Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Memoriam: Katharine Hepburn

There is a dreadful kind of sameness in the biographies of actors; one gets the impression that, for most of them, the greatest role they play is the person they eventually become, or that they only become interesting after exposure to a lot of famous people and exotic locales. The stars most beloved by the Pop Culture Institute, though, are the ones for whom the stage and screen roles they undertake - however good they are - are secondary to the lives they lead, both before and after they become famous.

PhotobucketBefore she was famous, Katharine Hepburn (born on this day in 1907) was the product of a very forward thinking family indeed - to call them liberal is to ignore the fact that many liberals are as uptight as conservatives, but simply with the opposite world view. As a child, Hepburn confronted issues such as birth control and venereal disease as a matter of dinner table conversation; she invariably credited this frankness to making her the outspoken person she became.

While Hepburn became famous the moment she opened her mouth on screen, in the 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement, it seemed to take the public awhile to warm up to her when she was off screen. She was one of the first women in America to wear pants, for instance, which was a scandal on par with Britney Spears not wearing panties seventy years later. Fortunately her extraordinary beauty and unique voice opened more doors than her outrageous bohemianism closed; by the time society caught up to her she was already an icon, and she seems to have become even more famous now, seven years after her death and fifteen years after her last film role, than she was in life.

Of course, the reason Hepburn became so famous is that she couldn't have cared less for fame; when Hollywood stopped sending her scripts, or only sent her shitty scripts, she decamped to New York and went on the stage, or made films in London, or simply spent time in the country. The reason the scandalous behaviour in which she dabbled never seemed to ruin her is that she did what she did without shame, which is the best way to bleed the luridity out of anything.

The newest biography of Katharine Hepburn is William J. Mann's Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, published in 2006. Mann's exhaustive re-examination of her life and career seeks to explain the divergence between the actual woman and the various personas she either adopted or had projected onto her.
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