, she was a durable wonder, going ever stronger while her contemporaries either were retiring or sliding into grade-B horrifics. She never cheapened herself, and prestige was not diminished by her few mistakes -- 'Dragon Seed,' Chinese in an all-non-Chinese cast; 'The Iron Petticoat,' a dubious foil for Bob Hope; and `Rooster Cogburn,' opposite John Wayne in the disappointing reprise of his 'True Grit' character.

Will she film again? Maybe, maybe not, who knows? Lillian Gish essayed a star role at 94. Hepburn's brief appearance in last year's third edition of `Love Affair' was heartbreaking to watch, but no more embarrassing than every other aspect of an ill-advised venture.

Yes, a remarkable life, keynoted by spirited independence. In her youth Kate was invited to join the now-fabled Group Theatre that was just starting up, but she wished to succeed as an individual, not as a component of an ensemble.

Every great star is highly individual, none more so than Hepburn the Connecticut Yankee. She tells us that success came despite absence of beauty, but she's wrong, and so were all those who found her looks "interesting" but withheld the compliment of beauty.

Look especially at the youthful Hepburn, from 'A Bill of Divorcement' to 'The Philadelphia Story' (1940), in which she would be -- let's see -- 33. She is radiant, and some of her once-maligned photoplays are indeed excellent, particularly her boy impersonation in 'Sylvia Scarlett' (1936) and her Barrie heroine in 'Quality Street' (1937). Hepburn's RKO tenure merits revaluation; for the 1930s, no other body of work is quite up to it.

Oscars and everything else aside, her fame that is sure to be everlasting may always be linked to Spencer Tracy, and perhaps that's as it should be.

Happy birthday, Kate. Yes, and many, many more.

© 1997 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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