01 July 2003

Katharine Hepburn, RIP

It certainly has been a strange week for celebrity deaths, has it not?

I don't comment on every person of note who passes away, but this week it was all people who have touched my life in one way or another, and yes that includes Katharine Hepburn. I never met her, but I guess you could say I was a fan. A big fan. I'd watch almost anything she was in, and some of her movies are among my favourites.

I remember quite vividly when Katharine Hepburn stole my heart. It was 1979, and she starred in a TV-movie remake of The Corn is Green, directed by one of her favourite film directors, George Cukor. Why this wasn't released theatrically I'll never know. It's such a shame that great TV-movies are always overlooked and less-frequently released on DVD than great movies (this version is available on VHS, but not yet DVD, according to imdb.com). I clearly recall thinking that this woman was the finest actress I'd ever seen. It was an observation that has largely stood up to the test of time.

I was a teenager, but the timeless tale (Bette Davis had starred in the film version in 1945) of a teacher bringing enlightenment to the working impoverished children (yes, the children worked -- in the mines alongside their fathers) of Wales was a stunning vehicle of Hepburn's indomitable spirit -- and I was quite taken with her fierce independence, her quirky style and her offbeat looks.

Those of you my age and younger who have only ever seen Hepburn as an "old lady" (and she was 71 when she did this movie!) would be surprised to know, but she was quite the angular beauty (in a Scottish sort of way) in her youth, which in her case lasted about 50 years. The palsy she suffered from was already in strong force in 1979, but it didn't diminish her performance or energy one iota. After seeing that, I was lucky enough to have a cinema in town play The Lion in Winter (1968) and after that I was hooked. Anytime a Katherine Hepburn movie came on TV I would try to catch it, and over the years I've seen a fair chunk of her filmography, and several of them (The aforementiond two as well as The African Queen, Suddenly Last Summer, Woman of the Year and The Philadelphia Story) I can happily watch as often as you like.

I confess that, unlike most Hepburn fans, I'm not as fond of her many films with Spencer Tracy. The chemistry between them is undeniable and highly watchable (indeed, their off-screen relationship easily gets into the Top Ten of Great Loves of the 20th Century), but the scripts were almost always silly men vs women runarounds that I find formulaic and good for only one or two viewings. It was fortunate that they had an actress like Hepburn to breathe some life into the female side of those scripts.

Hepburn's off-screen individuality and personal style was actually more rare than you'd think in a medium filled with "great artists." She embodies not only American feminism (would that more women would follow her example), but a certain New England pioneer spirit that really captures the imagination.

Much as I'll miss her, I can't really be too sad on her passing. As she once said in an interview, "I'll die when it's time. I'm all about great timing."

Indeed she is. Good night, Miss Hepburn.

No comments: