To resurrect a bit of old Hollywood lingo, Katharine Hepburn was one classy dame, on the screen and off. Perhaps that is why so many Americans considered her a notch above most other movie actresses of her era.
And what an era it was for Ms. Hepburn, who died Sunday at 96 after an often brilliant, always commanding, acting career that spanned seven decades, from the 1930s into the 1990s.
Possessed of handsome if not classic beauty, a patrician New England accent, and a feisty attitude that inspired generations of independent women, she won a record four Academy Awards for best actress out of 12 nominations. Although she was known mostly for her cinematic work, she also had a distinguished run on the stage, especially in Shakespearean roles.
A testament to her skill was that she often outshone the plays and movies themselves. “One mysterious thing she has learned to do,” a New York Times reviewer once wrote, “is breathe unchallengeable life into lifeless lines.”
Ms. Hepburn won the Oscar in only her third film, Morning Glory, in 1933. Her later work cut through a remarkably wide spectrum of versatility that included comedies such as Bringing Up Baby in 1938, and classic romance adventures such as The African Queen, with Humphrey Bogart in 1951.
One thing Ms. Hepburn wasn't was a denizen of Tinsel Town and its myriad scandals. She kept her private life out of the tabloids. Her 25-year love affair with Spencer Tracy, with whom she appeared in nine films, was largely unknown to the public until after his death.
Averse to the public spotlight while thriving in stardom, she declined to show up to receive her other three Oscars, which came for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond, with Henry Fonda in 1981. Some years later, she apologized publicly for her tactlessness.
In short, Katharine Hepburn was a figure of Hollywood legend who was not of Hollywood. When not on the stage or making films, she lived in New York City and Connecticut, assiduously maintaining her privacy.
Although she was slowed near the end by physical ailments and tremors like those from Parkinson's disease, she managed a career of fame and remarkable public acceptance mostly on her own terms. Her publicist said she simply died of old age. No one could ask for a better final line in the script of life.
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