Strong-willed and independent
Hi, I'm Kat!
What I am most passionate about is to inspire you to see that your life is your own and biggest masterpiece.
When I think back of how I got to know Katherine Hepburn and what I imagined her to be – it will always be “Bringing up baby”, a movie from 1938. Hepburn played a heiress and Cary Grant an archeologist – and baby was a leopard .. or a cheetah, something with black spots, that’s for sure. And it was a screwball comedy with very witty and funny lines and Hepburn played a very air-headed heiress. Just funny and innocent and really great entertainment. Cary Grant in a fluffy short ladies’ dressing gown surely is worth the watch, I can tell you.
So, who was Katherine Hepburn? If you are like 35 years or older you might have caught her in one of her later movies where she usually shined as some version of a very stubborn, often grumpy, but good-hearted and wise older woman. And although my first encounter with her as the heiress that was bringing up baby, she actually was a really stubborn woman in reality and most of her movie roles. I want to quote Wikipedia because it is such a create summary of her:
She was known for her headstrong independence, spirited personality, and outspokenness, cultivating a screen persona that matched this public image, and regularly playing strong-willed, sophisticated women.
Yes, that is the Katherine Hepburn that I love and admire.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
SUBSCRIBE TO THE PODCAST
- She is known as one of the biggest actresses of movie history
- She is the woman that won the most oscars – in fact she is top of the list for both actors and actresses with four wins for Morning Glory (1933), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968) and On Golden Pond (1981).
- She is included in Row Horton and Sally Simmon’s book “Women who changed the world” and in the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s list of 300 women who changed the world
- In 1986, she received a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America because of her lasting influence on women’s fashion.
- Four of her movies are on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of all times.
Why has she won those accolades? With the words of one of her biographers, Sheridan Morley, She “broke the mould” for women in Hollywood.
To understand why she was the way she was, we need to look back at her life, so let me take you down memory lane.
The beginning and her way to Hollywood
She was born to two outstanding parents – her father a urologist at a hospital and her mother, Katherine Houghton Hepburn was a suffragette, so she was a woman fighting for women’s right to vote and who was best friends with Margaret Sanger, who coined the word “birth control” and was fighting for that together with the elder Hepburn already in 1910. Their American Birth Control League would later turn into Planned Parenthood. US, are you listening?
So, Katherine and her five sibling were growing up in a household that valued independence, individuality and equal rights for both genders. They were taught to speak their minds, to exercise their bodies – no matter whether girl or boy and no difference made – and to think for themselves. At one point, Katherine who was a tomboy at heart, even cut her hair short and wanted to be called Jimmy. So, this is a very different upbringing than most American or European kids and especially girls got in the beginning of the 20th century. And, of course, the family in general and Katherine as an individual faced backlash and adversity because they were different – and it taught her to fight back and to stand for what and who she was from an early age on. And Katherine loved movies and went to see one every Saturday night and she would put on plays for her family, for friends and for the wider neighbourhood – commanding some cents for entry. So, this is was her first step into the word of the stage. And it all seems very great and independent and ideal, but tragedy hit Katherine at a very young age, when her beloved brother died at the age of 15 from suicide – and she was the one finding him.
I actually did not know this for a long time and I truly feel with her – this is absolutely traumatic and must have impacted her greatly. This tragedy changed her on many levels – and turned her into a moody and anxious girl that did not trust anybody. She left school and was tutored at home, not comfortable around others. And she changed her birthday to the day of her brother – and celebrated his actually instead of hers. It was only when she published her memoirs that this secret was revealed.
After years of home-schooling she enrolled in college, which was a huge shift for her and definitely not easy. But there were school plays and acting and she LOVED it. Actually, the stellar reviews for one of her performances cemented Katherine’s wish to become a professional performer and actress.
The following four years after college, so 1928 to 1932 are what I call her forming years. This is when she actually became the woman we know today as Katherine Hepburn. During this time she got hired and fired multiple times for different reasons – for her shrill voice, for being to nervous, stumbling over her feet, not being talented enough, for having objectionable manner, for not looking food enough, not being liked by the producers. Again and again and again. And you know what? She always continued. Found a voice coach, trained with acting coaches, searched for other roles – she never gave up. Until she starred in The Warrior’s Husband – a role that fit her perfectly and emphasised all her trademarks, her athleticism, her energy, her movements. And it was her entry ticket to Hollywood. She was offered a part opposite John Barrymore, who was a megastar back then, but she was holding her own and did a fabulous job that cemented her way to stardom. She did several movies including Little Women (the original, not the one with Emma Watkins) and was already a star.
The great fall
But then, as all things go, she suffered major career setbacks with two of the worst perfomances of her career in Spitfire and in the stage play The Lake. Returning back to the screen, she made four unsuccessful movies in a row, which in Hollywood terms is deadly.
More problematic even was her attitude in her private life – she did not like the media, was rude to them, denied interviews and would not give autographs. Apparently she was nicknamed Katherine of Arrogance – a play on words with Katherine of Aragon if you need a little history reminder.
So, she got back on the theatre stage for Jane Eyre, which was quite successful. And when she got back to Hollywood she actually wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the wind, but the producer actually told her that she had no sex appeal and that he “can’t see Rhett Butler chasing her for twelve years.”
Instead, she starred in Stage Door, which brought her an Academy Award nomination, but was no commercial hit as was Bringing up baby, which bombed at the box offices. So, all in all, six unsuccessful films and Katherine was put on the infamous list of “box office poison”. This list had been published by the Independent Theatre Owners of America in and ad that featured stars like Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. Her career was at a low and she bought her way out of her contract with RKO that she was signed with. Afterwards she was offered roles for a wage that was way below what she had earned at the beginning. A really high fall.
Reinventing and becoming
But, if one thing, Katherine was resilient. She took power back in her own hands, looking for a project that would redeem her and make her shine in her old glory. And that project was The Philadelphia Story, which she first starred in on the stage and later in the movie. That movie brought her immense power, because she had the movie rights to the play, bought for her by her then-lover Howard Hughes. She got to decide on the co-stars and the production – it was her movie through and through. And it was her big comeback. She had learned that the people did not like her and that she needed to make a fool of herself in the movie and take the high road – and it paid off big time – commercially and critically. And it started a string of successful movies with new studio MGM which signed her with a star contract and during which she got to know and love Spencer Tracy.
At age 43, basically retirement age for most actresses, Katherine Hepburn got really into her own groove and expanded her repertoire and who she was was a performer. On stage in Shakespearean plays she was a huge hit as well with her first Technicolor production in African Queen. In the coming years she would oscillate between stage and movies and took time off intermittently to recharge when her MGM contract was fulfilled. She actually found her niche in playing the maiden-aunt, the unmarried older woman. She took a break from acting caring for Spencer Tracy who was extremely ill and did not work for five years. Her comeback-movie was “Guess Who’s coming to dinner”, which starred Spencer Tracy and her as well as her actual in real life niece Katherine Houghton and Sidney Poitier. Tracy died two weeks after production ended and Hepburn received her second Academy Award for the performance. The next performances were chosen based on what fascinated Hepburn personally and she evolved as a performer with each part. And a part that surprised me was Katherine Hepburn as Coco Chanel in a musical called Coco. She had the starring role and actually was loved by the public. She even got a Tony Away nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
After that she did some movies and stage plays that she was interested in, that stretched her but did not have a major commercial or critical success. She even hung up her acting hat when her tremors and shaking head could not be disguised anymore. Until she saw the Broadway production of On Golden Pond. Jane Fonda had bought the rights to the movie for her father Henry Fonda and Katherine played opposite him. It earned her her fourth Academy Award and was a testament to her boundless energy and vigour.
Why she is admirable
What I find fascinating about Katherine Hepburn are mainly two things:
1) Her resilience and dedication to what she wanted
Before she actually had any success, she got dismissed and fired for having a shrill voice, for being not pretty enough, for talking to fast, for having no talent. She always went back to take another course, to learn more, to become better. She was one resilient lady. After four years, she eventually got the role that was her breakthrough moment. FOUR YEARS. She might not have had the intuitive talent as an actor, but she trained and tried and repeated – that’s why she got better and better over time and bloomed into the star that she is regarded as today. And that is what we need to remember: We can make our lives. We just need determination and resilience. Tons of it.
2) Her unreliable and unshaken belief that she as a woman is the maker of her own life – and that she does not have to conform to anything or anyone.
- She did not want to have children, because she believed it to be a full-time role that she could not commit to.
- She wore trousers long before this was acceptable for women and loved to go barefoot
- She was in a long-term relationship with Spencer Tracy although he was married to another woman and never demanded him to divorce. She actually did not attend his burial ceremony out of respect for the family – although she was the one who had taken care of him for five years before his death.
- She never re-married after a college love that was quickly over and divorced
- She publicly voiced her opposition against the anti-communist movement in Hollywood which resulted in her not getting offers for an extended period
- She fought for birth control – legacy of her family.
4) Her learning curves
She became a better actress with age and trained and worked on her repertoire, but she also became more empathetic with what the public wanted. She understood her public reception and what she could do to make these two work. She really came into her own, she matured and did so with vigour and energy that is unparalleled.
5) Her humility and humanity
She apparently had a photo of one of her worst performances attached to her bedroom wall to always stay humble. And although she did not believe in god, she had the right attitude towards life as pointed out in an interview with Ladies Home Journal in 1991: “I’m an atheist, and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know, except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.”
I think she really was an extraordinary person.
From her style and demeanour to her views on the world and how she evolved.
I think we can all look up to her and learn from her.
With all my love!