Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

On Golden Pond with a lioness in winter (1907-2003)

For the benefit of readers who are really, really young or whose brains have been addled by drugs (or both), I am going to clear up a few things about Katharine Hepburn:

  • There is only one “e” in the name “Katharine.” This is a minor point, but it is worth noting if you are going to do web searches on her name.

  • She was not “that chick who was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” That was Audrey Hepburn. The two were not related. When I was a child, I did somehow get the idea in my head that the two were sisters. I don’t know how I used to get ideas like that, but I did. But I was wrong. Audrey Hepburn was European. She specialized in playing elegant waifs, frequently going from rags to riches in Cinderella fashion, as Audrey Hepburn herself did in real life. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, was an American, specifically a New Englander. She came from Connecticut and graduated from Bryn Mawr College, and she sounded like it. She was not a waif. She was sophisticated and tough at the same time. Where Audrey bewitched men, Katharine out-debated them.

  • She did not, late in her career, play Capt. Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. It’s an easy mistake, but that was a different Kate (full first name: Katherine). Kate Mulgrew was born 48 years after Kate Hepburn. Still, the physical resemblance as well as the similarities in their voice and their manner are striking. In a very real way, Mulgrew’s seven-year turn as Janeway (full first name: Kathryn) owes a debt to Hepburn. She played it with the kind of verve and authority that Hepburn firmly established over a long career on the big screen.

  • She was never married to Spencer Tracy. There was a time in Hollywood’s heyday when the American public had trouble separating movie actors from the characters they played. This confusion was accentuated by the fact that many major actors played essentially the same characters over and over. (John Wayne is a classic example.) The onscreen chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy was such that many people assumed that they were really married, especially since they always seemed to star in movies together. They were co-stars in nine films, playing husband and wife in five of them. In their last collaboration, 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, they seemed so comfortable as an old married couple, it’s no wonder that people might have assumed they were. And the public wasn’t so wrong. The pair lived together for 27 years, until Tracy died, 17 days after filming GWCtD. Hepburn was a divorcee, because marriage “didn’t agree” with her, but Tracy, as a good Irish-American Catholic, never divorced his wife.

  • If you want the best Katharine Hepburn imitation, try to catch Martin Short on a rerun of the old SCTV series.

    As a gifted actor, Hepburn played a huge range of roles, but her screen persona seemed to shift with each decade. In the 1930s she was the spirited young woman, as typified in Sylvia Scarlett, in which she disguised herself as a man, echoing her own youthful desire to be a boy. In the 1940s, she was the headstrong socialite (as in The Philadelphia Story) or the headstrong professional woman (as in Adam’s Rib). In the 1950s, she was already playing spinsters (as in The African Queen) or Tennessee Williams dragon ladies (as in Suddenly, Last Summer). In the 1960s, she was a long-married liberal socialite (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) or a queen (The Lion in Winter). The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s seemed to be spent mostly playing fiercely independent elderly women in the occasional TV production.

    One thing notable about the latter half of Hepburn’s career was the way she, deliberately or not, was paired with a succession of male screen legends, in what amounted to the extended cinematic equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s Duets album. While she is most often associated with Spencer Tracy, she made several films with Cary Grant, as well as other male leads of the day. Starting with 1951’s The African Queen, in which she played opposite Humphrey Bogart, her co-stars read like a Who’s Who of Hollywood: Bob Hope (The Iron Petticoat), Burt Lancaster (The Rainmaker), Peter O’Toole (The Lion in Winter), Laurence Olivier (TV’s Love Among the Ruins), John Wayne (Rooster Cogburn), and Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond).

    Most illustrious actors with lengthy and illustrious careers aren’t lucky enough to have their final performance be fitting and memorable, and Katharine Hepburn was no exception. Her final role was as Warren Beatty’s formidable elderly aunt in the ill-fated 1994 remake of Love Affair. This movie was done better the first two times (three times, if you count Sleepless in Seattle), but it did afford Hepburn one last opportunity to steal a movie, which she did.

    In truth, Katharine Hepburn didn’t really have to steal movies. She took ‘em fair and square. Good night, and give our best to Spence.

    -S.L., 3 July 2003

    If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

    If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

    Commentaries Archive