"I don't know what it is, but I've got it."
—Katharine Hepburn, when asked what "star quality" consists of
Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907 - 2003) was, according to the American Film Institute, the greatest female star ever to grace American cinema.
Katharine Hepburn, or "The Great Kate," had quite possibly the longest starring career ever seen in Hollywood. Her first film, A Bill of Divorcement, hit theaters in 1932; her last, Love Affair, was released in 1994. For those who hate math, Hepburn was a big-screen regular for six decades.
Her first real success was in the 1933 release of Little Women, playing Jo March; Hepburn broke box office records as the feisty, red-haired heroine. Before Little Women was ever released, however, she had already won her first Oscar. She wouldn't win her next for over thirty years, but when she did, she went an unheard-of three for three on her last three nominations, nominated (and winning) in 1967, 1968 (one of only two actresses to win back-to-back), and 1981.
After Little Women, Hepburn unfortunately hit a rough patch. For a number of years, she was given unsuitable roles by RKO, in films such as The Little Minister, Mary of Scotland, Sylvia Scarlet, and Quality Street. Even parts well-regarded now, such as her turn as the title character in Alice Adams, Susan Vance in Bringing Up Baby, Terry Randall in Stage Door (which provided her Signature Line, "The calla lilies are in bloom again..."), and Linda Seton in Holiday failed to break her reputation as "box office poison." However, 1939 marked her triumphant return as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story. A long string of memorable films followed, among them The African Queen (opposite the legendary Humphrey Bogart), Long Day's Journey Into Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Lion in Winter. She also made nine films -- largely romantic comedies -- with Spencer Tracy, whom she met on the set of their first film, Woman of the Year. The couple became romantically involved during that film and, in spite of Tracy's marriage to another woman whom he refused to divorce, remained together until Tracy's death in 1967. Hepburn categorically refused to watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, their last film together, because the memories of Tracy were too painful for her.
Hepburn is famous for winning four Oscars out of twelve nominations, all for Best Actress. Her next closest competitor, the great Meryl Streep, has seventeen nominations under her belt -- fourteen for Best Actress, three for Best Supporting Actress -- and three wins, two for Best Actress and one for Best Supporting Actress. (Ingrid Bergman has also won three Academy Awards, but only two of them were for Best Actress.) Frances McDormand has won four Academy Awards out of seven nominations as of 2021, with three of the wins for Best Actress and the other for Best Picture... but she's still an active actress, so it might only be a matter of time before she matches Katharine Hepburn's record.
Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Hepburn in the Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, making Hepburn the only Oscar winner to be played by someone who would win an Oscar for the role.
She was also noted for:
- Never attending the Oscar ceremony as a nominee (she did attend as a presenter in 1974).
- Rarely, if ever, wearing skirts or dresses offscreen -- she preferred slacks.
- And this was long before it was widely common or acceptable for women to do so... legend has it that one studio tried to force her to wear skirts by confiscating all of her slacks while she was out of her trailer. She responded by walking around the set in her underwear until she embarrassed the studio into giving them back.
- Being tart and abrasive, which led some of her Hollywood detractors to nickname her "Katherine of Arrogance."
- Writing a best-selling book, The Making of The African Queen: or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, a memoir of her time making the eponymous film.
- Her striking face and auburn hair.
- Her height -- she was one of Hollywood's tallest leading ladies to date at 5'7".
- Making a lot of films with George Cukor, with whom she got on famously.
- Being something of a Deadpan Snarker.
No, she's not related to Audrey Hepburn. (She was from across the pond.)
- A Bill of Divorcement, as Sydney Fairfield (1932)
- Christopher Strong, as Lady Cynthia Darrington (1933)
- Morning Glory, as Eva Lovelace, her first Academy Award-winning rôle (1933)
- Little Women, as Jo March (1933)
- The Little Minister, as Babbie the Gypsy (1934)
- Alice Adams, as the title character (1935)
- Sylvia Scarlett, as the gender-bent eponymous Sylvia/Sylvester (1935)
- Mary of Scotland, as Mary, Queen of Scots (1936)
- Quality Street, as Phoebe Throssel (1937)
- Stage Door, as Terry Randall (1937) -- As noted, provided her Signature Line, spoken as a character in a play. The full speech runs:
The calla lilies are in bloom again -- such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day, and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.
- Bringing Up Baby, as Susan Vance (1938) -- The first of her three films with Cary Grant
- Holiday, as Linda Seton (1938) -- The second of her films with Cary Grant
- The Philadelphia Story, as Tracy Lord (1940) -- The third of her films with Cary Grant
- Woman of the Year, as Tess Harding (1942) -- The first of her nine films with Spencer Tracy
- Dragon Seed, as Jade Tan (1944) -- In a very unconvincing Yellowface role.
- Song of Love, as Clara Schumann (1947) -- A Biopic of German composer Robert Schumann
- State of the Union, as Mary Matthews (1948) -- The fifth of her films with Spencer Tracy
- Adam's Rib, as Amanda Bonner, one of a married couple of contending lawyers (1949) -- The sixth of her films with Spencer Tracy
- The African Queen, as Rose Sayer (1951)
- Pat and Mike, as Patricia Pemberton (1952) -- The seventh of her films with Spencer Tracy
- The Rainmaker, as Lizzie Currie (1956)
- Desk Set, as Bunny Watson (1957) -- The eighth of her films with Spencer Tracy
- Suddenly, Last Summer as Violet Venable (1959)
- Long Day's Journey Into Night, as The Alcoholic Mary Tyrone (1962)
- Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, as Christina Drayton (1967) -- The ninth and last of her films with Spencer Tracy -- The second of her Academy Award-winning parts
- The Lion in Winter, as Eleanor of Aquitaine (1968) -- The third of her Academy Award-winning roles
- She's descended from Eleanor, both through Eleanor's marriage to the King of France (Louis VI) and Eleanor's later marriage to the King of England (Henry II).
- The Madwoman of Chaillot, as Countess Aurelia (1969) -- The first of a series of revivals of classic plays, done mainly for television
- The Trojan Women, as Hecuba (1971)
- The Glass Menagerie, as Amanda Wingfield (1973) (TV)
- Love Among the Ruins, as Jessica Medlicott, opposite fabled actor Laurence Olivier (1975) (TV)
- Rooster Cogburn, as Eula Goodnight, with legendary screen He-Man John Wayne as the eponymous bounty hunter (1975)
- The Corn is Green, as Lilly Moffat (1979) (TV)
- On Golden Pond, as Ethel Thayer, with classic Hollywood leading man Henry Fonda (1981) -- Her fourth and last Academy Award-winning part
- Love Affair, as Ginny (1994) -- Her last cinematic release
- One Christmas, as Cornelia Beaumont (1994) (TV)
- Bifauxnen: Sylvia Scarlett
- Mid-Atlantic Accent: One of the classic examples from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
- One of the Boys: She grew up like a boy, insisting that people call her Jimmy.
- Shorttank: To most of the men she co-starred with. Especially Spencer Tracy.
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: She is the tomboy. The other Hepburn is the girly girl.
- Those Two Actors: She and Spencer Tracy.