In honor of the centenary of Katharine Hepburn’s birth on May 12, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and motion picture historian Robert Osborne talked about the great screen actress, TCM’s Star of the Month.
by Scott Holleran
Scott Holleran: What is Katharine Hepburn’s best performance?
Robert Osborne: Alice Adams. That can’t be topped. Not only is she really brilliant in it, but it’s a great story. It fits her. She so understood that girl who wants to be something. She’s so touching and dear and she would have broken hearts more if it had had the same ending as the book, where she loses the guy. She had Alice Adams in the Thirties, The Philadelphia Story in the Forties, Summertime in the Fifties and The Lion in Winter and Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the Sixties.
Scott Holleran: What quality does she essentially represent?
Robert Osborne: Class. It’s why her TV appearance in The Glass Menagerie was such a disaster because you could never believe her in that role. She was sophisticated and vital. When I was growing up, she was not that popular. It was Bette Davis. Katharine Hepburn was a little too Bryn Mawr. In small towns, they loved Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Greer Garson. Katharine Hepburn wasn’t down to earth enough. She was haughty and Americans liked down to earth. The turning point was right around the time [Miss Hepburn’s offscreen lover and co-star, actor Spencer] Tracy died. She came back in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and people loved her. Like she said, she’d become like an old building and people were afraid she was going to be torn down.
Scott Holleran: Is there one book about Miss Hepburn you would recommend?
Robert Osborne: The one I wouldn’t recommend is the Scott Berg book, which is more about the author than about Hepburn, but I think Me [by Katharine Hepburn] is fascinating. It’s in her own words. Where you get a sense of what she’s all about is The Making of The African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. You really get a sense of her.
Scott Holleran: What was your first Katharine Hepburn picture?
Robert Osborne: I think it would have been Woman of the Year and her voice kind of irritated me. I particularly loved Summertime. I was in college and it was very romantic, one of two examples where the movie is better than the play—same as The Sound of Music—and the stories are so linked to the locale. Venice is a character in that story [Summertime].
Scott Holleran: What’s ‘All About Me’?
Robert Osborne: That’s a documentary based on Me. A husband and wife team went to her and she talks about Spencer Tracy and it’s kind of the television version of her autobiography. But the most you can learn about Katharine Hepburn is the first 15 minutes of the [Seventies television host] Dick Cavett interview where she’s such a pain, trying to get them to repaint the walls [and redecorate the set]. This woman is a nightmare.
Scott Holleran: How do you explain the enduring success of Bringing Up Baby?
Robert Osborne: Cary Grant is the definitive absent-minded professor and she is such a nightmare—she’s so unaware of her ability to drive people crazy. With the leopard, the dog and the character actors May Robson and Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Catlett, it moves fast and it’s so screwball. It’s hilarious. One thing that really works is that [at that point in her career] we’re not used to seeing her as this ditzy, aggravating person. It couldn’t work without Cary Grant—[director] Howard Hawks just said two words [to Mr. Grant]: [comedian] Harold Lloyd. He’s so befuddled that he doesn’t even quite know where he is and that can be very funny. We feel aspects of that awkwardness in ourselves and we know it.
Scott Holleran: Are Katharine Hepburn’s pictures better than her performances?
Robert Osborne: I don’t think so. I think she’s made some very ordinary movies like Keeper of the Flame and Without Love. Whenever she invested herself in a movie, she made the movie worthwhile—even Stage Door Canteen. She’s barely in it, but she makes it.
Scott Holleran: Why didn’t Katharine Hepburn attend the Oscars?
Robert Osborne: She was never sure she was going to win and she certainly didn’t want to lose. There’s probably no one more conceited than Katharine Hepburn. She always wanted to be the most fascinating person in the room. I went to an auction [of Miss Hepburn’s estate items] in New York and [her niece, actress] Katharine Houghton [Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kinsey], who’s a friend of mine, was there and they had these press [scrapbooks]. Houghton said her aunt had kept every [press clip] about herself because her aunt knew—even in her teens—that she would be very famous and important one day. She knew she was fascinating and she thought everyone else should be [aware of that] too. She was a nightmare and that’s what drove her. I’ve been in rooms with her, once at [director George] Cukor’s house. When she would enter a room, she was a whirlwind and, unless she was ready to fascinate, she wouldn’t be there. Also, one thing that’s not written about her very often, she had a very bad complexion. I remember one time being backstage when she did the play The West Side Waltz and her face looked kind of raw, almost like it had been sandpapered, and it was something that she was very conscious of—so I don’t think she liked to be observed.
Scott Holleran: How do you explain the chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn?
Robert Osborne: It’s kind of that [sense of] opposites attracting—he seems so down to earth, so calm and ordinary, and she’s so hyperactive and highbrow. You knew he was stable and he would bring her down to earth and you knew she would always bring interesting things to him and that would be good for him.
Scott Holleran: Describe her career trajectory.
Robert Osborne: In the Thirties, it’s RKO, in the Forties, MGM. The Fifties are independent and the Sixties are her coming back. In the Seventies, she’s the grand lady.
Scott Holleran: Why is the number of Katharine Hepburn pictures relatively small?
Robert Osborne: She didn’t wear that well. You didn’t want to see two Katharine Hepburn pictures a year. It was the same with Garbo. She was a specialized taste—she’s like caviar; you can’t eat too much. She made good choices and she had a financial background so she didn’t have to work.
Scott Holleran: Another movie star celebrating a birthday centenary this month is Hepburn’s Rooster Cogburn co-star John Wayne. Is there a modern equivalent to Hepburn and the Duke?
Robert Osborne: [Hesitates] For men, the closest would be Clint Eastwood, though he doesn’t play heroes. But he’s kind of a towering figure like that. The closest to Hepburn is Cate Blanchett. One of the reasons we can’t really equate, except for Eastwood, is that it takes time for people to become beloved—and the world has changed. We’re not looking for heroes anymore. We’re looking for a guy who can smash a car.
Originally published on Box office Mojo in 2007.