Katharine Hepburn: A Hollywood Matriarch

For months now, I’ve opened my top desk drawer to this half-used collector’s packet of stamps themed “Legends of Hollywood.” Who at the U.S. Post Office gets to decide what constitutes a Hollywood legend I cannot know, but the star I had the option to collect, in stamp form, and probably purchased around Oscar time (because she won the most Best Actress Oscars ever), was Katharine Hepburn.

I cannot tell you how this elevated my bill paying process. It was like wrapping presents to post outgoing mail with this glamorous black and white portrait of Kate, her perfectly coiffed hair and skin glowing in chiaroscuro lighting, and she, looking elegant and beautiful and sophisticated, her head not facing outward but up, as if something higher and in the distance held more allure than the camera before her. Maybe that’s why her performances were so transcendent.

I returned to the post office for my second packet and was informed by the attendant that the Kate series was a limited edition for stamp collectors: “You only get one shot to buy these,” the postal worker said. “They’re sold out and there won’t be any more printed.”

Oh well, I thought, and mustering some enthusiasm declared, “At least now I have some valuable stamps.”

“Not exactly,” said the attendant. “You can’t use any of the stamps for the packet to retain its value.”

Deflated, I settled on the trite Liberty Bell and vowed not to use a single other Kate stamp. I have six left. And even though I can’t recapture the stamps I probably sent to LADWP, Southern California Gas Company and popped on various thank-you notes for extra flair, Kate-the-legend is eternally recapturable on film. Which is an irony, of course, because in the Hollywood present age is like an ulcer, but in the history of Hollywood almost everything is ageless. Cinema gives the gift of immortality.

Which is why, even though she’s been dead since 2003, Turner Classic Movies is celebrating Kate Hepburn’s birthday. The other night I caught their promotional tribute, filled with her most famous film clips and a lovely little narration by Anthony Hopkins, who worked with her on 1968’s A Lion In Winter. What struck me was however daring and progressive Hepburn was then, she remains, by any standard, today.

“If I had manged sons for him instead of all those little girls,” she says as Eleanor of Aquitaine in ‘Winter’, “I’d still be stuck being Queen of France and we should not have known each other. Such my angels, is the role of sex in history.”

Hard to imagine a line like that being uttered today. And what actress has both the fierce sexuality and confident authority to utter it? Hepburn was so authoritative and in control, that even a line that today might come off as corny was said with complete conviction. Here’s one example: “He came down from the north to Paris with a mind like Aristotle’s and a form like mortal sin. We shattered the commandments on the spot.” I’m fairly sure she’s not channeling Moses here, so even if its cheesy, it’s still impressively forward.

Really what Hepburn’s legacy teaches is that it’s a mistake to conflate “classic” with “old”. Everything about her is as fresh and enlightened today as it was then; that she had “no starlike nonsense” as Hopkin’s says, that she was rebellious, that she “bucked the Hollywood system”, that remarkably, she wore pants, and “it just wasn’t done,” Hopkins reminds us.

Unlike so many stars today, Hepburn wasn’t a panderer; she was proud. In one of the clips from the 1952 film Pat and Mike, a man says to her, “You’re not gonna wear those pants, are you?” And without missing a beat, she snaps, “Not pants, they’re slacks. Watch your language.”

Measuring by her status, Hepburn was every bit an insider. But psychologically, according to her manner and her conduct, she stood outside the conventions of the time. In or out, she was always a legend, but much more than a star: a matriarch.