To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here
We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.
3) Katharine Hepburn
The greatest movie stars tend to have some bodily quality which makes them stand out from the merely great ones. It is not enough to simply be beautiful; one must be memorable as well. Hepburn is one of the most distinctive stars in the history of film, and thus one of the most memorable. The slightly awful voice, which either girlish or matronly would always maintain its nasal quality. The pointy, bony face which expressed character far better than it expressed prettiness or sex appeal. The perpetual slimness, fitting for someone who had a reputation for sportiness but which also made a film like Sylvia Scarlett possible. And then the work itself is singular, of course. What’s really amazing about Hepburn is that for someone who couldn’t have been anybody else, someone who was as great a star as she was and who always looked and sounded like Katharine Hepburn, she was as versatile a performer as Hollywood has ever had. Her oeuvre is the home of some of the greatest comic performances committed to celluloid, and the same is true of her dramatic work. Her longevity and commitment to the form only add to her distinctiveness. Not that the Oscars are everything, but they do give a sense of how long she persisted in the biz. The first Oscar of her career came in her mid-twenties. The last Oscar (her record-setting fourth for acting) came in her mid-seventies. Forty-eight years separate Morning Glory and On Golden Pond, films in which her costars were the son of Douglas Fairbanks and the daughter of Henry Fonda. For multiple generations of Americans, Katharine Hepburn was the voice of talking pictures and the face who aged with them.
Hepburn could take that slight frame and reedy voice and project frailty, especially as a young woman. In Alice Adams, she plays one of the cringiest characters of the decade, a mealy wannabe social climber who reeks of effort scorned. The film technically has a happy ending—despite a series of nightmare encounters, Fred MacMurray still professes his interest in Hepburn at the finish—but Hepburn is brutal in this one. Alice is too earnest to really play for comedy. There is too much sweetness in the character for us to want to make fun of her, and so what we have instead is a performance that makes us dig our fingernails into the armrests for awkwardness. Alice, ashamed of her family’s financial insolvency (not least her brother’s inopportune carousing), takes every opportunity to pretend above her station. We’re introduced to her on a night where she wants to go to a fancy party, where she is instantly the worst-dressed person in the room and the one most devoid of social graces. I suppose the scene where MacMurray’s Arthur attends a dinner at the Adams’ near-shanty and nearly sweats to death while eating inedible dishes is a little bit funny, but it has a hard ceiling on it, a cap created by Hepburn’s ability to show a woman’s embarrassment via the varnish of polite conversation and insinuation. She’s got a similar weakness in her bearing in Holiday, a film which definitely leans more toward active humor than Alice Adams and which still signifies real sadness. Linda Seton, like her brother Ned (played by Lew Ayres), struggles with melancholy traceable to the impossible expectations of her patrician father. Linda and Ned seem most comfortable in the nursery as opposed to out and about with other people, the same kind of positively British shorthand that one finds in J.M. Barrie or Evelyn Waugh for those who refuse to grow up. Ned’s vice is alcohol, decidedly not one for children, where Linda seems emotionally stunted compared to her suave sister Julia. As is frequently the case for slightly off-kilter women in the ’30s and ’40s, Cary Grant proves to be the medicament for her ailments, but even that requires a reaching romance where the physical exertion is more in line with gymnastics than lovemaking.
In Mary of Scotland, her earliest foray into playing a historical figure, Mary is someone who loves not wisely but too well. In her only collaboration with John Ford (at a time when Scott Eyman hypothesizes that there was, at the very least, an emotional affair going on between actor and director), he shoots her lovingly, in ways that George Stevens or Howard Hawks did not. In this film, Katharine Hepburn is in the relatively rare position of playing the dish, and she lives up to the billing. A far cry from the smart women of her work with Spencer Tracy, Mary makes political mistakes over and over again because of her insistence on being loved by her people and living a life with the man she loves. It’s a genuinely modern performance, excepting a few stylized moments at the end of the film, but for the most part Hepburn is convincing and frustrating. Florence Eldredge plays a homelier Elizabeth than one typically sees in the pictures, and Eldredge plays the Virgin Queen as a sledgehammer compared her dainty and womanly cousin. Like Alice Adams and Holiday, Mary of Scotland depicts a cygnet Hepburn rather than swan. There’s a gangling quality in her in many of these ’30s pictures, not excluding Bringing Up Baby, and there’s a danger in Hepburn’s performances. Some of these women are offputting like Alice Adams or vexing like Mary Stuart; the genius of the psychotic Susan Vance is how those same grating qualities that one can find in Hepburn are magnified and turned into what we adore about her. The enunciated laughter, the manic aspect, the wild eyes make Susan the most infuriating waif in all of New England, and Hepburn is just unbelievable in the part. In our present time, where it seems like every Hollywood prestige movie is an unflinchingly focused character study or an ensemble picture bursting at the seams, I wonder if we would be able to appreciate Katharine Hepburn. She was at her best with someone, whether that was Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby or Spencer Tracy in, well, lots of stuff, but I’d take Adam’s Rib for the stunning competence of the character she plays.
Maybe it’s not so surprising, with that thought in mind, that she had a late-career renaissance. We don’t get to talk about her work in The Lion in Winter opposite Peter O’Toole because it’s British, but that leaves a number of films where she played someone’s wife. Hepburn as the wife who is better than her husband, even if she’s flawed herself, is who we come back to over and over again from the 1960s on. All three of her Oscar-winning roles from that period—Christina Drayton of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, and Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond—are mothers, but their motherhood is secondary in those pictures just as Hepburn was personally disinterested in having children. It’s the relationship with her husband that matters most. Guess Who’s Coming is a showcase for a dying Spencer Tracy and an entirely alive Sidney Poitier, but as the wife who comes to the moral decision well before her husband does, Hepburn gets to play that moral center she was always so good at playing even at the expense of pure wattage. The same is true in On Golden Pond, which is not much of a picture on its own but stands as a delightful showcase for old, cantankerous Hank Fonda. Once again, Hepburn plays the supportive wife with a better ear for her heart than her husband; once again, she makes a part which could not be much on the page and makes it indelible. The grace that one could not imagine in Alice mixed with the gentleness one finds in Mary are both present in Christina and Ethel. Hepburn is a better actor at this point in her career (perhaps peaking in an earlier British movie, Summertime), but the image has also changed. There’s maturation in the star image, if not necessarily in the woman behind it. My favorite film of hers that she’s in after 1960 is Long Day’s Journey into Night, an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play which maintains the unsparing bleakness of the original text. Long Day’s Journey culminates with Mary Tyrone, by now relapsed into a morphine habit which puts her on much the same basis as her alcoholic family, coming downstairs and speaking quietly in the mind of her younger self. The film ends with the men of her family looking at her (or, in the case of Dean Stockwell, looking down and away, unable to meet the intensity of her brokenness), speechless. Thus Hepburn at her best.