Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003)

There is a famous story about the making of the film adaptation of Tennessee William’s notorious Suddenly, Last Summer that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn, as Violet Venable was so obsessed with her dead son, Sebastian, that she wants to have her niece (Taylor) lobotomized rather than have it revealed that he was homosexual.

Apparently Hepburn was clueless that this was a film about homosexual lust and the director, Joseph Mankiewicz, and screenwriter, Gore Vidal, had to explain it to her.Meanwhile, she nailed the role as the disturbed, evilly controlling mother.

This bizarre episode butts up against the image of independent thinking Hepburn – that Connecticut feminist Yankee who routinely seduced Hollywood’s leading men- Spencer Tracy, Gary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart. In her real life, Hepburn followed in the footsteps of her mother as an independent thinker, one who pioneered reproductive freedom and the right to vote for American women.

During the 30s, at the height of the strict studio system that made and crushed careers, Hepburn challenged studio moguls and made it work for her. She grew as a businesswoman, commanding salaries and negotiating roles at a time when it was just not done. She was a symbol of a true American original who could accomplish anything.

As an actress, Hepburn’s career spanned decades and her range was legendary, playing everything from Americana waifs and debs (Little Women, Holiday) to Royals (Mary, Queen of Scots, The Lion in Winter) even while her roles were always secondary to her real persona. Take, for instance, Gregory LaCava’s 1937 campy classic Stagedoor in which Hepburn perfected the screen ingenue, uttering the line "The calla lillies are in bloom again."Cast opposite gay icons Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, and Ginger Rogers, she played broadly, if autobiographically, the daughter of a wealthy businessman who wants a career in the theater with no prior training Gay and lesbian audiences lapped it up, then, as now.

Contrast that with her brilliant interior performance as Mary Tyrone, the drug-addicted, doomed heroine in the screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s classic A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Both films have lasting blanket appeal to both lesbians and gay men for a host of reasons that are brilliantly obvious over the span of time.

Hepburn emerged in a category by herself in the heyday in such screwball comedies as Bringing Up Baby with bi-sexual superstar Grant who uttered the famous line, "I’ve turned gay all of the sudden!"For gay audiences, along with Judy Garland, Hepburn inadvertently developed an androgynous image in such roles as the cross-dressing Sylvia Scarlet.After being victimized by studio machinations and being branded "box office poison" in the marketplace, Hepburn refused to be ignored.She starred on Broadway in Philip Barry‘s The Philadelphia Story, purchasing the rights to star in the film and ever after piloted her own career.

In the 40s and 50s, Hepburn launched a classical stage and film career, transitioning beautifully, at a time in her career when most stars would retreat to predictable vehicles that would showcase them. Among other things, she tackled Shakespeare onstage while in her 50s, at the same time becoming the first lady of American cinema, eventually nominated 12 times as best Actress and winning a record four times.

Yet, there was so much more. She stood with her colleagues Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall during the trials of the Hollywood ten, screenwriters and directors called before the Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House on Un-American Activities Committee in protest of their unconstitutional Senate investigations, without risk of guilt by association. Hepburn made The African Queen with Bogart and carved an equally tough-minded authority as a liberal thinker that made her a unique screen icon, respected by all.

Her romance with Spencer Tracy, played onscreen in nine films starting with Woman of the Year and ending with Guess Who‘s Coming To Dinner, is the stuff of Hollywood legend.Indeed, Hepburn was a hero to all of America. Meanwhile, both gay men and lesbian women loved her equally, if for different reasons, and even if she didn’t acknowledge that special appealIt’s impossible to recall all of Hepburn’s impact on our culture, our minds and our hearts.

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Philadelphia, PA
Lewis Whittington writes about the performing and film arts for many publications. He is a renegade dance, theater and opera queen, a jazz-head and a civil activist.