Katharine Hepburn’s career spanned six decades. Her range was astounding, especially considering that the roles were always secondary to her own personality.
Was there ever a gayer film than Stage Door (1937) where Hepburn as an ingénue utters the famous line: “The calla lilies are in bloom again.”? Cast alongside Gay Icons Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers, Hepburn played it broadly and autobiographically, as the daughter of a wealthy businessman who wants a career in the theater with no prior training. It remains one of my favorite Hepburn performances.
Hepburn was terrific in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Cary Grant who utters the famous line: “I’ve turned gay all of a sudden!”
She inadvertently developed an androgynous image in such roles as the cross-dressing Sylvia Scarlet (1935).
In the late 1930s, after being badmouthed by studio brass and being branded “box-office poison” by the press, Hepburn refused to be ignored. She returned to the stage, starring on Broadway in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story (1939). Barry wrote the play for Hepburn, who not only played the lead role, but also financed it, giving up her salary in return for a percentage of the play’s profits. It was a great success. Hoping to create a perfect film vehicle for herself which would erase the nasty label, Hepburn accepted the film rights to the play as a gift from Howard Hughes. She then convinced MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer to buy them from her for only $250,000 in return for Hepburn having her choice of producer, director, screenwriter and casting. She chose her gay best friend George Cukor to direct. He knew how to use her, and he brought out her best qualities. More than any other female star of that era, Hepburn controlled her own career.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Hepburn launched a classical stage and screen career, transitioning perfectly at a point in her career when other actors might retreat to predictable projects that would showcase them. She took on Shakespeare roles onstage in her 50s, at the same time becoming the First Lady Of American Film. She was eventually nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning four times, at the time a record (Meryl Streep has had 20 nominations, and 21st is certain, but only three wins).