Had she lived, the late, great Katharine Hepburn would celebrate her 100th birthday on Saturday. Kate is one of my all-time favorite actresses (she is in a death match for my heart with that other Hepburn, Audrey). Growing up, as I began to wean myself on a smorgasbord of cinematic history, I found my palate attracted to actresses with an independent streak (think Garbo over Harlow). And they didn’t come more fantastically independent than Kate.
She embodied almost every quality I hold dear: intelligence, wit, strength, boldness, tenacity, sass, class, quirkiness and a propensity for wearing pants. For a woman who started her film career only a dozen years after women received the right to vote, she was the picture of progressiveness. Her love of trousers and her distaste for artifice made her an anomaly among the sleek screen beauties of the time.
That independence also got her branded as stubborn and difficult by some. She was famously dubbed “box office poison” by motion picture exhibitors. Well, if she is poison, then give me a friendly drop. Funny how history has a way of sorting things out. Kate went on to win more Oscars (four) for leading roles than any other actor or actress in history and, until Meryl Streep edged her out in 2003, had the record for the most nominations (12), too. If you haven’t seen any of her movies (and why on Earth not?), catch her in three powerful roles tonight as Turner Classic Movies wraps up a tribute in her honor: The African Queen; Suddenly, Last Summer; and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Since her death in 2003, stories have surfaced about her possible relationships with women. Her long-running partnership (both professionally and personally) with Spencer Tracy was already well-known. But whatever she did in private, her public persona made her an American original. It also served as proof positive that what makes you different often makes you great.