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Katharine Hepburn: Warrior Woman

Honouring the legacy of an icon whose ceaseless challenge to Hollywood’s prescriptive gender roles helped define the idea of the "modern woman"

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by Amanda Brason
Feb 12, 2019

The TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Fearless: The Films of Katharine Hepburn begins Monday, February 18.

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man,” Katharine Hepburn told Barbara Walters in a rare 1981 interview. It’s perhaps ironic that an actor who had helped shape the idea of the “modern woman” on screen from the 1930s through to the ’50s felt the need to cast herself and her achievements in a masculine light, but it nevertheless attests to the way Hepburn so determinedly challenged Hollywood’s prescriptive gender roles throughout her career, both on screen and off.

A scion of the New England upper class, Hepburn was born into unorthodoxy: her surgeon father and suffragette mother were both early advocates of birth control and women’s rights, and they fostered an energetic and adventurous spirit in their children — what Hepburn would later call “a freedom from fear.” That freedom led the young Hepburn first to the stage — where she overcame early challenges to make a hit on Broadway with the play The Warrior’s Husband — and then to Hollywood, where she was cast alongside the legendary John Barrymore in George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement. Hepburn soon won audiences over with her angular beauty, sharp Yankee diction and natural athleticism, and after starring as a female aviator in the astonishing Christopher Strong, she took home her first of four Best Actress Academy Awards for only her third film, 1933’s Morning Glory.

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Hepburn in Christopher Strong

Hepburn’s unique onscreen persona was matched by her unconventional offscreen behaviour, such as proudly sporting trousers at a time when women were deemed “perverse” and could be arrested for wearing pants in public (on the charge of “masquerading as a man”). Equally unconventional was her business savvy and determination to hold the reins of her own career. After a string of commercial flops in the mid-’30s led to her being branded as “box-office poison” in an infamous 1938 exhibitors’ poll (alongside such other luminaries as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford), Hepburn set out to engineer her own comeback vehicle. She provided the financial backing and waived her salary to star in Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story on Broadway (a play that had been written expressly for her), and then — with the aid of Howard Hughes, her romantic partner at the time — purchased the film rights, which she sold to MGM on the condition that she have veto power over all the key creative personnel. The massive success of the film version reignited Hepburn’s career, and cemented her as a true Hollywood power player.

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Cary Grant, Hepburn and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

Echoing her own real-life personality, Hepburn constantly gravitated towards roles with substance and grit: iron-willed women with grace, intellect, and an irrepressible vitality, who could hold their own in any arena. Romance in Hepburn’s films thus rested less on seduction and surrender than on challenge and competition, and she had some of the most iconic leading men of the era for sparring partners, including Cary Grant, James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, and especially Spencer Tracy, with whom she starred in nine films over 25 years. (After Tracy’s death, Hepburn revealed that she and her married co-star — whose Catholicism prevented him from divorcing his long-estranged wife — had carried on a relationship throughout that entire period, although recent rumours suggest that their well-known love affair was a cover for their long string of gay relationships.)


Spencer Tracy and Hepburn

Including some of Hepburn’s most famous performances, this select retrospective honours the legacy of an icon who provided a road map for generations of women who aspire to the same outspokenness, determination, courage, and flinty sophistication.

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