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It was her defining role: life

Katharine Hepburn's strong sense of self caught people's attention and helped redefine perceptions about women.

July 01, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

"She came out of an era when there were other strong women -- Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford," says screenwriter and former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Faye Kanin. "Other women play wallpaper around men, but they never did. And even among those strong women, Kate was unique. I loved that when I called her on the telephone, she answered. No secretary, no assistants, just Kate."

"George Cukor always said the most extraordinary thing about her was that she didn't ask to be loved, or even liked," says Gavin Lambert, co-author of "On Cukor." "She was naturally independent; she treated men as equals but she had great humor about it. She was a feminist without saying it all the time, which was a relief. And she was capable of sacrificing for a man, which of course she did, for Spencer Tracy."

"There was not an ounce of self-pity in her," he adds. "She believed in looking life in the eye and not having any illusions, which many of her contemporaries could not do, and that destroyed them. People came to admire her fearlessness."

It would be disingenuous to call Katharine Hepburn humble or even modest. She was an actress, after all. It never occurred to her that, after making her decision to become famous, that it might not work out. In "Me," she speaks candidly of her early marriage to Ludlow Smith, whom she promptly dumped the moment her career took off. "I was a pig. It was all me me me."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 02, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Screenwriter's name -- The first name of screenwriter Fay Kanin, a former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was misspelled as Faye in an appreciation of Katharine Hepburn in Tuesday's Calendar.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Katharine Hepburn -- A July 1 Calendar section photograph of Katharine Hepburn on the set of the movie "Grace Quigley" was identified as a file photo. It should have been credited to photographer Carol Bernson.

And the idea that she could afford to turn her back on Hollywood is true only in the literal sense. She left Hollywood during those "poisoned" years, but she went to Broadway. She didn't, for example, enroll in pre-med at Yale or become a social worker. She could walk away from the screen, but not from the work.

In feminist terms, she was complicated as well. Certainly she stood up for herself, on and off screen, and was outspoken in promoting birth control and other liberal causes. She is considered an astute businesswoman, with the ability not only to play to her strengths but also to convince others -- directors and screenwriters -- to play to them as well. Her film career was salvaged by her procuring the film rights to "The Philadelphia Story," but Howard Hughes, her then beau, picked up the tab.

More important, many of her movies involve her character being taken down a peg, or two pegs, being reminded that the most important thing a woman can do is love and stand by her man. "She had to do some kind of self-abasement," says Haskell, "to stay on the good side of the audience. She was beautiful and upper-crust, men felt she was intimidating, she had to give them something. 'The Philadelphia Story' was written for and about her, and it's really quite mean. It shows you all the contortions a woman has to go through to have a full life."

In later years, Hepburn dismayed many feminists by saying often that she didn't think women could "have it all," that she could not have had her career if she had chosen to remarry or have children.

"I don't know if I would call her a feminist icon," says Robin Morgan, founding editor of Ms. magazine. "She considered her mother the real feminist. But she was a remarkable role model in that she was a full human being, an artist, a career woman, and clearly she had a real love life. She was her own woman when that simply wasn't done."

"She knew how to pick herself up," says Lambert. "On her own terms. Very few of [her peers] knew how to do this and that's why they did not survive. I remember she once said to me, 'Have you ever noticed how the egomaniacs never stay the course?' She stayed the course."

And perhaps that's why it's hard to think of Katharine Hepburn in the past tense. Because even now, she still very much is.

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