Best Actress: Pets Katharine Hepburn
If I ever wrote a book called Me: Stories of My Life, the entire chapter about movies and actresses and Oscars and writing about all of them would begin with Katharine Hepburn. Because she had more nominations than anyone, and I believed in starting at the top? Because many of her consensus peaks were early staples of home video (not everybody's were), and because they were available in the same U.S. Army library in Hanau, Germany, where I checked out my first copy of Inside Oscar? Because Me appeared in print during the same year that I found Inside Oscar and saw Alice Adams (review) and On Golden Pond, and even a ninth-grader could read and enjoy the prose and the voice as well as the films? (That book catalyzed my lifelong habit of possibly gratuitous capitalization of Really Big Ideas.) Because she was so spunky, so snobbish in (and despite) her charm? She cherished her college and loved great plays and deplored stupidity, even if Stupidity had a way of connoting that with which Miss Hepburn simply did not agree. Because she was so beautiful? Because even my dad adored The Lion in Winter (review)? Because she thrived in drama as well as comedy which appealed then, as it does now, to my appetite for pushing boundaries and valuing versatility? Because the industry loved her despite her aloofness from that industry, and her even greater aloofness from its feminine ideals, both stated and implied? Because the public loved her, still loved her in 1991, for personality more than glamour, for talent as much as personality, for not being the kind of actress who tarted herself up in chintzy geriatric glam to steal an ovation at the Oscars? Hepburn only ever went to the Oscars once, sporting an outfit perfectly suitable for clamming or raking the leaves out of her gutters, and she couldn't deny that her decades of absence were motivated by a fundamenal lack of interest in losing, or even possibly losing, in public. It's worth remembering that not a single one of Hepburn's record-setting four wins was a foregone conclusion. She's the all-time champ without ever once having been the frontrunner (except, arguably, in 1935 and 1940, when she lost.)
All of these notions and circumstances fed early and powerfully into my private Cult of Kate, and they still do, but they all would have withered if she weren't such a gifted performer, eclectic in terms of the contexts she ably inhabited or flexed to her purposes, if not quite in technical approach. The triumvirate of performances that enshrined Katharine Hepburn as the favorite actress, the favored hero of my youth, were the ersatz ingénue in Alice Adams, an antique film that any Breakfast Club fan can understand and relate to; the Komodo dragon in Suddenly, Last Summer (review), a film that somehow makes wealth and motherhood more sinister and perverse than cannibalism, maybe even equivalent to cannibalism; and the tragic wreck Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night. Mary is the walking grave in which the dreamy Alice is horribly buried, the ghostly ship in which Violet Venable sails northward, out of the carnivorous garden and into the broken-souled living room. Over the years, I have added Hepburn's gracefully stunted Linda Seton in Holiday (review) and her flirty but impetuous Amanda from Adam's Rib into my top tier of her most treasured performances. Neither of them was nominated, even in a career that drew more Academy nods than anyone has who isn't named Meryl Streep, and even though some of those nods and even wins were for juvenalia (Morning Glory), uncomfortable casting (The Rainmaker), and sentimental affirmation (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, in a performance I've only recently come to admire, and On Golden Pond, which I'll always love anyway).
Hepburn, then, isn't just the seminal figure in my own legacy of over-identifying with and obsessing over and working through the popular cinema, much the way Wayne Koestenbaum suggests that "the opera queen must choose one diva. The other divas may be admired, enjoyed, even loved. But only one diva can reign in the opera queen's heart; only one diva can have the power to describe a listener's life, as a compass describes a circle" (19). Hepburn, is also, I think, the diva who describes Oscar's circle. The story of Oscar is the story of Kate, in more ways than the obvious. The bevy of wins and the copious nominations, sure. But also the controversial omissions: no Bringing Up Baby? No Stage Door? Morning Glory over Little Women? Hepburn attracted Oscar's notice with Great Artist labors of love (Summertime), with popular phenoms (The African Queen), and with career-saving pivot points (The Philadelphia Story). She also missed out with Oscar, no matter how charmed her track record, when the film was too weird (Sylvia Scarlett) or too silly (Quality Street, where Hepburn is at least as game as nominated comediennes like Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild), or too casually lacking in trophylust, even though everyone fondly remembers them (Pat and Mike). Hepburn lost an easy Oscar in 1975, for Love Among the Ruins, for the same reason Linda Fiorentino did in 1994: Oscar hates TV, and not every movie that deserves the big screen winds up there, at least not at first. She has been rewarded for stoking broad liberal discussions (Woman of the Year, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) and passed over for doing so (Adam's Rib) and rewarded again for avoiding any possible talking-points whatsoever (On Golden Pond, for which she triumphed over Diane Keaton in Reds). She followed Oscar down every path of all of his pets and peeves, and she did so for nearly 50 years: Hepburn, like Oscar, survived longer than anyone would have expected, and has meant more to more people than anyone could have predicted. Back to top