NEW YORK - For my money, Katharine Hepburn was America’s finest actress. But America’s finest clothes horse?
A new exhibit - “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen,” at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts - makes the case.
With her preference for slacks, Hepburn cultivated a stylishly androgynous look that made her an icon to many, if an irritant to some.
By the way, note that I am not using the word “pants” here in deference to her immortal line in “Pat and Mike” (1952), the best of her nine movies with Spencer Tracy: “They’re not pants, they’re slacks. Watch your language.”
It’s Hepburn’s performances, of course, and not her costumes, that are her legacy. In her 66-year career, she appeared in 44 films and eight television movies, as well as some 33 plays. The stinker quotient is awfully low for such an extended run.
Not that there weren’t more than a few of those. She was ineffably miscast as a Chinese patriot in the Pearl Buck adaptation “Dragon Seed” (1944). With her Yankee verve and Bryn Mawr intonations, who is less Mandarin than Hepburn?
And even though Kenneth Tynan once referred to her as “the Garbo of the Great Outdoors,” that’s because he probably never saw her as the uneducated Ozark mountain girl Trigger Hicks in “Spitfire” (1934).
In her 1991 autobiography “Me: Stories of My Life,” which is so stylistically staccato that it makes Mickey Spillane seem like late Henry James, Hepburn had this to say: “Was a Southern sort of mountain spirit. Shame on you, Kathy.”
But of the glories, there is almost no end. In her very first movie, “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932), opposite John Barrymore, she already was sui generis - imperially elegant, angular and self-possessed. A year later, as the star-struck actress in “Morning Glory,” she won the first of her four Oscars.
Her performances as Jo in “Little Women” (1933) and as the small-town social climber in “Alice Adams” (1935) are so strikingly vivid that it’s as if she was putting us right inside her head.
It’s difficult to believe that for a time in the late 1930s, exhibitors labeled Hepburn “box office poison.” (She was in good company, along with Garbo and Dietrich). It’s equally difficult to comprehend that perhaps her greatest comedy, “Bringing Up Baby” (1938), where she plays a madcap heiress opposite Cary Grant’s hornswoggled paleontologist, was a commercial flop.
None of this sank Hepburn, any more than the devastating reviews of her Broadway performance in “The Lake” back in 1933, which prompted Dorothy Parker’s immortal quip that Hepburn “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
Less well known is George S. Kaufman’s jab, after hearing that Hepburn had sheets put up in the wings to avoid a draft: “She’s afraid she might catch acting.” (Hepburn, it should be noted, agreed with Parker and Kaufman).
She engineered her own triumphant comeback in Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story,” first on Broadway in 1939 and then as a George Cukor film in 1940, co-starring Grant and Jimmy Stewart. She had bought the film rights (reportedly bankrolled by boyfriend Howard Hughes) before the play opened, which allowed her to call the shots in Hollywood. Hepburn said of her role as Philadelphia blueblood Tracy Lord: “I gave her life and she gave me back my career.”
Hepburn’s best comedies also include “Adam’s Rib” (1949), where she and Tracy parry as married lawyers on opposing ends of a court battle, and “The African Queen” (1951), where her spinster Rosie, in a performance inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s smile-in-the-face-of-adversity fortitude, settles in with Humphrey Bogart’s gin-soaked river rat.
Films like these set her firmly in the pantheon of Hollywood’s most accomplished comedians. What is virtually unprecedented is how she could be equally great in tragedy.
As drug-addicted Mary Tyrone in Sidney Lumet’s film of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962) she gives her finest performance. In her final scene, dragging around her wedding dress in a doped-up haze, she evokes abject awe and terror.
To care for the dying Tracy, Hepburn did not work again in the movies until 1967, in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Tracy died 17 days after filming his last scene.
In the remaining decades, she played indomitable types: Eleanor of Aquitane in “The Lion in Winter” (1968), Hecuba, Queen of Troy in “The Trojan Women” (1971), Coco Chanel on Broadway in the panned but popular musical “Coco” (1969-1970) and, at 74, Yankee matriarch Ethel Thayer opposite Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond” (1981).
In her own life, as both actress and modern American female archetype, Hepburn was as indomitable as any of the women she played.
— “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen” runs through Jan. 12, at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, Broadway at 65th Street. Information: +1-212-870-1600; www.nypl.org/locations/lpa.