Biography of Katharine Hepburn, American actress who received four Oscars for Best Actress. This is a record not surpassed by anyone to date.
In 1999, she was named by the American Film Institute as the greatest female star in Hollywood history.
She maintained her fame as a leading actress in Hollywood for more than sixty years. Along with Greta Garbo, she was one of the great idols of cinema.
Katharine Hepburn’s childhood and family
Katharine Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907, in the city of Hartford, Connecticut (USA).
Her parents, Thomas Hepburn and Katharine Houghton had six children. Katharine was the second.
Thomas Hepburn was a urologist at Hartford Hospital; Katharine Houghton, was a feminist activist.
Her parents fought for social change in America: Thomas Hepburn helped establish the New England Social Hygiene Association.
Katharine Houghton led the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association in her old age. She campaigned for birth control with Margaret Sanger.
The Hepburn children were encouraged by their parents to exercise freedom of expression and to think and debate on whatever topic they wanted.
Katharine Hepburn attributed the key to her success to the education she received in her childhood. She always remained very attached to her family.
Thomas Hepburn was in favor of his children pushing their minds and bodies to the limit; To achieve this, he taught them to swim, run, dive, ride, wrestle, and play golf and tennis.
Golf became a passion for Katharine and she took daily lessons; She became so skilled that she reached the semifinal of the Connecticut Young Women’s Golf Championship.
She liked being called “Jimmy” and she kept her hair short like a boy’s. To tone her body, every morning she bathed with ice water.
She always stood out for her strong personality and great energy. Qualities that were highly appreciated by the famous actor Spencer Tracy, the love of her life.
Katharine Hepburn’s vocation for theater
Since she was a child, Katharine Hepburn was very fond of watching movies and took part in plays.
From time to time, she would perform for the neighbors with her friends and siblings. They charged 50 cents an entrance, in order to raise money for the Navajo people.
On April 3, 1921, when she was 14 years old, misfortune came to cloud the life of the family.
She had gone to a friend’s house and found the body of her favorite brother, Tom, hanging from a beam; apparently she had committed suicide.
The incident was tremendously traumatic for the entire family.
Katharine decided to drop out of school; so that she could continue her studies, it was necessary to hire her private classes.
In 1924, to satisfy her mother, she got a scholarship at “Bryn Mawr College“.
It was the first time she had returned to school in several years and she felt uncomfortable with her classmates.
She was not accepting of the disciplinary demands of the university. However, she submitted to them in order to be cast in university plays.
That depended on her good grades. Once her grades progressed, she was allowed to participate in theatrical performances.
In 1928, when she was in her senior year, she starred in the lead role in a stage production of “The Woman in the Moon“.
The accolades she received on this occasion convinced her to carry out her plans for a career in the theater.
She graduated with a BA in history and philosophy in June 1928.
Katharine’s first steps in the theater
Just a day after graduating, she traveled to Baltimore to meet with Edwin Knopf, who ran a successful theater company.
Impressed by the enthusiasm of this beautiful young woman, Knopf made her part of the cast of his production, “The Czarina“.
She received rave reviews for her small role and was given another shot at the show the following week.
This second time she received unfavorable criticism, especially for her voice, which was somewhat shrill.
Undaunted, but accepting reality, she decided to leave Baltimore and move to New York, to take private lessons in phonetics.
It is remarkable to know that 27 years later, in 1955, when the Jury gave her her eighth Oscar nomination, critics noted: “Kate makes the dialogue sound better than it is, because of the incomparable clarity and beauty of her diction. and for a finesse of intelligence and sensitivity that illuminates every nuance of the sentences he pronounces ”.
At the end of November 1928, Katharine Hepburn was hired as a stand-in for the main character in the play “Holiday.”
This play by playwright Philip Barry was premiered on November 26, 1928, at the Plymouth Theater in New York.
Katharine Hepburn married in December 1928
In early December, after only two weeks of performances, she quit this job to marry a college classmate, Ludlow Ogden Smith.
Katharine objected to the American custom of adopting her husband’s last name. They were amicably divorced in April 1933.
Shortly after, Edwin Knopf decided to produce the play “The Big Pond” in New York.
For various reasons, a week before the premiere the lead actress had been fired. Knopf appointed Hepburn for the lead role.
On opening night, Katharine Hepburn had a more than flawed performance and was immediately fired. Knopf had to rehire the previous female lead.
The sudden decision to leave the theater, lasted a short time and she returned to resume the alternate role in the play “Holiday“.
She kept it for six months, until, after 229 performances, the play stopped being performed on June 26, 1929.
Katharine Hepburn performances in the 1930s
In the spring of 1930, Katharine joined a theater company in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
But, she abandoned it in the middle of the summer season. She preferred to continue studying with a theater teacher.
In November 1930, she was cast in a Broadway 3-act comedy “Art and Mrs. Bottle“.
Initially, she was dismissed for this role, as the screenwriter did not approve of Hepburn saying: “She looks awful, her attitude is unacceptable and she has no talent“.
But, as they could not find another actress, they hired her and in the credits she appeared in fourth place.
Her participation in the play generated a small success, despite the fact that there were only 59 performances, from November 18 to the end of December 1930.
During the year 1931, Katharine appeared in various plays, but without much expectation of better results.
Katharine Hepburn had reason to feel insecure, but she never gave up on difficulties. She kept training and looking for opportunities.
The great opportunity presented heself when producer Julian Thompson asked her to play the main character in the Greek fable “The Warrior’s Husband”.
The role required athletic skills and great stamina; so Katharine was the ideal candidate.
At the beginning of the first act, the protagonist had to exit by a narrow staircase, carrying a deer over her shoulder, and wearing a short, silver tunic – a real joy for Katharine.
The play opened on March 11, 1932, at the Moorish Theater on Broadway. The show ran for three months and received positive reviews.
Theater commentator Richard Garland of the World-Telegram wrote: “It has been many nights since such a brilliant performance lit up the Broadway scene“.
A Hollywood scout saw her performance in “The Warrior’s Husband” and asked her to audition for the role of Sydney Fairfield in the upcoming RKO Pictures film, “A Bill of Divorcement”.
Katharine Hepburn was discovered by George Cukor
Director George Cukor was favorably impressed by what he saw and offered her the leading role in this film “Double Sacrifice“.
The actress demanded $ 1,500 a week. It was a lot of money for an unknown actress, but Cukor convinced the directors of the company and they signed an eventual contract with Hepburn, with a three-week guarantee.
They never regretted this risky hiring.
Hepburn arrived in California in July 1932, at the age of 25; and starred alongside John Barrymore, this her first film.
She was fascinated with the movie industry. The film was a resounding success and the actress received favorable reviews from all the newspapers.
The RKO signed a long-term contract with her and George Cukor became her friend for the rest of her life. They made ten movies together.
Hepburn’s second film was “Christopher Strong” (1933), produced by David Selznick of RKO Pictures.
Based on the novel of the same name, it tells the story of an aviator and her affair with a married man.
The movie was not a commercial success, but the comments about Katharine Hepburn were good.
The Journal American commentator wrote: “Although her gestures are irritating, they command attention and fascinate the audience. She is a distinct, firm and authentic personality”.
Her third film, released in 1933, established her as a leading actress in Hollywood. It was “Morning Glory“, by producer Pandro Berman.
First Oscar won by Katharine Hepburn
On this occasion, she removed the leading role from the now famous actress Constance Bennett. For her performance in “Morning Glory” Katharine won an Oscar for best actress.
Although happy and excited about the win, she decided not to attend the awards ceremony.
Her success continued with the role of Jo, in a 1933 film adaptation (she was 26 years old), of a Louisa May Alcott novel, “Little Women“.
It was one of the biggest events in the film industry, Hepburn won the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival.
She always believed that it was one of her best film performances.
On March 30, 1934, the RKO released one of the worst movies starring Katharine: “Spitfire“.
Katharine Hepburn kept all her life, in her room, a photograph of her character. She said that looking at this photo helped her “stay humble“.
Katharine Hepburn always came back to the theater
Participation in this film was the condition set by the RKO Picture to give her permission to go to work in Washington on a play: “The Lake“.
Katharine was keen to get back on stage, but the experience was a disaster; and she preferred to pay the producer, as long as she allowed her to terminate the contract.
Between 1934 and 1935, she starred in several little memorable plays.
However, success returned to smile in August 1935, with the premiere of the romantic film “Alice Adams“, with Fred McMurray as co-star, and with music by Max Stein.
With this film, Katharine earned her second Oscar nomination.
This was followed by four unsuccessful films in a row, despite Katharine’s refreshing presence and excellent acting: “Sylvia Scarlett” (worked with Cary Grant), “Mary of Scotland“, “A Woman Rebels” and “Quality Street “.
In addition to the low popularity of these films, Katharine’s bad relationship with the press was added.
She was arrogant and provocative; she refused to give interviews and sign autographs. She rejected the Hollywood advertising system and refused to live up to society’s expectations of women.
Howard Hughes wanted to win over Katharine Hepburn
In 1935, the billionaire film producer and intrepid aviator Howard Hughes fell in love with “that haughty redhead” and set out to win her over.
Other triumphs of Katharine Hepburn in the cinema
In 1937, in the movie “Stage Door“, she starred with Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Ann Miller.
It is a dramatic comedy, which tells the story of several aspiring actresses who live together in a house on 58th Street in New York City.
It was nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards, but it didn’t have the success RKO hoped for.
In 1938, she worked with Cary Grant in the film “Bringing Up Baby“.
It is a romantic comedy directed by Howard Hawks. The film was lavishly acclaimed by critics and became a classic of wacky comedies.
Katharine and Cary Grant made four films together.
Also in 1938, she starred with Cary Grant in the film version of the romantic comedy “Holiday” from Columbia Pictures, and directed by George Cukor.
Spencer Tracy in the Life of Katharine Hepburn
In the 1940s, Katharine Hepburn was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Her career focused on forming a film duo with Spencer Tracy. The association of the two on screen lasted for 25 years and produced nine films.
Katharine Hepburn wanted to return to her roots and began to perform regularly in Shakespearean theater productions.
She tackled a wide range of papers, from various literary works.
In 1939, the romantic comedy “The Philadelphia Story“, a great success from the beginning of its representation in New York, attracted the interest of several film studios to take it to the cinema.
Katharine Hepburn accepted the offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the number one Hollywood studio, on condition of being the main star.
As part of the contract, they accepted her request, that the director be George Cukor.
Also, Louis B. Mayer promised to hire James Stewart. Hepburn also cast her friend and former co-star, Cary Grant, to whom she gave the front page.
The movie “The Philadelphia Story” was one of the biggest hits of 1940, breaking records at the box office.
Commentators who had been critical of Katharine forgave her for all of the above.
Indeed, she perfectly represented the image of all the frivolous girls in high society. Without her, comedy would have lost much of its interest.
She was nominated for the third time for the Academy Awards; In addition, she won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress.
Katharine Hepburn was actively involved in the script for the romantic comedy “Woman of the Year”, written by Garson Kanin.
She contributed cuts and word changes to the script, and conveyed her enthusiasm to everyone.
“Woman of the Year” was released in 1942, with Spencer Tracy as Katharine’s partner.
The actress received a fourth Oscar nomination, for her role as an independent and professional woman.
In that year, Hepburn returned to Broadway to appear in another Philip Barry play, “Without Love,” which was also written and intended for the actress.
The work remained 16 weeks, with sold out.
MGM was eager to reunite Tracy and Hepburn in a new film.
In December 1942 she released “Keeper of the Flame“, a mystery drama, which conveyed a propaganda message about the dangers of fascism.
The film was a financial success and confirmed the popularity of the Tracy-Hepburn duo.
Most of Hepburn’s films in this period were with Spencer Tracy.
Since “Woman of the Year,” Katharine Hepburn had been engaged in a romantic relationship with Tracy.
She dedicated herself to helping him, as the actor suffered from alcoholism and insomnia.
In March 1945, Katharine, Spencer Tracy, and Lucille Ball starred in the film version of “Without Love“.
A new film with both actors, it was a great event; and its premiere was massive, with the sale of a record number of tickets during the Easter week of 1945.
Katharine’s difficulties at work
In 1947, Katharine Hepburn’s career was significantly affected by her public opposition to the growing anti-communist movement in Hollywood.
For nine months she received no job offers.
Happily for Katharine, Claudette Colbert had to be replaced unexpectedly, just days before filming began on Frank Capra’s political drama “State of the Union“.
Spencer Tracy had long been cast as the male lead, so the actress was already familiar with the script.
Critics responded favorably to the film and there was a very good ticket sales.
In 1949, both appeared on the screen for the third year in a row, in “Adam’s Rib“.
It is a romantic comedy written specifically for the duo, by their friends Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.
Katharine’s political views continued to picket them in theaters across the country.
Despite this, “Adam’s Rib” was a success and one of the most profitable Tracy-Hepburn films to date.
Katharine Hepburn in the 1950s
In January 1950, Hepburn returned to play Shakespeare in the theater, and did so with very good results.
In 1951, “The African Queen” was filmed.
It was an Anglo-American production, starring Humphrey Bogart and was shot mainly in the Belgian Congo area.
Katharine Hepburn was delighted to accept the role that was offered to her. She had turned 44 and was pleased to portray the personality of a middle-aged single woman in the cinema.
Also, it was her first Technicolor film. She earned her fifth best actress nomination at the Academy Awards.
In real life, Katharine was an active athlete and was attracted to various high-performance sports.
She had the opportunity to demonstrate her skills in the film “Pat and Mike“, by George Cukor.
It was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed productions of the Hepburn-Tracy duo; it was also her favorite, of the nine she performed with Tracy.
Her performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a comedy.
In the summer of 1952, she traveled to London’s West End to perform for a ten-week run in a George Bernard Shaw play.
After this, she alternated her performances between the theater, her great passion, and the cinema, when the offer was to her liking.
In 1962, she appeared in the film version of a play by Eugene O’Neill, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was one of her most praised performances and earned her a new Oscar nomination, and the award for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival.
Last years in the life of Katharine Hepburn
She took a break from her career to care for Spencer Tracy, who was going through a period of poor health.
She did not return to work until 1967, to star in her ninth film with him: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner“.
The film was directed by Stanley Kramer and featured an excellent performance by Sidney Poitier.
Spencer Tracy’s health had deteriorated more and more, due to heart disease. He died 17 days after the filming of the last scene.
Katharine won the Oscar for best actress. The second, since she had already obtained one in 1934.
She did not let herself be bent by the pain. From among the various scripts she received in job offers, she chose to play Eleanor of Aquitaine in the movie “The Lion in Winter“.
It is a British film released in 1968, directed by Anthony Harvey. Also starring: Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton.
The film was nominated in all major categories at the Academy Awards, and for the second year in a row, Katharine Hepburn won the best actress Oscar.
In the 1970s, she began to participate in television films, although her main activities continued to develop in the theater and in the cinema.
Always, on topics that she really consider very interesting.
In 1981, she asked Jane Fonda to let her play the role of an extravagant old woman in the movie “On Golden Pond“.
Actor Henry Fonda was the author of the script for this play that was performed on Broadway.
It was about an elderly couple struggling with the difficulties of old age. Jane Fonda had bought her father the rights to the screenplays.
The film was a huge success, and became the second highest grossing film of 1981.
Katharine Hepburn also returned to the stage in 1981.
She received a second Tony nomination for her portrayal of a joie de vivre septuagenarian widow in the play “The West Side Waltz.” In the following years, she did not cease in her artistic activities:
1984: She was the protagonist of the comedy that tells the story of an old woman who gets a hitman (Nick Nolte) to kill her.
In 1985, she presented a television documentary on the life and career of Spencer Tracy. She worked on several television films and continued to be acclaimed by the public.
1986: She returned to act in two comedy films.
1991: Published her autobiography, which topped the best-seller lists for more than a year.
1992: She returned to television screens with “The Man Upstairs,” “The Intruder,” a comedy-drama, co-starring with Ryan O’Neal. Katharine received a Golden Globe nomination.
1994: She worked with Anthony Quinn in a romantic comedy “This Can’t Be Love,” which was based on the life of Hepburn herself.
In that same year, she filmed a last role in the television movie “One Christmas“,a dramatic film based on a story by Truman Capote. Katharine received an award nomination from the Screen Actors Guild.
She remained active until the age of 87, after a career that made her worthy of all the accolades she received, always giving her best.
In 1997, her health began to deteriorate rapidly; she felt too weak, spoke and ate very little.
She showed signs of senile dementia; In May 2003, she was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her throat.
It was decided not to undergo treatment and she died at the age of 96, on June 29, 2003, at the Hepburn family residence in Fenwick, Connecticut.
Her remains were interred at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford along with those of her brother Tom.
US President George W. Bush said Katharine Hepburn “will be remembered as one of the nation’s artistic treasures“. In honor of her extensive theater work, the Broadway lights were turned off during the night of July 1, 2003.