A Rare In-Depth Interview with the Great Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn was born 113 years ago today. I recognize that there may be other icons in Hollywood history who arguably had more of a range as an actor. I understand that there are some people who have never been fans of Hepburn’s particular style or affectations. I remember that there was a period of time, even after winning her first Academy Award, that she was deemed “box office poison” by motion picture distributors. None of that matters to me. Whenever I’m asked the question, “Who is your all-time favorite actress?” only one answer comes to mind every time: Katharine Houghton Hepburn of Connecticut.
Looking at her unprecedented four Best Actress Oscar wins that spanned half a century including Morning Glory (1934), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1968), The Lion in Winter (1969), and On Golden Pond (1984), we can debate which of her eight other nominations should have resulted in a win. Personally, I would have happily awarded her the prize for Woman of the Year (1942), The African Queen (1952), and Summertime (1956), but the loss that strikes me as one of the biggest travesties in Academy history, on par with Judy Garland failing to win the Oscar for A Star Is Born, is Hepburn’s loss in 1941 for what I would call a perfect performance in The Philadelphia Story. I love Ginger Rogers and think she was a wonderful actress, but sorry, Ginger, let’s just say Kitty Foyle doesn’t hold a candle to Tracy Lord.
Now that we’re stuck in quarantine on the anniversary of Katharine Hepburn’s birth, I can think of no better activity than watching her in action, from her debut performance opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) through all the wonderful Tracy-Hepburn films along with other personal favorites of mine including Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962) all the way to her amazing work later in her career in roles such as as Hecuba in The Trojan Women (1971), Eula opposite John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn (1975), and her excellent work in TV movies such as The Glass Menagerie, Love Among the Ruins, and The Corn Is Green.
Unlike most of the stars of her day, Katharine Hepburn was never one to participate in the publicity machine of the major studios which is part of the reason why such a mythology built up around her and why she often received negative press. While at MGM, I think only Greta Garbo got away with more flouting of the traditional relationship between the studio and its stars. Very few people on the lot ever managed to avoid submitting to the endless hours of command performances with the columnists of the day. But throughout her long life, Hepburn never suffered fools gladly and had zero interest in participating in many of the rituals that were considered par for the course if you were in that top echelon of movie stardom as she was for so many years. “If you always do what interests you,” Hepburn famously said, “at least one person is pleased.” It was that reticence to play the game that made her rare interviews and appearances all the more thrilling and unusual.
To mark Katharine Hepburn’s birthday, I plan on rewatching her utterly fascinating 1973 interview with talk show host Dick Cavett. I was a kid when this spectacular two-part interview first aired on TV and even then was enough of a classic movie fanatic to be glued to her every word. In my opinion, it is one of Cavett’s most remarkable interviews ever, and he interviewed hundreds of luminaries from all walks of life.
Even the way the interview happened was pure Hepburn. Dick Cavett, along with every other talk show host in town, had been trying to get Katharine Hepburn on his show for years. One afternoon in 1973, for reasons that he never completely understood, the woman who had been avoiding the press for most of her life and had never appeared on television agreed to simply come into Cavett’s studio to have a look. She wanted to see how it would feel to be on his set. She barreled in, in classic Hepburn fashion, commenting critically on the ugly carpet, the unmoving chairs, the lights, and other aspects of the set, and then shocked Cavett to the core by saying, “Why don’t we just go ahead and do it now?” To his credit, and to the thanks of all of us the world over, he immediately agreed, knowing that if he put it off, it was highly unlikely that she’d ever be in that studio again.
What followed was an utterly riveting and intimate interview about Hepburn’s life and career that ran over two successive nights. You can find the entire interview online and I strongly urge you to watch it, but to whet your appetite on this auspicious day, here are a few more delightful clips of Hepburn at her best.
Oh, man. Is it any wonder why this is my favorite actress of all time? Happy Birthday, Katharine Hepburn. We need you now more than ever!
–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub
Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the Stars. You can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller.