From the moment she first stepped on to the sun-kissed streets of Hollywood back in 1932, so the story goes, Katharine Hepburn asserted herself as an actress unlike any who had wandered into Tinseltown before. Having been offered her first ever film role, starring alongside John Barrymore in RKO’s A Bill of Divorcement, an unknown Hepburn didn’t ask but demanded the studio pay her $1500 a week; a substantial sum for a nameless actress. Persuaded by the high praise of director George Cukor, the then head of RKO David O. Selznick agreed to Hepburn’s terms, signing her for the role and eventually offering her a long-term contract. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over the course of her staggering 66-year career in acting, Hepburn established herself as one of Hollywood’s greatest heroines. Despite being labelled as “box office poison’ while in the prime of her profession, she went on to conquer the industry that cruelly came close to disowning her.
It was arguably in the latter half of her professional life that Hepburn truly challenged herself with more dramatically profound roles, such as in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond. However, it is her earlier films that many remember Hepburn for. She channelled her own experiences to augment her own success in the magnificent Morning Glory, deftly defined the character of Jo March in Little Women, and audaciously orchestrated her own comeback by starring in the sublime societal comedy The Philadelphia Story.
Hepburn will always be celebrated for her performances, but it was her spirit and independence that forever immortalized her in the pantheon of Hollywood greats. Away from and in front of the camera, Hepburn established herself as a feminine icon of film. She pioneered female fashion by radically wearing trousers at a time when it wasn’t considered acceptable to do so, and defied convention by justly defending her right to personal privacy. On the screen meanwhile, she symbolized herself as the embodiment of the modern woman by exclusively playing sharp, confident and intelligent characters that were far removed from the weak-willed and ditsy damsels in distress so common within classic Hollywood cinema.
Though it may now be over a decade since she passed, the legacy of Hepburn’s extraordinary career lives on. And to recognise all that she achieved, the BFI are celebrating Hepburn’s memory with a retrospective that encompasses all periods of her phenomenal life. Having kicked off at the beginning of February with one-off screenings of her earliest films, and running all the way through to the middle of March, this is the perfect opportunity to reacquaint yourself with the best work of this fantastic filmic figure and be introduced to the little known gems you’re less likely to know of. There are many greats to choose from, but just in case you’re after a few pointers, here’s our list of the five films to see during this fantastic season of film.
Bringing Up Baby (1938) – 19th February
At the time of its release, Bringing Up Baby yielded little by the way of financial returns and confirmed Katharine Hepburn as “box office poison”. Nowadays though, it is rightly considered to be one of the highlights of Hepburn’s filmography. Howard Hawks’ splendid screwball comedy, which concerns the hunt for a missing pet leopard, may become a little too chaotic as it progresses. But a quick-witted script and Hepburn’s charming chemistry with Cary Grant brilliantly bolsters it.
The Philadelphia Story (1940) – 13th February to 14th March
The Philadelphia Story was, and always will be, the indelible highlight of Hepburn’s career. It was the film that saved the actress’ ailing reputation, boasting big box office returns and celebrated by the critics. On the surface it’s a farcical and flawlessly played romantic comedy, with Hepburn’s socialite Tracy Lord drawn in to the middle of a love triangle involving Carey Grant, Jimmy Stewart and John Howard. However, what makes George Cukor’s sparkling film glisten so brightly is the scripts’ astutely observed satirical swipes aimed at the higher class of society and exploitive journalists, which are as timely today as they were 75 years ago
The African Queen (1951) – 17th, 24th, 25th & 28th February
Hepburn’s first film to be shot in Technicolor is also one of her most universally adored. It was at this point of her career that Hepburn found a niche playing strong-willed middle-aged spinsters, and Rose Sayer was the cinematic emblem of Hepburn’s sharp and confident screen image. The love story that develops here between Sayer and Humphrey Bogart’s drunken steamboat captain may occasionally send the film slightly adrift, but with the hot and humid on location cinematography and superb central performances this is still a voyage that’s well worth embarking upon!
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – 12th & 13th March
Back when Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was being made, interracial marriage was still illegal in some US states. Stanley Kramer’s astonishing film, which became a huge box-office hit in 1968, was a brave attempt to tackle this touchy subject. Its pious racial politics may no longer be relevant, but the importance of the film is impossible to ignore. The performances are first rate, with Sidney Poitier practically stealing the show. But it’s Spencer Tracy’s bold and elegant closing speech on the nature of life and love that sticks in your mind, not least because this was the final time he collaborated with Hepburn (whom he shared a long and secretive love affair with) on the screen.
On Golden Pond (1981) – 17th & 18th March
This sweet and tender tale of an aging couple battling the inner changes that come from growing old is lifted by the two superb central performances from Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, and a wit that glistens like the sun as it rises over the eponymous pond. Sadly though, the story distractingly strays in to the realms of melodrama far too often, which weakens the impact of the film as a whole.