Sunday, February 05, 2006


The enduring legacy of Kate' Hepburn

“I’m irritating,” Katharine Hepburn once jokingly mused in what is perhaps the most emphatic snap analysis of both the actress and the woman. There is no denying something in the vein of an irritant about Kate the great. She gets under your skin.

Yet unlike the proverbial rash, we have loved every moment invested in the scratch. Kate Hepburn is the original displaced person. She didn’t follow the rules; she made them up as she went along. A volatile, asexual powerhouse – instantly recognizable and beholding to no one, she strangely enough has come to belong to us all as one of Hollywood’s most unique and original stars.

And although she was fond of saying that a woman should choose between a husband and a career, she disproved her own theory by developing a life long common law arrangement with frequent co-star, Spencer Tracy. That Tracy, a devote Catholic, remained a married man throughout their twenty-one year affair seems a moot point, especially in today’s climate of laisse faire sexual liaisons. The point herein is that neither suffered from their romantic détente. In fact, for a time theirs was a relationship galvanized into America’s favorite couple.

Hepburn came to us from affluence and privilege; handicaps that branded her “box office poison” in a Hollywood of flaxen-haired submissive girls on the side. When asked why she should not be considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, producer David O. Selznick rebutted, “because I can’t imagine anyone chasing after a woman for four hours and winding up with you.”

But Kate’s undaunted determination and stubborn perseverance ultimately triumphed over that auspicious start. Through sheer will power and a lot of hard work she won over the respect of her colleagues and the admiration of audiences. In the process she took home four Best Actress Oscar statuettes, making her the most celebrated female artist in the world to this day.

But exactly what is it about Kate that makes her so great? Is it the unmitigated defiance of those fundamental patriarchal values that defined her generation? Or is it the deviously clever way she manages to exploit stereotypes of femininity to her own advantage.

Perhaps the Hepburn mystique is best summed up in her conveyance of the old married lady “faithful as a bird dog and can’t be devious” - at least on the surface, yet always with that tender bit of playful petty larceny lurking beneath her Cheshire smile and wicked razor sharp wit. In the final analysis then, Katharine Hepburn is probably what most women would like to be; self-reliant and self-dependent. She is capable of doing it all on her own, yet smart enough to realize a solitary journey through life was not worth the taking.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).