Cinema and Media Studies Katharine Hepburn
by
Steven Rybin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0296

Introduction

It is certainly possible to imagine as strong a person as Katharine Hepburn (b. 1907–d. 2003) existing without the classical Hollywood studio system. It is rather difficult to imagine a Hollywood without Hepburn, however, given her omnipresence on American screens for the better part of a century. Emblematic of the independence sought by many women across varying professions in the United States in the years after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, Hepburn’s iconic presence onscreen across seven decades of film and television effectively demarcated—and frequently transcended—culturally prevalent ideas regarding what a female performer might achieve in film in the United States. Born in 1907, Hepburn—the daughter of a suffragist mother and a doctor father—eventually chose a career in performance. Her journey began with an uneven career on the stage in the 1920s. Hepburn’s breakthrough in the theater arrived via an appearance in The Warrior’s Husband (1932) and this success led to her screen debut in George Cukor’s adaptation of the Clemence Dane stage play A Bill of Divorcement (1932; play written 1922). Hepburn would occasionally return to the stage—in her early career, and most notoriously, in the Jed Harris play The Lake, in 1933; and later, more successfully, in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story, in 1939; As You Like It, in 1950; The Millionairess, in 1952; Coco, in 1969 and 1971; A Matter of Gravity, in 1976; and The West Side Waltz, in 1981. But Hepburn was most at home in cinema, as her legendary work with many important filmmakers of the classical era—Cukor, Dorothy Arzner, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Huston, David Lean, and George Stevens, among others—attests. Hepburn is that rare Hollywood star whose importance in popular culture matches her pride of place in academic film studies. She is a crucial presence in both, as numerous popular biographies and an extensive body of literature in academic writing in film studies reveals. Except for a brief section providing an overview of a few key Hepburn biographies and memoirs that will be of interest to the scholar, this bibliography focuses on discussions of Hepburn in academic scholarship.

Autobiographies and Memoirs

Hepburn’s control over her public image and presence is well known. She appeared only once at the Academy Awards ceremony, and she never accepted in person any of the four Oscars she won for her work. Nevertheless, Hepburn wrote two books that offer the public some insight into how the star viewed her own life and her films. Hepburn 1987 is a memoir about the production of The African Queen. Hepburn 1991 is an engaging collection of memories that can be read in counterpoint to the various authorized and unauthorized biographies discussed in the next section. Memoirs about Hepburn written by authors other than the actress, by contrast, offer a different view of the performer in close-up. Berg 2003 will be of interest to scholars for its portrait of the close friendship the author held with Hepburn during the later years of her life. A different type of personal memory of Hepburn is offered in Garnett 2018 by Tiela Garnett (daughter of director Tay Garnett), who reflects upon the time her mother, Mari Aldon, worked with Hepburn on David Lean’s film Summertime.

  • Berg, A. Scott. Kate Remembered. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003.

    This memoir of Hepburn is based on the time spent by Berg with the actor late in her life. Although not an official biography (it was published after Hepburn’s death in 2003), it is a complement to the authorized Higham 1981 given Berg’s direct access to its subject.

  • Garnett, Tiela. “The Day Mama Stepped on Hepburn’s Toes.” Film International 16.1 (2018): 89–92.

    DOI: 10.1386/fiin.16.1.89_1

    Garnett, the daughter of classical Hollywood director Tay Garnett and Hollywood actress Mari Aldon, relates an anecdotal memory about her mother’s experiences working with Hepburn on the set of David Lean’s Summertime. These memories underscore Hepburn’s strong competitiveness during a moment in the making of the film when she felt supporting performer Aldon was upstaging her in a scene.

  • Hepburn, Katharine. The Making of The African Queen, or: How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall, and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

    Hepburn’s account of the making of The African Queen, written some thirty years after the release of the John Huston film. This memoir anecdotally chronicles her interaction with local residents, her account of the living conditions and the filmmaking process, and her various interactions with Huston and Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and others involved in the production of the film.

  • Hepburn, Katharine. Me: Stories of My Life. New York: Random House, 1991.

    Hepburn’s official autobiography chronicles her friendships, professional associations, and work on both stage and screen, written in a lively and assertive voice. Hepburn is often sensitive to the public reception greeting her various films. The book presents the picture of a headstrong actor whose various reminiscences bring her legendary career to life.

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