Katharine Hepburn died last June at the age of 96. In a sense, it was entirely in character for this flinty, cantankerous woman to be the last survivor of Hollywood's Golden Age. She never really seemed young--even when she was technically young, Hepburn always possessed the brittle demeanor and dangerous cheekbones of a defiantly self-possessed woman in the mid-stream of her life. She was, in short, a woman "of a certain age" and it seemed that she always would be so.
This weekend is the first of two in which the Winter Film Series at the North Carolina Museum of Art will celebrate her career. On Friday, the museum will screen The Philadelphia Story, in which she was teamed with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. Saturday will feature Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant plays the straight man to Hepburn's human hurricane. Then next Saturday, February 28, the museum will show Adam's Rib, her greatest pairing with her long-time lover Spencer Tracy.
It's initially surprising to discover that Bringing Up Baby marked a low point in Hepburn's career--the movie bombed and a poll of exhibitors revealed that she was the most reviled star in Hollywood. In response, RKO, her studio, gave Hepburn her walking papers. (She would bounce back quickly, however, first with Holiday and then with The Philadelphia Story.)
But upon a present-day viewing of Bringing Up Baby, it's understandable why initial audiences--who were unaware that they were watching a "classic"--simply felt annoyed by Hepburn's insistent, relentlessly chattering performance. Often as not, it's tempting to root for Cary Grant's nebbish paleontologist to escape her clutches.
But the long lens of history has been kind to Hepburn. What might have seemed bossy and obnoxious to 1930s audiences now seems radically modern and boldly feminist (although her characters in this period were socialites, not working women). Furthermore, her self-assurance and utter lack of sentimentality seems ever more unique, as we've never had such a striking comic personality since the long, lonely, but fruitful career of Katharine Hepburn.
Go to www.ncartmuseum.org for more information.