May 12th marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Katharine Hepburn, who, with four Best Actress Academy Award wins needs no career description. Miss Hepburn’s first win was for “Morning Glory” (1933), and from that point, despite whatever ups and down or accusations of being “box office poison” as she was labeled after a few failed films in the late 1930s, she remained a star.
“Morning Glory” was somehow prophetic to her career, playing the young actress who more than anything wants to be a great actress. Hepburn became a great actress and a great star, but that veneer of stardom may be what attracts the viewer and not necessarily always the quality of the performance. Not that the quality is bad; she is usually riveting, but when watching a Katharine Hepburn film, one is ever conscious it is Katharine Hepburn. She was not an actress to disappear into a role, but to make the character conform to her own strong personality. The way a person might pick up a pair of jeans off the floor and put them on.
Moreover she stole scenes as blithely as a remorseless thief, and one of the few co-stars to hold his own in a scene with her was Spencer Tracy. No wonder she found him irresistible.
She is fascinating to watch, but one role among all the great and dynamic women she has played stands out as most easy and natural to her. Her role as Jo in “Little Women” (1933) made in the same year as “Morning Glory,” illustrates the importance of appropriate casting and how much the right actor for the right role can effortlessly enhance a film. Hepburn stands out, among others who have played the character, as containing that right mixture of irascibility and tenderness, energy and awkwardness, determination and frustrating confusion. Miss Hepburn was so good as Jo because in real life she was so much like her. So was Louisa May Alcott, who wrote “Little Women” as a girls’ novel in 1868, just as irascible, profoundly free-thinking and scornful of what she felt was nonsense, as Miss Hepburn and Jo put together.
Even if Miss Alcott had lived as long as Katharine Hepburn did (96 years), she still would have missed seeing Hepburn in the film “Little Women.” In 1933 she would have been 101. Unfortunately, Miss Alcott died while only 57 years old in 1888. Though Alcott had already tasted the enormous success of her story, she could not have imagined what film would do to her novel. In the casting of Miss Hepburn as Jo, perhaps Miss Alcott would have been pleased. Between tromping around in Roderigo’s boots, watching her beloved sister dying, and sorting out her feelings for Professor Baer, Hepburn is here without that star’s veneer that she would in future wear so brilliantly. Her emotions are more transparent, raw, and simple. It is also perhaps one of her few really ensemble films, and that might explain why despite her strength in the role, we will see her more as Jo than as Katharine Hepburn. There is an incandescence that is much more interesting to see in an actor, I think, than what is called star quality.