by Scott Holleran
More than any actress in motion pictures, Katharine Hepburn, who died on Sunday at 96, was like an enduring, bright star against a black sky. From Morning Glory (1933), in which her defiance ends the picture with the proclamation, “I’m not afraid!,” to Love Affair (1994), in which she is the steady voice for romantic love, Miss Hepburn leaves a lifetime of great performances.
While the world was at war, she was the unconquerable stage actress Terry Randall (Stage Door, 1937), determined to live by her ability, on her own terms. She was the unwieldy Susan (Bringing Up Baby, 1938), falling all over herself while falling for Cary Grant with hilarious results. She was the triumphant newspaperwoman Tess Harding (Woman of the Year, 1942), who takes on, matches and marries incorrigible sports columnist Spencer Tracy, whom she loved off screen.
Miss Hepburn’s work continued with unforgettably prickly characters into the Fifties, when conformity dominated the culture. She’s the prim spinster, Rose, in The African Queen (1951), teaming with Humphrey Bogart to defeat a German gunboat. She’s the plain Jane Hudson in Summertime (1955), who finds love in Italy—married man Rossano Brazzi—and, faced with the act of adultery, boldly chooses a summer love affair over a lifetime of loneliness.
She’s Lizzie in The Rainmaker (1956), as enticing as an old shoe until Burt Lancaster’s charismatic hustler comes to town. Watching Lizzie’s liberation is a dizzying recreation of a person discovering her best within; she’s alive and in love with life and she wants more of it.
She did not falter in the dark, turbulent Sixties, returning for one last time as Spencer Tracy’s partner in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), as Christina Drayton, deftly navigating her marriage through her daughter’s interracial romance with Sidney Poitier’s medical doctor. As the cunning queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in The Lion in Winter (1968), she was unyielding.
She continued to delight audiences through modern times, as the steely Eula Goodnight opposite John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn (1975), as Henry Fonda’s insistent wife in On Golden Pond (1981) and, while she was nominated for 12 Academy Awards (she won several), she never attended a single Oscar ceremony to accept the awards.
Her screen persona was, as many have observed, fiercely independent—she was also passionate for the love of a man who deserved her—but one quality makes her one of the greatest actresses in pictures: her intelligence. Katharine Hepburn captured a daring and original feminine ideal: heroic, romantic and real all at once.
Losing Hepburn—her angular face, commanding voice, untamed hair, slender frame and those knowing, twinkling eyes—is like that moment when, while tracing a brilliant star in the distance, the last starlight fades from view. The world suddenly seems darker without Katharine Hepburn, but it’s been much more radiant for her having been in it.
Originally published on Box Office Mojo on June 30, 2003.