- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

News reports of the death of Katharine Hepburn last Sunday, at the age of 96, found it convenient to identify her as the only movie star who won four Academy Awards. Admirers can only shake their heads at this misleading distinction, since Miss Hepburn was a notorious no-show at the annual Oscar ceremony despite accumulating 12 nominations and four awards as best actress.

Although a remarkable adornment to Hollywood during a starring career that endured for half a century, Katharine Hepburn was a celebrated, patrician maverick rather than a willing participant in certain rites of the profession, including Oscar campaigns. Friends volunteered the suggestion that she was averse to the competitive nature of the Oscar process, and it’s true that she never encouraged eligible voters to rally to a Hepburn candidacy.

Her absences weren’t limited to the Academy Awards. She remained a holdout for the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, which requires the presence of the honoree. It took a couple of decades before she finally agreed to be a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 1990.

Louella Parsons, Hollywood’s reigning gossip columnist at the time, took Miss Hepburn, a 26- year-old newcomer to the colony, to task for not only skipping the occasion of her first win — for “Morning Glory” in the 1932-33 awards cycle, when there were only three finalists in the acting categories — but also failing to send an appropriate telegram of appreciation. “Someone at RKO realized this and sent one,” according to Miss Parsons. “Katy was not very gracious.”

A much older Katharine Hepburn was prepared with telegrams or gracious statements when winning decades later for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “The Lion in Winter” and “On Golden Pond.” George Cukor, who directed many of her best movies, relayed an astute response after the 1967 ceremony. Her Oscar for “Dinner” was widely assumed to be a sentimental gesture honoring her and the late Spencer Tracy for their farewell co-starring vehicle. “I’m very touched,” avowed Miss Hepburn. “I’m not sure if it was a tribute to my dramatic ability or rather a showing of friendship to Spence and me. But I’m glad I won it for Spence … I feel I have received a big, affectionate hug from my fellow workers. They don’t usually give these things to the old girls, you know.”

Having been subtly reminded that there had been a 35-year gap between first and second Academy Awards for Katharine Hepburn, the overcompensating membership promptly added a third the next year, when the best actress finals proved a photo-finish between Miss Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter” and Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.” Old Girl and Old Boy sentiment accounted for Miss Hepburn’s final Oscar, for “On Golden Pond,” the geriatric tear-jerker in which she co-starred with Henry Fonda.

It’s tempting to rewrite Academy Award history to more accurately reflect the high points in Katharine Hepburn’s career. For starters, it’s not unreasonable to regard that first Oscar for “Morning Glory” as a fluke, albeit a defensible fluke. The competition would have been stronger, but for three questionable omissions — Miriam Hopkins in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble in Paradise,” Marie Dressler in “Dinner at Eight” and Irene Dunne in “Back Street.” But Miss Hepburn’s first major hit, an adaptation of “Little Women” directed by George Cukor, was also working in her favor during 1933, and “Morning Glory” remains a fascinating showcase for a fresh and unique personality.

Miss Hepburn was cast somewhat to type as an avid young actress named Eva Lovelace. “You like it? I could change it if you don’t,” she remarks in an early scene. There’s a strange and amusing ambiguity about the portrayal: you’re never sure if Eva is calculating or just a stage-struck fruitcake. The real actress keeps you guessing for the duration, and it’s spellbinding to watch her carry on, finessing such impossible lines as, “Beautiful, childishly beautiful, impossibly beautiful,” and providing a genuinely beautiful, distinctive profile and silhouette for the camera.

Recruited by RKO as a potential goddess-like rival to Greta Garbo at MGM and Marlene Dietrich at Paramount, Katharine Hepburn remained a problematic original for the studio, which often sustained a bedazzled photogenic aura around her but seemed confused about the roles needed to enhance and popularize her singularity. “Alice Adams” in 1935, under the direction of George Stevens, was the most intelligent follow-up, but one doesn’t sense a fully confident Hepburn until the 1937 movie version of “Stage Door,” which cast her as a slightly older version of Eva Lovelace, obliged to counter the down-to-earth humorous charisma of Ginger Rogers.

It’s an index to Oscar limitations that neither actress was nominated for “Stage Door.” A few years later they ended up as competitors when Miss Rogers won as best actress of 1940 for “Kitty Foyle,” denying Miss Hepburn in her peerless comeback role as Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story.” In retrospect, the Academy also seems rather negligent for overlooking Miss Hepburn’s splendid set of comedy performances in 1938, both opposite Cary Grant, in “Bringing Up Baby” and “Holiday.”

Perhaps the timeliest opportunity for a second Hepburn Oscar was botched in 1942, when she and Spencer Tracy began their partnership in “Woman of the Year.” Owing to World War II, Greer Garson’s valiant Mrs. Miniver was the Oscars’ woman of the year.

The Hepburn career drifted through another miscast and odd-duck phase during the war, but it seemed downright perverse when colleagues neglected to nominate either her or Tracy for “Adam’s Rib” in 1950. The race for best actress was extremely competitive: Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday” upset Bette Davis in “All About Eve” and Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” Nevertheless, Miss Hepburn’s high-minded and wrongheaded attorney rated a nomination.

My first vivid moviegoing impressions of Miss Hepburn commenced with “The African Queen” a year later, and it’s astonishing to think that almost 20 years had passed before she first appeared in a color film. Her red hair and freckles had been brilliantly masked and stylized by black-and-white cinematography since the early 1930s. Not that the ruddiness was a state secret. Cary Grant called her “Red” affectionately in “The Philadelphia Story.”

The best actress Oscar for 1951 went to Vivien Leigh for “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and one wouldn’t want to choose between her Blanche Dubois and Miss Hepburn’s Rose Sayer — unless, of course, one were selecting a courageous companion for life. However, “The African Queen” did launch Miss Hepburn as the decade’s greatest spinster heroine: it was just as easy to cherish her in “Pat and Mike,” “Summertime” and “The Rainmaker.” She was an Oscar nominee for the last two.

Spencer Tracy passed up the opportunity to reunite with Miss Hepburn for Sidney Lumet’s superlative movie version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” which was done economically but impeccably, with Miss Hepburn deferring her customary salary and contributing the most powerful dramatic performance of her career. Her Mary Tyrone is stunning and heartbreaking, irrefutable evidence that one of our great film actresses could reconcile the quirks of her personality and style with a role that seemed outside her range and experience.

In a perfect Oscar world, Katharine Hepburn would have won in 1962 as best actress for “Long Day’s Journey,” obliging Anne Bancroft, the actual winner for “The Miracle Worker,” to wait a bit. The year 1967 could have been a convenient catch-up year, since Miss Bancroft in “The Graduate” was a sounder choice than Miss Hepburn in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Four awards were none too many for Katharine Hepburn, but posterity may be happier substituting some of the titles. Here’s an optimum quintet: “Morning Glory,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Adam’s Rib,” “The African Queen” and “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

Rest in peace, Red.

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