Though she is my favorite actress of all-time, I am not the least bit biased when I say that Katharine Hepburn is the greatest cinematic actress to ever act in Hollywood. To prove my point, the American Film Institute even agrees, ranking her #1 on the “Top 25 Female Screen Legends” list. Even the Academy Awards loved the unique actress, with Katharine being nominated for twelve Oscars and winning four, the most won by a single actor to this date.
However, she has been criticized for only being able to act in variations of a single character- the quick-witted, strong-willed leading lady who could strongly match (or outshine) the presence of her male co-star. This criticism was truthful, with the character of Tracy from Philadelphia Story being the closest to what Katharine was like in real-life. But, in a time when female actors were seen as secondary, Hepburn challenged the stereotype by wearing pants, refusing publicity interviews and playing strong women in male-dominated professions, causing her to be seen as more of a leading actor than a damsel both on and off screen.
Because The Philadelphia Story was written for her, it should not come to a surprise that Hepburn’s own life mirrors that of Tracy’s. Just like Tracy, Katharine did not want to be referred to as a “goddess” by the George’s of the Academy, she just wanted to be respected as a human being. In fact, Hepburn once commented “As for me, prizes are nothing. My prize is my work,” further solidifying her stance on traditional Hollywood by not attending any Academy Awards until 1974, when she presented an award. However, Hepburn had her own CK Dexter Haven in her life, who challenged her to grow and be a model for society. That person was Spencer Tracy
Hepburn first met Tracy in 1942, on the set of Woman of the Year, their first of nine films together. Wearing high heels, Katharine first towered over Spencer (much like Tracy towered over Dexter in their first marriage) and commented ” I’m afraid I’m a bit tall for you.” But the director of the film, George Stevens, was quick to reply ” Don’t worry, he’ll cut you down to size.” It is this quote that really defines the Spencer-Tracy dynamic that both audience and critics loved: an on-screen pair that were equals who could respect (and also reality-check) each other.
Hepburn-Tracy films truly stand the test of time because their relationship embodies a theme that men and women have been struggling with since the beginning of time- finding the balance between personal ambition and personal relationships. Additionally, H-T films satirized this dilemma through having Katharine play the ambitious character while Spencer was the traditional family type, flipping society’s view of gender roles on its head. Their partnership also displayed the cinematic “ideal society” of a romance being compromised of two equal individuals who both support and challenge each other.
With the Tracy-Hepburn off-screen romance was Hollywood’s best kept secret until his death in 1967, audience members could not deny that the couple’s films were filled with delightful chemistry between the pair. However, I believe the Spencer-Katharine relationship can best be summed by this quote from Gene Kelly: “At lunchtime, they’d just meet and sit on the bench in the lot- they’d hold hands and talk, everyone left them alone in their private world”. If the Philadelphia Story wants us to think of good relationships being built by good conversation, I have no doubt that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had the ideal relationship.
If you have any interest in watching the Hepburn-Tracy cannon films, I suggest you start with Adam’s Rib or The Desk Set. Enjoy!