It is often easy to look at someone who has already exceeded in life and presume that their path was full of luck and simplicity. Even upon listening to any such figure’s own personal recounting, there is sometimes a voice inside that says, ‘yeah, you were able to do it, but that’s because you are you!’. Today in the competitive world of capitalism, especially in the west, the idea that there are enough spots for everyone to aspire to greatness is doubted, and instead, there is a belief that only through an often violent process, the best rises to the top. Unfortunately, stories of success that explore the many mistakes, failings, and even regression that some of the ‘greats’ experience, are not often portrayed authentically. Katherine Hepburn is a perfect example of the truth that, those who do not accept the scarcity of success always create a niche for themselves in society.
She was born into a progressive household with parents who each pursued unique and important goals, and created an atmosphere that encouraged discussion and debate. It was from this environment that Katherine learned to be powerfully herself in every regard. She pursued acting from an early age, starting with theatre and only much later, at the age of 25, got into film. Amazingly, it was only after her 3rd picture, Morning Glory, that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. This of course sounds like that standard tautology of successful people being successful. Though, once someone looks at all the details of Hepburn’s life, they start to see the nearly equal amount of failures, rejections, and career-ending situations that she navigated through, and each became an integral part to her legendary importance as both an actor and in her contribution to society.
From project to project, whether on film or in theatre, Katherine Hepburn constantly pushed herself into roles that were challenging, performances which demanded so much, and work in uncharted waters. Many of these turned out to be financial and critical flops, earning her many negative criticisms and dismissals by the public. Such might have been made worse because of the way that Hepburn handled herself. She did not do interviews or play into the popularity that actors were expected to create through the media. She was outspoken, which was unusual at the time for women, and she did things like wear pants, which no women were doing in her position at the time, not even in the fashion world.
It wasn’t until a famous interview she did on the Dick Cavett Show, that she started to warm up to the public and slowly realise that they were not her enemy. From early in her career she had experienced vary feelings from audiences and at one point had been termed ‘box office poison’, only a few years after winning her first Oscar for acting. She engineered her own comeback by buying her contract back from RKO, and sought out a story that captured everything she wanted to explore and express as a person. She put everything on the line and produced the theatre play and film production of The Philadelphia Story.
Her private life was as dramatic as her career, featuring a relationship with Howard Hughes and a 27 year love affair with actor Spencer Tracy. In every situation, whether personal or public, she was ferocious, spoke her truth, did not hide her identity whether hard or soft, and continued to act up into her 80s, always willing to step into the unknown and give it a shot. Katherine Hepburn is the only actor to win four Academy Awards for Best Actress/Actor, and remains one of the most important figures in cinema, having opened up the way for women to perform in more diverse, masculine, and feminist roles. Her story is one of incredible success, though also tempered by constant failure, and maybe this is why she remains such an intrepid and beloved figure in the history of film and of women who have advanced the cause.
Author: Jonathan M. Bessette