Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003) wasn’t just one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century, she was one of the greatest actresses of all time. The four-time Academy Award winner had countless memorable roles. In 2010, the Postal Service honored her with a stamp, which featured a portrait—by photographer Clarence S. Bull—taken from a publicity still from the film Woman of the Year (1942).
This week, I caught up with author William J. Mann, whose biography of Hepburn, Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, was released in 2006.
What do you think was Hepburn’s greatest trait as an actress?
Two things, actually. First, her independent spirit, which allowed her to take on roles that defied expectations, particularly for women. This is mostly true for her early film work, in classics like Holiday and Bringing Up Baby and others, in which she was the motivator, the one who took action and made things happen. No typical damsels in distress for her. Later, as she got older, it was her bravery that really distinguished her work. When many of her contemporaries were either retiring, settling for character parts or working in low-budget pictures, Hepburn pushed herself and her craft by taking on Shakespeare, Shaw, and O’Neill, both on film and on the stage.
She had an incredible life and career, but do you think that today she’s underappreciated?
I think sometimes she’s remembered primarily for her “battle of the sexes” films with Spencer Tracy, which really don’t showcase what made her so special. It’s films like Bringing Up Baby and Sylvia Scarlett and Alice Adams and The African Queen and Summertime, where she subverts the status quo and challenges presumptions, that display her true strengths. In these films, she’s really very modern and contemporary.
Uncut Press Sheet (click to order)
You wrote a biography of Hepburn. What was it like seeing her get her own stamp?
Hepburn was an American original. She came to stand for some of the best parts of the American character: ingenuity, determination, self-reliance, independence of spirit. So it felt only fitting that she be honored with her own stamp.
Is there something you think most people don’t know about Katharine Hepburn’s life/career that you think they should?
She loved being a star. She made a lot of protest about acting not being a very important profession, and she liked to give the impression that she’d rather be off in a canoe somewhere instead of signing autographs for fans on the street. But she really cherished her fame. When she appeared in Coco on Broadway, she was brought to tears by how much the public loved her, the way people would show up with flowers for her at the stage door. That really meant a great deal to her.
Do you have a favorite Hepburn role?
Rose Sayer in The African Queen. Not only is she funny and poignant, she is also one hundred percent the equal of her costar Humphrey Bogart. There’s no deference to her simply because she’s a woman; she gets down in the mud and, shoulder to shoulder, helps Bogart haul the boat down the river. That was the way Hepburn lived her life, and how she comes across best on the screen.
Are you working on anything specific right now that you’d like to mention?
This fall, my book Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbara Streisand, will be published. Streisand’s another American original, and I hope she gets her own stamp someday, too!
Katharine Hepburn image and rights licensed through CAA, Los Angeles, California.
West Side Waltz photo © Steve Schapiro.