How perfect it would be if the number of centenaries being celebrated this year amounted to exactly one hundred.
Reality, of course, is almost never so numerically in tune. 2007, however, at least flirts with this improbability. In May alone, 100th birthday wishes are to be extended to such posthumous classic film icons as Laurence Olivier, John Wayne, and, the subject of this week’s column, the estimable Katherine Hepburn.
Prickly as a hair brush, playful as a puppy. She was, at all times, both Katherine and Kate.
Unlike other cinematic precursors of feminism – Stanwyck, Crawford, Davis – Hepburn’s characters never gave in at the end, nor suffered a whit if they stood fast. She survived it all: Cary Grant’s witty chicanery, Spencer Tracy’s chauvinistic common sense, Peter O’Toole’s arch bluster – without losing a single integral part of herself.
Small wonder she lasted 96 years.
Her best? The volume is too vast. All I can offer are but a handful of personal favorites:
Stage Door – 1937 – Hepburn always stood out from other actresses of her time, hence, she’s perfectly cast here as the uppity outsider who disturbs the catty camaraderie of a boarding house’s worth of Broadway-babes-to-be. Her highbrow kitteness, her plucky poise, her erudite earthiness all glow like a key light when set against an endlessly talking wall of ’30s female stereotypes: the brassy wisecracker, the sultry sufferer, the Dumb Dora. Accomplished actresses crowd this slightly opened adaptation of the George S. Kaufman-Edna Ferber play – Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball – and while they each have their moments, it’s Hepburn you remember first and foremost.
Bringing Up Baby – 1938 – The mountain top of madcap. Cary Grant is a nervous paleontologist whose life is disrupted by fun-loving heiress Hepburn and her pet leopard Baby. Audiences had had their fill of the genre by the time this entry was released, so it was left to TV watchers and revisionist critics to appreciate its fast-paced mix of Harold Lloydian slapstick, Burns and Allen-worthy exchanges, and breakneck absurdity. Hepburn, in her first full foray into comedy, is sunny and spirited throughout; with this film, Hollywood discovered a whole new application for her – setting up her greatest work, her canon with life partner Tracy.
Woman of the Year – 1942 – The war years marked the big change in the life of the American woman, and on screen Hepburn, more than any other actress, led the charge. Tracy is Sam Craig, a New York sportswriter perpetually frustrated by his inability to convert political columnist Tess Harding (guess who?) to the role of wife and mother; in the end, he is brought to see that this is only possible if that role is redefined by Tess. The Oscar-winning screenplay is a dense dandy – mixing traditional romantic comedy elements with sober thoughts on sexual and world politics – and the film set the formula for the Hepburn-Tracy series. Numerous entries followed, but none surpassed this first shot out of the canon.