“Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking … I don’t care how afraid I may be inside — I do what I think I should.”– Katharine Hepburn

Barbara Walters: “Kate, you always wear pants. Do you even own a skirt?”
Katharine Hepburn: “I have one, Miss Walters. I’ll wear it to your funeral.”

Dan and I discussed her, in my interview with him about his new book. He is very concerned about how the public sees her now, at least judging from the snarky comments left on Facebook posts when he put up images of her through her career. Dan said:

I was upset by the reaction to Hepburn on Facebook. If she was alive now, she’d know how to fix this perception of her. She’s not alive anymore, so we need to try to fix it for her. What needs to be done is that she needs to be recouped as a subversive figure. I feel like people are against her now because they feel like she lied to us. She was basically a lesbian, so they kind of have a point. There’s a kind of false quality to how she was promoted, particularly when she was an old lady.

This is trickier though. When I put up posts about Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando on Facebook, people went wild for them, and I feel like it’s partly because they’re so good-looking and sexy. I feel like the problem with Katharine Hepburn is a sex problem, and that was the case for her in the beginning too. People aren’t embracing her because she doesn’t care about sex on screen.

So I will do my part in trying to fix it for her. Here are some of the things I have written about her:

— For Capital New York back in the day, I wrote about the restoration of The African Queen.

— A long-ago “5 for the Day” on Slant about Hepburn, and I decided to focus on her work ethic and her appetite for taking risks. Really, it’s a piece about her ability as an actress – even as a giant star (which is rarer) for “taking an adjustment.” That’s an actor term. You play a scene a certain way. A director, if he/she is good, gives you “an adjustment.” “Play it more like this.” “Okay, try it again, but do it this way. Add a little more of this. Take away a little of that.” Often in audition situations, the casting director or director will give you an adjustment – not because you’re doing it wrong, but because they want to see how well you take direction. Hepburn was a master at “taking adjustments.” She knew, even as a great star, that she wasn’t perfect, and that when she needed help – she would take it. 5 for the Day: Katharine Hepburn

— And finally: I wrote the booklet essay for the Criterion release of Bringing Up Baby! I know that movie by heart, and yet I have never written at length about it, so it was a blast working on that.

Happy birthday, Miss Kate.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

This entry was posted in Actors, Movies, On This Day and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to “Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking … I don’t care how afraid I may be inside — I do what I think I should.”– Katharine Hepburn

  1. Just curious, but are people snarky about Hepburn the “person who lied to us because she didn’t share every last part of her personal life” or Hepburn the actress? Either way, I suspect the snarkers have a dead spot somewhere on their souls that we probably shouldn’t let bother us. I’m hardly the world’s biggest Katy fan, but put me in the camp who believes anyone who doesn’t respond to Bringing Up Baby, or The Philadelphia Story, or Stage Door, or The African Queen, or The Lion in Winter (just to name a few of the obvious) isn’t worth engaging with. I always assumed she was spiritually celibate no matter who she slept with….and who cares? She could go as deep inside a character as anyone without sacrificing her carefully built persona. In the history of movies, how many could do that? Ten? Twelve? And who’s to say the qualities she’s being slagged for now aren’t the very thing that made her part of such august company?

    Sorry to rant, but mass ignorance on social media sticks in my craw sometimes. Loved the whole conversation by the way. The book’s going on that endless list!

    • sheila says:

      This isn’t really about social media. or “mass ignorance.” The people who frequent Dan Callahan’s FB page are film scholars, cinephiles, authors, Hollywood obsessives. Hepburn was not universally beloved her FIRST time around either. She’s “not for all markets,” to quote Shakespeare – never was. And part of the point here is that Hepburn’s persona – sometimes icy, sometimes arch, sometimes artificial – (see Stage Door, Morning Glory, Alice Adams) – was not built to be endearing – not the way, say, Marilyn Monroe’s adorable persona was. And I love her all the more for it – for her absolute unconcern with softening herself up. It’s why she’s great. Hepburn worked hard to become more “relatable” – she knew the problem – nobody wanted to go see her movies because of it – and she could feel it herself. Philadelphia Story was basically built for her – but look at that story – look at how revealing it is: the snotty uppity Ice Queen Virgin finally gets taken off her self-built pedestal. The first shot shows her husband pushing her in the face so she topples over. And audiences WANTED to see her get taken down a peg. I love her, don’t get me wrong, but her persona is built to be somewhat off-putting – and Hepburn was aware of that at the time, and worked hard to be in projects where she would get to be human. But it wasn’t easy. As I wrote in that 5 for the Day – Hepburn had to be coached to give the performance she did in Bringing up Baby. What is miraculous is how perfect she was in it – she definitely took the coaching – but until the coaching sank in, she was condescending as hell to the material. But she always worked hard – she pushed herself. She never “coasted.”

      So that’s really the main aspect of this. The issues people have with her now are the very same issues that got her labeled “box office poison” in 1938.

      Like I say – she was always a favorite. She was one of my first favorite movie stars.

  2. Ah, I didn’ t understand the nature of Dan’s audience so mea culpa on that. I can understand Hepburn or anyone else not being everyone’ s cup of tea, but it sounds more like she’s getting no respect–which is both petty and insane (more so if she’s not getting it from scholars).

    But my own theory on why all that “box office poison” issue came up in the first place is that her specialty was intensity–which kind of scares people (especially coming from a woman). I haven’t seen Sylvia Scarlett, but in Mary of Scotland (Exhibit A in the box office poison meme), she’s adrift–not because she can’t play the scenes, she plays each scene perfectly. But there’s no connecting tissue. It’s like she’s playing four different people who don’t know each other. Give her a through line (like John Huston’s “Eleanor Roosevelt” advice in The African Queen) and she “got” it like nobody else. Like I say, I’m not nearly as invested in her as you or Dan–but I’d still defend her choices, personally and professionally, and still consider her as great as any screen actor, including those I do love.

    • sheila says:

      She could be very mannered – especially early on. And she played snobs – brilliantly, I might add – but it’s not the kind of thing an audience “warms up to.” and that’s fine, really! Not everyone is meant to be warmed up to. That’s why stuff like Bringing UP Baby and Holiday are so beloved – she’s so wonderful in these – and yet, of course, Bringing Up Baby was a huge flop at the time. Amazing to think!!

      Camille Paglia says that the closest American culture has come to worshipping an Artemis figure is Katharine Hepburn – which I think is pretty spot on. She’s not a normal person, she can’t be domesticated by marriage (which is why her pairing with Tracy doesn’t really work for me – although I love some of those movies. In those movies, she’s as good as he is at her job – but then there’s always some scene where she has to be taken down a peg, to reinforce his status – the “bumbling breakfast scene’ at the end of Woman of the Year is a particularly egregious example – although she’s totally adorable in it!!

      I know what you mean about Mary of Scotland – another film that didn’t really “go over” with audiences, if I recall correctly. Hepburn is tough! She was hugely talented but also limited – her persona wouldn’t “take” a million different variations. She wasn’t Bette Davis, who was a chameleon. She was always HER. and when the movie was worthy of her – and just let her BE – there’s no one like her.

      I am hopeful that Dan will write more about this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.