Rising to stardom in 1932, and continuing her ascent until winning her final Academy Award for Best Actress in 1981 for her performance in "On Golden Pond" -- beating out modern day legends in the form of Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, and Diane Keaton -- Katharine Hepburn formidably imposed her will on the film industry a year shy of five decades.
Remembered for being abrasively outspoken, and wearing trousers long before they were deemed fashionable for women, Hepburn's recalcitrant independence not only reshaped and altered the landscape of American Cinema but also changed the manner in which characters of the female mold were conceived of on the silver screen. Shifting the emphasis of onscreen narrative from the beauty of a woman's physical attributes, and prescribing more dignity towards the faculties comprising the feminine intellect, a beauty that helped amplify the former, Hepburn cemented herself as a cultural icon. Being dubbed by many of her admirers as 'the very epitome of the Modern Woman'. As the only actress to fill her trophy cabinet with four Oscars -- the pillars from which much of the splendor of her illustrious career springs -- Katharine Hepburn is hailed by audiences, critics, and scholars across ages and generations, as the greatest actress to have ever set foot on a movie set.
Although few dare to question the timelessness of Katherine Hepburn's legacy -- the only place worthy enough for history to remember her -- where the words and pictures adorning the lines and pages in the annals of memory begin to blur. Paving the way for interrogation is the matter concerning the perceived innate nature of the actress's acting prowess, and ability to beguile audiences when first glanced upon the latter of traits which many actresses of Hepburn's time were recruited almost exclusively for.
But similar to how she ignored what an actress was expected to do to become famous, Katharine Hepburn ignored, even defied, what an actress was expected to do to become an actress. Or perhaps, what an actress was expected to have -- an inborn talent of some sort, but most importantly, a physiologically transfixing, siren-like appeal.
Unlike Greta Garbo or Audrey Hepburn, actresses beloved for their ethereal elegance that allowed them to drift briskly back and forth from movie screen to movie screen, movie set to movie set with fluent grace, Katharine Hepburn was not a natural. Nor was she a pin-up girl on the level of Grace Kelly, or the iconic Marilyn Monroe and as a far cry from Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth, and Barbara Stanwyck -- all of whom had been performing as early as their early teens -- Hepburn did not take on her first role requiring the scrutiny of a grand audience until she entered college at Bryn Mawr as a double major in History and Philosophy.
With prominent cheekbones that bulged out like overgrown tomatoes, teeth so big they could barely fit behind her lips -- all of which were covered by skin blighted with freckles that made her resemble a 1930s version of Pippi Longstocking, any producer, agent, or studio executive would have been loath at best, to call her movie star material. A conclusion Hepburn's professors at Bryn Mawr would have concurred with. Although the would-be acclaimed actress possessed a first-rate intelligence well-nigh half a century ahead of her time, it was so far ahead that it seldom showed up on time to accompany Hepburn into class as she struggled with the college's scholastic demands. Since roles in college plays were predicated on academic standing, Hepburn was barred from participating until her grades improved. Her tenure at Bryn Mawr was further marred by a suspension for smoking in her room.
Nevertheless, Hepburn's zeal for acting was only matched by her willingness to pull every tooth and nailed she had on her toes and fingers to realize an ambition which many around her claimed sat as high as any cloud in heaven. She improved her grades, and in her senior year, played the lead role in a production of "The Woman in the Moon" before laboring in Broadway for four years when she was noticed by film agent Leeland Hayward after a successful debut in the play "The Warrior's Husband". Arriving in Hollywood in 1932, only a year would have to pass before Hepburn received her first Oscar for "Morning Glory".
Ironically, what was vital in maintaining the allure of Hepburn's prodigy was not winning an Academy Award in just her third film, a rare feat even by today's standards, but rather her academic approach in executing her acting craft. Shunning much of the Hollywood Publicity despite her fame (she was never present at any of the Academy Award ceremonies to claim any of her four Oscars), Hepburn stayed at home if she wasn't golfing or playing tennis. Stubbornly pulling all-nighters to not only make sure she knew her lines and beats but that she knew them well enough to transcend and stretch the boundaries of suspension of belief. If the quirks in DNA weren't going to award her with Joan Crawford's looks, or Greta Garbo's talent, Hepburn was going to have to grow her own, and hone it. And hone it she did. Until it her artistry grew to surpass Garbo's, until her silver screen presence was big enough and imposing enough, to not only rival Crawford's but cow it into submission.
When one watches Katharine Hepburn's movies -- scenes for "The African Queen" or "The Lion In Winter" -- one immediately notices her "study of acting" undertaking on full display. Her lines, her actions, are delivered beneath the grandeur of, if not a Shakespearean, then poetic command. But through her Victorian, but sound mastery, there also lingers the lack of a certain modish fluency. The very modishness, the very fluency, that allowed the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Greta Garbo to glide through every screen in every movie theater like the onset of a stroking, calming breeze. Startling audiences like rustling leaves in the fall. But for Katharine Hepburn, she was never allowed to glide. She had to study. To learn how she could remain. Longer than any leaf that disappears from memory against the brush of a current from passing time. To remain knowing full well she would have to pass with it.
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