Katharine Hepburn

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Hepburn, Katharine (1907-2003), American film and stage star and, over a career spanning 50 movies and 60 years, winner of a record four Academy Awards as best actress. Hepburn is best known for her portrayals of strong, assertive, independent women of means—a role for the most part she played out in real life as well.

Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born in Hartford, Conn., on May 12, 1907, into a privileged, progressive family; her father was a surgeon, her mother a women's rights activist. She attended Bryn Mawr College, from which she did not graduate, instead trying her luck at theater. A series of minor stage roles in New York City led to notice by Hollywood. In 1932 she was signed by RKO and appeared in her first film, A Bill of Divorcement, in which she was an instant sensation. She stayed with RKO through 1938, appearing in 15 films for that studio.

Hepburn received the best actress Academy Award for her third film, Morning Glory (1933), in which she played a young actress; nominated another 11 times, she won again for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968; shared with Barbra Streisand), and On Golden Pond (1981), giving her the record for most Oscars wins by a female actor. Rail thin, with knifelike bone structure, a sharp voice, and an imperious manner, Hepburn was unlike anyone on-screen at the time. Her disdain for stardom, the press, and conventional fashion—off-screen she wore trousers all her life—equally enthralled and annoyed her public and coworkers: "I think I'm a success, but then I had every advantage; I should have been," she once said. Notwithstanding her privileged background, as an actor Hepburn was punctual, well prepared, and hard-working, and she had difficulties with, but nonetheless tolerated (and sometimes even admired the skills of), colleagues who did not share her solid working methods and ethics.

Hepburn built her career and style through the 1930s. Her performances could be no-nonsense and crisp, although she could also be somewhat arch, fey, and mannered. Her most successful roles included an aviator in Christopher Strong (1933), Jo in Little Women (1933), a haughty young actress in the brilliant ensemble piece Stage Door (1937), a social rebel in Philip Barry's Holiday (1938), and a screwball debutante in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Among her other early roles were an unlikely hillbilly in Spitfire (1934) and a middle-class heroine in Alice Adams (1935). "I'm a personality as well as an actress," she once said of herself. "Show me an actress who isn't a personality, and you'll show me a woman who isn't a star." One of Hepburn's most effective directors was longtime friend George Cukor, who helmed ten of her projects, including A Bill of Divorcement, Bringing Up Baby, Adam's Rib (1949), and two television movies.

Her popularity declining in the late 1930s, Hepburn returned to Broadway to star in Philip Barry's sophisticated comedy The Philadelphia Story (1939), reprising her role as flighty rich girl Tracy Lord—tailor-made for her by Barry—in the film version the following year. She signed with MGM, where she was to stay through 1952 (thereafter she freelanced). She gained in authority, and regained her popularity, as an actress through the 1940s and 1950s, with star turns in films such as The African Queen (1951), opposite Humphrey Bogart; the sparkling Summertime (1955), a mid-life love story set in Venice; and Tennessee Williams's outré Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), in which she played the half-mad Mrs. Venable (holding her own with her mesmerizing young costars Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift). Hepburn's later years produced some of her greatest screen performances. She was searing and brilliant as Mary Tyrone, the addicted mother, in Sidney Lumet's film adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night (1962), and shone as well playing the upper-class matriarch in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter; and the vital wife and mother, opposite Henry Fonda and Jane Fonda, in On Golden Pond.

Hepburn never gave up her theatrical work. The 1933 flop The Lake was the origin of her much-quoted line "The calla lilies are in bloom again" and Dorothy Parker's acid review, "She ran the gamut of emotion from A to B." More successfully, Hepburn starred on Broadway in As You Like It (1950); The Millionairess (1952); the musical Coco (1969), as fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel; A Matter of Gravity (1976); and The West Side Waltz (1981). In 1957 she appeared in Much Ado about Nothing and The Merchant of Venice at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn. She also starred in eight made-for-television movies between 1973 and 1994, the best of which were The Glass Menagerie (1973), Love among the Ruins (1975), and The Corn Is Green (1979).

Hepburn married only once, early in life, but her relationship with actor Spencer Tracy, who stayed married to his wife, lasted from 1942 until Tracy's death in 1967. Hepburn and Tracy costarred in nine films, both comedies (Adam's Rib; Pat and Mike, 1952) and dramas (Keeper of the Flame, 1942; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), becoming one of the best-matched of on-screen couples. "He's meat and potatoes," she once explained, and "I'm more like a fancy French dessert." On personal relationships, she famously said that "I often wonder whether men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then." Hepburn wrote two books, The Making of "The African Queen" (1987) and the autobiographical Me: The Stories of My Life (1991). Her always boisterous good health began to fail in the 1990s, and she left her longtime Manhattan townhouse for her beloved waterfront home in Old Saybrook, Conn., where she died on June 29, 2003.

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