WOMAN OF ALL YEARS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For an actress whose emotional range ran the gamut from A to B, Katharine Hepburn did all right for herself.

Legend doesn't record whether acerbic critic Dorothy Parker ever regretted that assessment of Hepburn's abilities. But if she didn't, she should have. As Hepburn's body of screen work -- one that stretches from 1932 to 1994 -- proves, her range went far beyond A and B, to every other letter of the alphabet and maybe a few that have yet to be invented.

Not that the actress, who last week died at age 96, was without her detractors; as some reviews from The Sun's archives reveal, Hepburn at times rubbed people the wrong way. The words "flinty" and "mannered," neither meant as a compliment, have appeared frequently in critical discussions of her work.

But one doesn't spend six decades making films, win four best actress Oscars and be voted the greatest American actress of all time (according to a 1999 survey conducted by the American Film Institute) by striving for mediocrity.

Hepburn would carve out a niche, mine it for a while, then carve out an entirely new niche and master it just as fully. She remained true to herself above all others, never doubting either her judgment or her abilities and rarely kowtowing to public opinion, instead trusting that her skill was sufficient to win over her audience. She crafted a personality the screen could barely hold, by playing things larger-than-life and reveling in her very outsized-ness.

Here are six examples of Hepburn at her best and most diverse:

Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Hepburn made better films early in her career (Stage Door and Little Women come to mind), but this, her ninth (coming two years after winning an Oscar for Morning Glory), is unquestionably among the most beguiling.

As Sylvia Scarlett, the faithful daughter who decides she can better help her wayward father escape to England by posing as his son (and going by the name Sylvester), Hepburn asks for quite the leap of faith from her audience. True, she may not have been the most womanly of actresses (much to her delight, one suspects, she was never really thought of as a sex symbol), but she didn't exactly look like a boy, either.

But that implausibility becomes meaningless about 10 minutes into the film, so charming is Hepburn's portrayal; anyone who thinks she made a career playing cold fish onscreen will have a tough time explaining this movie. As Sylvester, Hepburn displays enough androgynous allure to keep audiences alert and a tad uncomfortable; when, in an effort to win the love of the rascally Michael Fane (Ronald Coleman lookalike Brian Aherne), she steals a dress and reverts back to Sylvia, her desperation is endearingly heartbreaking.

Dec. 27, 1935, Baltimore Sun review

To this writer, at least, Miss Hepburn, with cropped hair and tailored suit, looked more like Miss Hepburn than ever. ... If one were not acquainted with her distinctive face and gestures, one might easily believe, as those who met her in the story believed, that Sylvia was a boy. But such a boy -- effeminate, with an unpleasing voice -- would probably be shunned rather than admired by those around him.

-- Donald Kirkley

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Having gone from Oscar winner to box-office poison in less than five years, Hepburn hardly seemed in a position to call the shots. But that's what she did, securing the rights to Philip Barry's Broadway smash (in which she had starred) about love and scandal in high society and demanding not only that she reprise her role, but that she choose her own writer, director and co-stars.

The result was a box-office smash and a triumph all around (the film won Jimmy Stewart his only best actor Oscar).

As the increasingly reluctant bride Tracy Lord, Hepburn was, by turns, infuriating and charming, sometimes a pouty-voiced mess, sometimes a shrew well deserving of being tamed.

The African Queen (1951)

Hepburn had a way of bringing out the best in her male co-stars, particularly when it came to actors with hard-boiled personas and unexpectedly soft undersides. That ability was never better displayed than in John Huston's tale of a sodden steamboat captain (Humphrey Bogart) and the missionary spinster (Hepburn) he's forced to ferry down an East African river.

Filmed on location, Queen proved a trial for all concerned, but the results were worth the hassle. Hepburn's Rose Sayer gave headstrong prissiness a good name, the perfect foil for Bogart's affably hapless Charlie Allnut. One of Hollywood's most unlikely couples, Charlie and Rose proved among the most enduring -- and again, Hepburn showed that beneath her crusty exterior beats a heart as slavishly sentimental as the next person's.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

This may be Hepburn's oddest film. Heck, it may be one of the oddest films, period. (Not to mention most surprising -- the 1950s were hardly known as a breeding ground for films in which gay characters end up being cannibalized. )

Hepburn, then 52, played Mrs. Venable, a strong-willed matriarch whose unnaturally close relationship with her late son, Sebastian, would have given Oedipus pause. It's the first time onscreen that Hepburn is genuinely scary; her performance is alarming in its intensity and refusal to be modulated. From Hepburn's entrance, as a disembodied voice seeming to come from everywhere at once, to her exit, her dominance over her world irreparably broken, she commands the screen.

On Golden Pond (1981)

When this movie about an aging couple struggling to go gracefully into that dark good night earned Hepburn her fourth best actress Oscar, presenter Jon Voight spoke of how much moviegoers respected and admired her. He was right; Pond was hardly representative of Hepburn at her best, but its pairing of the actress with Henry Fonda (who would die not long after its completion) was the cinematic equivalent of a group hug.

Afflicted with palsy, her hands and head shaking noticeably, she -- perhaps for the first time -- looked vulnerable onscreen. Sure, the movie was overly maudlin, but Ethel Thayer was a role Hepburn deserved to play, allowing her to stand before audiences aged, but unbowed.

Jan. 22, 1982, Sun review

Hepburn has a kind of celestial earthiness to her -- and I mean to use mutually contradictory terms: She's both elegant and basic and her mannerisms -- the trilling voice, the far-off look, that raspy, ululating voice -- have become so familiar over the years one hardly notices them.

-- Stephen Hunter

Woman of the Year (1942), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

For 25 years, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy carried on a clandestine love affair that reaped dividends both offscreen (for them) and on (for us).

The partnership began with Woman of the Year. Tracy and Hepburn played dueling journalists, each assured of his or her own infallibility, each hopelessly attracted to the other. Their chemistry was obvious, and alluring.

A quarter-century later, when Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was filmed, Tracy was dying and Hepburn was determined that he exit this life as nobly as she felt he had lived it. He played the liberal patriarch of a white upper-class family whose beliefs are put to the test when his daughter brings a black man home as her fiance. As his supportive wife, Hepburn subtly subjugates her performance to his. Tracy's final speech, in which he wishes for his daughter just a fraction of the happiness he and her mother have shared, is one of the movies' great lump-in-the-throat moments.

Woman of the Year review

Feb. 20, 1942, The Evening Sun

If you employ the conventional Hollywood glamor girl as an ideal model, you can pick Miss Hepburn's features, if not her lithe figure, to pieces and find her wanting. But as a composition in the whole, you feel you are looking at an actress of great loveliness and challenging appeal. Quite wonderful, this woman of the year.

-- Gilbert Kanour

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