Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) is the subject of a major retrospective through February and March at the BFI in London. Much as I admire her, I find a little of her goes a long way – but she did appear in some wonderful films during her six-decade career, including several of my all-time favourites. Here’s a list of my top five Katharine Hepburn films from the vast collection screening at the BFI.
1. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Who could forget Hepburn as the haughty, ice maiden who has a meltdown on the eve of her society wedding when Spy magazine sends an attractive young reporter (and his photographer girlfriend) to cover her big day, her still-smitten first husband turns up, and she discovers that the high moral standards she imposes on others are occasionally hard to adhere to herself. An Oscar-winning James Stewart (for my money he could have won the award for his drunk scene alone) and an especially charismatic Cary Grant also star in this glorious, sophisticated and very funny classic from director George Cukor.
Hepburn plays a famous political newspaper columnist who first spars with then falls in love with her newspaper’s sports editor in this utterly delightful George Stevens romantic comedy which features one of the all-time great comedy sequences, when Hepburn’s gal-about-town character tries to prove that the domestic stuff is as easy as pie, and comes a memorable cropper in the kitchen. Like The Philadelphia Story, this is a particular delight for wardrobe-watchers as Hepburn’s clothes were designed by the great Adrian. And it’s also the first of the nine films that she made with her real-life long-term love, Spencer Tracy.
3. Summertime (1955)
While other middle-aged female stars were forced to play bitter and twisted women clinging on to their youth (and their men) – All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard etc – Hepburn gave a wonderful, appealingly vulnerable performance as a “spinster” falling in love for the first time during a holiday in Venice in this beautiful and sensitive film by director David Lean. Neither the 40-something Hepburn nor Venice ever looked lovelier.
4. The African Queen (1951)John Huston’s exciting First World War-set adventure/romance stars Hepburn as a buttoned-up missionary who finds herself (in more ways than one) when she and boozy steamboat captain Humphrey Bogart (who won his only Oscar for his performance) undertake an increasingly dangerous journey downriver, taking on the elements, the river currents and even the Germans at various points.
Despite what the poster says, Hepburn was in fact in her later twenties when she played the awkward young social climber whose compulsive need to put on airs and graces (and force her slightly screwy family to do the same) is her undoing in this gentle comedy from George Stevens. It also starred a young Fred MacMurray, and Hepburn counted it as one of her favourite of her own films.
* Visit www.whatson.bfi.org.uk for the full programme