Katharine Hepburn on life, love and skateboarding

In 1940, charming trio Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant teamed up to make The Philadelphia Story, a classic screwball story about a romantic entanglement involving a socialite woman (Hepburn) and a pack of eligible suitors.

While Hepburn’s admirers seem genuinely enamoured by her character, they are equally bewildered by the cocktail of confidence and self-sufficiency she seems to have swallowed whole. Hepburn’s desire to enjoy life on her own terms strikes them as otherworldly — she is a ‘goddess’ in their eyes; not the brilliant kind, but the distant, unattainable type. Even her father thinks so…

Tracy Lord (Hepburn): How do I look?
Seth Lord: Like a queen. Like a goddess.
Tracy Lord: And do you know how I feel?
Seth Lord: How?
Tracy Lord: Like a human. Like a human being.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

We know that Tracy Lord’s character was written with Hepburn in mind. Indeed, identifying the convergences between fiction and reality is easy; like Tracy, Hepburn was admired in Hollywood for her independent spirit. The press hailed her as “more modern than tomorrow”. Yet audiences also found her problematic. She was billed as a “perennial spinster” and was for a while considered to be box office poison, owing in large part to her lack of conventional sex appeal (she was rejected for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind for this very reason).

But this isn’t the Katharine Hepburn we know and adore today. Instead, we remember a woman who insisted on being herself. We look to her as a symbol of strength, a challenge to the status quo and an alternative voice for femininity.

Hepburn was not what you would call an upstanding feminist (if such a thing exists). She was comfortable playing women who devoted their life to love, which often meant forming relationships heavily weighted towards a man’s needs and desires, as was true of her personal life. Yet this doesn’t detract from the undeniable fact that she managed to carve out a space for her unique shape. She was unapologetically powerful with her words and actions, showing us, for example, the elegance and beauty of a pair of trousers, asking for a pay rise at the beginning of her career or pulling four no-shows at the Academy Awards, refusing to have her success be defined by trophies (ironically, Hepburn holds the record for most Oscars received by an actor).

Below are some of the inspiring things Hepburn said over the course of her lifetime. They convey what was perhaps Hepburn’s greatest achievement: freedom. Describing her upbringing, Hepburn once explained: “we were brought up by two extremely intelligent people who gave us the greatest gift that man can give anyone: freedom from fear.”

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Life

“I never lose sight of the fact that just being is fun.”
“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.”

Attitude

“Never complain. Never explain.”
“If you want to change attitudes, start with a change in behaviour.”
Be yourself, it’s a tough act to follow.”

Love

“To be loved is very demoralising.”
“Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get, only with what you are expecting to give; which is everything.”

Independence

If you always do what interest you, at least one person is pleased.”
“I never realised until lately that women were supposed to be the inferior sex.”
“As one goes through life one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.”
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