Friday, December 9, 2005
Katharine Hepburn will long be remembered as Hollywood’s greatest actress. Although many people will not remember she led a rich and interesting life. She was an immensely complicated, intelligent, and driven individual. Additionally, she was the Antichrist.
The daughter of her urologist doctor father Thomas Norval Hepburn and suffragette namesake mother Katharine Houghton, Katharine was an athletic tomboy as a child, and was very shy around girls her age. She was largely schooled at home. She did attend Bryn Mawr College, however, and it was here that she decided to become an actress, appearing in many of their productions. After graduating, she went on to perform in several plays on and off Broadway. She finally broke into stardom with the lead role of the Amazon princess Antiope in "A Warrior's Husband" (1932). Film offers followed. RKO signed her to a contract. She made five films between 1932 and 1934. For her third, Morning Glory (1933) she won her first Academy Award. Her fourth, Little Women (1933) was the most successful picture of its day.
However, stories of her refusal to play the Hollywood Game, always wearing slacks and no makeup, never posing for pictures or giving interviews, soon leaked out. There was even a largely held rumor that she walked around the studio in her underwear in the early 1930s when the costume department stole her slacks from her dressing room. She refused to put anything else on until they were returned.
Many audiences turned their backs on such behavior and accordingly, so did Hollywood. A brief stint back on Broadway, followed by several lackluster films and she was soon labeled “box-office poison”. It was then that she made a pivotal change in her life. Instead of compromising her principles, she took the lead in “The Philadelphia Story” (1938) on Broadway. It was a smash hit. She quickly purchased the film rights and negotiated her way back into the Old Boy’s Network which was Hollywood in the 30s and 40s. It was on her terms. She was her own woman.
The suffragette upbringing in a liberal family environment forged a set of values and standards she lived her life by. When one is asked what memorable qualities of hers they are familiar with, her accent and mannerisms will be high on the list. Yet secondarily, almost no one will forget her crossdressing. Sure, her wearing of slacks in an age when it was not fashionable is hardly crossdressing. However, if her reasons for wearing pants are explored, you will find it stems from a desire of gender equality. Her love of all sports from tennis to archery to golf and skiing, proved to the world, she was comfortable in a man’s woman. For her, equality was genderless.
As the twentieth century’s leading gender bender, Katharine Hepburn is the Antichrist. Hyperbole as it may be, she set the tone for a movement in American culture, aided by Rosie the Riveter in WWII, and the auspicious Gloria Steinem in the 60’s and 70’s. Today’s feminism movement can trace its roots in celluloid back to The Great Kate. Modern lesbians owe a large portion of their acceptance in society to Katharine of Arrogance. Ironically, she accomplished this without destroying the paradigm society’s perception of women. Women were still allowed to be the fairer sex. Soft, warm, loving and nurturing, the female role model was not destroyed, yet remarkably enhanced. It is because life imitates art in our society that Ms Hepburn will always be a hero to me. Her decision to live her life, according to her rules was the true catalyst to today’s current gender expression.
You may feel my labeling of Katharine Hepburn as the Antichrist is a poke at the religious right. This is not quite the case, although no one is safe from lampooning. Her values and positions on gender equality are, by today’s standards, moderate to somewhat conservative. She will live on forever through the little screens of American Movie Classics (AMC) and Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Yet for some of us, her pioneering spirit, grit and perseverance needs no electronic reminders. The “mark of this beast” is on the labels hanging in my closet.