Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Holland

Katharine Hepburn 01This brief look into the life of one of our greatest actresses was written in association with the Biography television program and it has the feel of that breezy show as it reduces a great life into a few cogent points, concentrating instead on the mention of her films and stage appearances.

Hepburn was certainly an enigmatic personality.

Although her birth date remains in doubt to this day, it is reckoned that she was born in either May or November of 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut to Dr. Tom Hepburn and Katharine Houghton (of the Houghton-Mifflin publishing firm and Corning Glass Works).  Her father was a very strong conservative figure, who encouraged his children to take risks, but it was almost impossible to gain his good graces.  Her mother was rather liberal and was involved in the women’s rights movement in America from the earliest stages.  Kate grew up torn in two directions.

Her family had a history of suicides and biographer Holland hints that it may have been due to heredity, although the rigid, emotionless aspects of her father certainly hints at rebellion against convention.

Her older brother Tommy committed suicide while on a trip to New York with Kate, but the whole family glossed over it, almost as if it didn’t happen.  Kate’s family believed that you should never dwell on the past, but always look ahead to the future.  Planning and working were the things that you got you through life and that partly accounts for her optimistic views, healthy lifestyle, and prodigious work right up until her death in 1996.

Katharine Hepburn 02Much is made of her relationships, specifically with director John Ford and actor Spencer Tracy.  Likening each of these men to father figures, the book ponders whether her lifelong obsession with pleasing her father didn’t spill over into her love life.  Both men were married and yet each carried on a 30 year love affair with Kate.  Tracy, it is stated, was the love of her life, but he would not divorce his wife because of his strict Catholic background.  He comes off very badly in this biography, as a bully who ruined Katharine’s career by insisting that she be at his beck and call.  When he went on drinking binges for days at a time, she would wait outside his door and tend to his needs.  Apparently, he did not live with his wife, but spent many years living in a Los Angeles hotel before retiring to guest house on George Cukor’s estate.

Many people may not realize that Katharine Hepburn had an extensive state career and was a failure at stage acting for many years because she always appeared to be so manic.  In middle and late years, she began to act Shakespeare, touring and playing a variety of roles, relaxing in her celebrity and doing very well.  She was a big hit in the Broadway musical Coco, even though she couldn’t sing.

During her career, she won four Academy Awards for Best Actress, even though critics constantly complained that she only played herself.  That is not unusual at all, even now, when most film actors don’t really act.  Since the early days of silent film, audiences have flocked to the theater to see the personalities, not to see them disappear into their characters.  Spencer Tracy did not even want to have any make-up applied at all.  But even though these celebrity actors play themselves, they are still able to carve out excellent performances from the force of their character and Hepburn did that in a great many of her films.

Katharine Hepburn 03She remained a health nut, swimming in icy Long Island Channel into her 80’s, cooking her own food, and staying true to herself.

Her films will certainly remain as classics long into the future.

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