It was at the end of the thirties when Katharine Hepburn was put on the list of actors considered “box office poison”: Back in 1937, the US press was still saying that Katharine Hepburn “is perhaps the best film actress”. It was a quick u-turn.
Katharine grew up in a liberal home and was encouraged to be optimistic about life. As Hepburn writes in her memoir, her father viewed professional acting as a lottery: Nevertheless, her father Thomas Hepburn supported her that she could get an education as a professional actress.
Box Office Poison
The branding “box office poison” is something actors don’t get rid of very fast in Hollywood: In addition to Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford were also targeted by the Independent Theatre Owners of America association, and all three were now heading for a career low.
The reason for the branding of the actresses were films that didn’t attract the audience: Flops.
But whether they were flops or not, the cinema owners had to pay rental fees to the studios, which had to be amortized: If the audience didn’t come, the cinema owners began to search for scapegoats. At the time, Katharine Hepburn was among those branded as “box office poison“, as she starred in a number of films that passed as flops.
There was only one way out of this impasse: a film had to be made that would re-establish Katharine Hepburn as an actress and attract audiences to theaters.
In 1935, during the filming of the movie Sylvia Scarlett, Katherine met the entrepreneur and aviation pioneer Howard Hughes: the two spent a lot of time together in the following years, Katharine learned to fly from him and Hughes continued to expand his business empire in the meantime.
In mid-1938, Katharine Hepburn received a call from playwright Philip Barry: he wanted to make a film of his play The Philadelphia Story. The play had not yet premiered. Howard Hughes, who knew business well, advised her to buy the film rights before the premiere.
The play’s premiere was a resounding success: starring Katharine Hepburn, it was performed a full 417 times on Broadway.
Eventually, Hughes bought the film rights to The Philadelphia Story for his girlfriend Katharine.
The film rights formed the basis for her later success.
One evening, Katharine Hepburn met L.B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: word had spread in the meantime that Katharine owned the rights to the film version of The Philadelphia Story. Mayer showed interest in filming the play and casting Hepburn in the lead role – as she had done in the play. Hepburn was also allowed to decide who would play the male leads and direct the movie. Hepburn chose George Cukor as director, and James Stewart and Cary Grant took the two male leads – a promising cast.
The film was a success: the press celebrated Katharine Hepburn’s comeback. Thus Hepburn had initiated her comeback herself – with the help of Howard Hughes.
In 1956, the play The Philadelphia Story was adapted again – but as a musical. The leading roles were played by Grace Kelly, for whom it was the last Hollywood film before her marriage to Prince Rainier III, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.
MGM studios quickly realized that Katharine Hepburn not only resonated with audiences in terms of acting, but could also make casting and marketing decisions successfully. In her next film, Woman of the Year (1942), Katharine Hepburn was first seen alongside Spencer Tracy: It was the beginning of a long-lasting partnership that went far beyond their professional activities and lasted until Spencer Tracy’s death in 1967.
In the following decades, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy became one of Hollywood’s most popular screen couples. The two played side by side in a total of nine films between 1942 and 1967.
Whether it was a comedy, a drama or a western, the two actors proved to be crowd-pullers who lured masses of people into the cinema. The last collaboration between Hepburn and Tracy Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) earned Hepburn an Oscar. In total, Katharine Hepburn won four Oscars during her career.
One of Katharine Hepburn’s most famous films to this day is African Queen (1951). In the adventure film, Hepburn starred alongside Humphrey Bogart. The adventure film is set in German East Africa during World War I. Charlie Allnutt (Humphrey Bogart), captain of the riverboat African Queen, embarks on an operation with missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) to sink an enemy battleship.
For his role in African Queen, Humphrey Bogart received an Oscar for Best Male Lead.
In the fifties, Katharine Hepburn broadened her horizon: She discovered Shakespearean roles for herself. Together with actress Constance Collier, Katharine developed an extensive Shakespeare repertoire.
Hepburn went on an American tour with the play As You Like It. In 1955, Hepburn rehearsed Shakespeare’s plays The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew and Measure for Measure with the company of the Old Vic Theatre in London. Katharine Hepburn toured Australia for six months with these productions and enjoyed great success.
In the historical drama The Lion in Winter (1968), Katharine Hepburn played Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of England’s King Henry II. The future James Bond actor Timothy Dalton made his cinema debut as King Philip II of France in this film.
The film was a hit: she won her third Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role. It was her second Oscar in a row, following her Oscar for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
In the western Rooster Cogburn (1975), she starred alongside cinema legend John Wayne.
Unique repertoire of roles
Katharine Hepburn remains an unsurpassed actress to this day: her twelve Oscar nominations have been surpassed only by Meryl Streep. Her repertoire of roles was enormously diverse: from the comedic society lady in The Philadelphia Story to the historically challenging role of Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hepburn covered numerous roles.
In 1991, Katharine Hepburn published her memoir Me – Stories of my life. The memoir became the subject of the 2002 one-woman play Tea at Five, starring Star Trek actress Kate Mulgrew as Katharine Hepburn.
In 1999, Hepburn was ranked number one on the American Film Institute’s Top 25 list of greatest female film stars.
Katharine Hepburn died on June 29, 2003 in her home state of Connecticut.
Main source: Katharine Hepburn’s memoir “Me — Stories of my life”, 1991 Heyne (German version)
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig