I love Katharine Hepburn so much. She was a feminist before most people knew the word existed. Did you know that she used to enter fancy Hollywood hotels by the back entrance because they didn’t want the proper folk to see her in pants? And she didn’t give a rat’s ass or any hoots or anything else. I’ve watched nearly all her movies (some more than once) and I think she was a great actress, but more importantly she was a great woman. She was raised (by a suffragette and a doctor who made it his life’s work to educate people about STDs–we’re talking the turn of the last century, folks) to be inquisitive and to speak her mind. She overcame tragedy (at 14 she found her older brother who’d hanged himself) and the resulting debilitating depression to become an award-winning actor who played some of the strongest, most complex female characters of her time. (Her performance in The Philadelphia Story as Tracy Lord, a spoiled socialite who awakens to the reality that she’s never going to be happy playing the role society has given her, is hilarious and heartbreaking.)
But as much as theater-goers loved to entertain the idea of women like Lord wearing pants and pushing the boundaries of ladylike behavior, her off-screen persona didn’t sit well with Hollywood and the slavering public. She was not your average starlet: smart and funny and strong, she didn’t like reporters or autograph hounds (famously telling one to “go sit on a tack”). And she was not one to be bullied. When the costume department took her pants in an apparent attempt to teach her a lesson, she walked around the studio in her underwear for the rest of the day. How kick ass is that? (Hint: Very!) And when a few of her movies flopped, they labeled her “box-office poison.” Did she quit? Did she roll over and die? Did she rail and flail against the unfairness of it all? No, she did not. I’ll tell you what she did. Actually, I’ll let Wikipedia tell you:
Hepburn masterminded her own comeback, buying out her contract with RKO Radio Pictures and acquiring the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, which she sold on the condition that she be the star. In the 1940s she was contracted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where her career focused on an alliance with Spencer Tracy. The screen-partnership spanned 25 years, and produced nine movies.
(Hepburn and Tracy were also a couple. He was married, but estranged from his wife. Kate put her career on hold to nurse him in the final years of his life. Read about it in Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir by Garson Kanin.)
And that, my friends, is how you do it Kate style. There’s so much more. Her film and theater career spanned six decades, and she lived 96 years. Here’s a photo of her from her Bryn Mawr days. That’s where she fell in love with acting, much to my everlasting joy. If this is your first introduction to the awesome that is Katharine Hepburn, congratulations. You’re in for a treat. Follow some links, watch some movies, and know this: it has never been easy to buck society’s stereotypes, and in a time when it was even less easy than it is now, she helped to pave the way for the rest of us by being an authentic woman in the face of pressure from all sides to act like a lady.