This is an entry in the Great Katharine Hepburn blogathon. Check out the marvelous posts on her work.
“I’d rather look like Katharine Hepburn at 80,” Aunt Betty said, looking at the screen, “than myself at 30.” I looked at the old lady on the TV, then back at my aunt, confused. Maybe Betty was ripping on her own looks, as she often did. She couldn’t possibly be serious. As a fourteen-year-old who longed to resemble Helen Slater or Jamie Gertz, I found wanting to look thirty incomprehensible. Eighty?
My aunt smiled at my bafflement. “Just look at that bone structure,” she explained, pointing at Hepburn. “She’s beautiful.”
Bone structure? That wasn’t on my list of attractive characteristics. I examined Hepburn’s face closely to discover what my aunt saw in it, but those wrinkles distracted me. I felt uneasy, as I always did when adults said something I couldn’t understand. I changed the subject.
I didn’t forget it though. Every time I saw Hepburn, the comment returned. She had always looked old to me. Having seen her first in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? I could never view her earlier films without seeing the imprint of her older self. Besides, Hepburn was angular, not soft and feminine, like Helen Slater or my earlier womanly ideal, Lynda Carter.
I wasn’t alone, of course, in devaluing Hepburn’s looks. Her employer David O. Selznick had been famous for it. Others, of course, appreciated that bone structure, hence that line about her cheekbones: “The greatest calcium deposits since the White Cliffs of Dover.”
I think I was past thirty myself before I started to understand Betty’s words. Of course, my definition of beauty had expanded by then, but my changing assessment of the actress’s looks was always more complicated than answering pretty or not? First, I noticed Hepburn’s breathless confidence of movement.
Then there were the clothes that suited her, rather than following any passing fashions. And the parts she chose, roles that could inspire women like me, and like my aunt: athletes, business leaders, pioneers, advocates for women.
Hepburn’s real-life actions demonstrated the same moxie she expressed in film: fighting back after the box office poison label, establishing her own terms with The Philadelphia Story, and then using her new power to ensure good salaries for her Woman of the Year screenwriters.
In her private life, Hepburn managed to say what she wanted, avoid whom she wished, have a long-time affair with a married man without compromising her career. With her spirit, it’s not surprising that she continued to star as a romantic lead even in her forties.
Now I see in that erect posture of hers in her final years, those fierce expressions, her pride in a life well lived.
How many of us can follow our own standards consistently, passionately, for as many years as she did? No wonder my aunt found Katharine Hepburn so breathtaking at 80. I look at her later performances now, and see the same. Imprinted on Katharine’s Hepburn’s face, her carriage, and even her voice is the caliber of life she lived.
Look at her. Isn’t she beautiful?