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Katherine Hepburn's Acting Style

By Edited Apr 25, 2015 0 0

We, the audience, continue to have cinematic tastes that remain ever-changing and even more so critical in regards to whom we select as our icons throughout history. I always find it intriguing when an actress manages to have a lengthy film career in Hollywood. Such is the case with Katherine Hepburn. This silver screen icon has a theater and film career that spans 66 years! A woman whose roots started in theater in the late 20s, and who started acting in movies in the 30s must have something special to be remembered after such a long time when many of her peers have long since been forgotten.  Intrigued by this prospect, I selected three films so that I may analyze and make observations about her acting style. The three films that I have selected are: Adam’s Rib (1949), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and, On Golden Pond (1981). Each of Hepburn’s performances in my last two film selections garnered her Oscar wins.

Adam’s Rib (1949) was the first film starring Katherine Hepburn that I had ever watched. I honestly didn’t recognize her right away, because I didn’t know what she looked liked. Five minutes into the movie I hit the pause button and looked for pictures of her online. Once I was able to identify her in the film, she immediately struck me as having a stern, reserved, dominant, yet somehow very approachable air about her. It was the type of self-confidence that sometimes other people can often mistake for arrogance. To hear her speak is my absolute favorite characteristic of her acting style. Her pronunciation is always very clean and clear adding to her distinction as an actress. Such a style of speech is a dying - if not already dead – art form when compared to today’s mumbling of common vernacular. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with me. “Hepburn's upper-class Connecticut accent, polished at Bryn Mawr, seemed to have rubbed a good percentage of the public the wrong way. To them she seemed snooty and pretentious -- a classic case of confusing the performer with her character” (Cinescene.com).

In Adam’s Rib Hepburn portrays a strong, dominant, intelligent lawyer named Amanda – not your typical sexy bombshell, damsel in distress or submissive house wife that was common in films of 1949. This signified to me that she was interested in roles that challenged the status quo. As the film went on, I found her smile during many scenes to be somehow awkward and stiff. At first I thought she was preoccupied with her performance leading to her being unaware of her facial expressions and body language. Then I realized, as a lawyer (her character in this film) she would be preoccupied since she was acting as a defending lawyer opposite her lawyer husband on the same court case. What an amazing attention to detail and a real connection with the inner workings of her fictional character!  

I noticed interesting parallels between Hepburn and the role of Amanda. Amanda is confident, rejects mainstream norms of femininity and conformity by wearing pants in her free time, having a college education, working in a male-dominated career and not having children - just like Hepburn in real life. I find myself in agreement with Emanuel Levy, “In Adam's Rib, Hepburn identified with her character, which reflected the way she felt about sexism. Ambitious and intelligent, Amanda scrapes the nerves of male authority and challenges male supremacy.” Although extremely poised and refined, Hepburn’s comic timing was sublime – beyond subtle! She was able to solicit laughter without asking for it in an obvious manner.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) was the second movie on my list of films featuring Katherine Hepburn. Within the first two minutes of her screen time, I was already laughing. Just as in Adam’s Rib, her comic timing was flawless. When her Caucasian daughter in the film first reveals that she is going to marry an African American man, Hepburn looks like she’s about to explode with anger, yet she remains restrained and postured as always. The subtle nuances of emotion that cascade over her visage and almost simultaneously disappear are easy to miss if you blink, yet add so much to this performance. In Dinner her smile comes off as natural. At one point Hepburn is able to summon up an appropriate amount of tears allowing them to well up in her eyes as she delivers a poignant speech. Crying while delivering a message can sometimes backfire for an actress causing her to look as if she is overacting or going for a comedic effect. However, by choosing to allow the viewer to see just the beginning of tears in her eyes, she was able her to enhance her performance.

“Until the landmark 1967 civil-rights case Loving vs. Virginia, which was decided just five months before Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released, marriage between blacks and whites was still illegal in parts of America, and Kramer’s (the director) film was notable for its willingness to tackle this taboo topic (History.com).” Again by addressing the theme of interracial marriage, Hepburn chose a role that challenged old beliefs and fading social standards; and I once again saw that she was a forward-thinking actress. Art imitates life – again!  

So far her monologues in both films have always commanded my attention. I never found my mind drifting. Each time Hepburn incorporated naturally occurring pauses during such speeches that made me anticipate the next word. Towards the end of the film she even managed to cry on cue again; and just as before it was natural and never forced.

In my final film selection, On Golden Pond (1981) Hepburn received top billing. I find that truly amazing that after 49 years of acting in films she could still receive top billing at age 74! So many actresses due to the standards set by today’s star-making machine, go from receiving awards and top billing status to supporting parts and parts as comedy relief  (i.e. Charlize Theron in Hancock (2008) and Susan Sarandon in The Lovely Bones (2009)) once their ages pass the mid 30s mark.

Hepburn’s body language in opening of the film exhibits a subtle consistent shake. This made me wonder if she was suffering from Parkinson’s disease at that time. Upon further investigation, I found out that she “did not suffer from Parkinson's disease. She set the record straight in the 1993 TV documentary Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (1993) (TV), which she narrated herself. Quote: "Now to squash a rumor. No, I don't have Parkinson's. I inherited my shaking head from my grandfather Hepburn. I discovered that whiskey helps stop the shaking. Problem is, if you're not careful, it stops the rest of you too. My head just shakes, but I promise you, it ain't gonna fall off (IMDB.com)!”  This talented actress was even able to incorporate her idiosyncratic headshake into the character of this film to the point that I wondered if she was acting or truly had a sickness. Such talent! At the ripe old age of 74 she exhibited a feisty personality and simply radiated happiness. She honestly seemed to be content with being a woman in her 70s.

In Pond her character’s name is Ethel. That Bryn Mawr style of speaking that is proprietary to Hepburn fits the character perfectly. Again her performance is emotive yet simultaneously restrained; and her speaking style although extremely refined and sophisticated never comes across as artificial or forced. It is simply natural. Even with her refined tone of speech, she delivered messages throughout the film without ever offering a hint of condescension. Take for example, when Ethel explains to Billy that her husband only wants to prove that he is still in control of his life and not succumbing to old age: “It means he’s like an old lion. He has to remind himself that he can still roar” (On Golden Pond (1981)). It’s difficult to remember that she is actually acting in this movie. It was really like watching a moment in an elderly woman’s life. Her performance is effortless and completely believable. It truly is no wonder that she won an Oscar for this performance.

All in all I have enjoyed learning about this iconic actress. Of the three films that I have viewed, I have no criticism of her performances. However, some film critics have argued that her performances lacked range since she usually portrayed strong female characters that challenged the status quo. Again, this is in my opinion is hardly a criticism of her actual ability to act. I find it notable that Hepburn was able to portray strong protagonists again and again without alienating the audience. “Film critic Molly Haskell has commented on the importance of this to Hepburn's career: with an intimidating presence, it was necessary that her characters "do some kind of self-abasement, to stay on the good side of the audience" (Wikipedia.org). She did just this in Adam’s Rib in moments where her character, Amanda, showed her emotional vulnerability to her husband outside of the courtroom.

She chose to portray strong female protagonists in roles that challenged society’s set standards. By doing so she not only offered viewers entertainment, rather delivered messages.  She forced the audience to contemplate things from a different perspective that they had possibly never attempted to consider since they had no previous exposure to such opposing views. Katherine Hepburn was not only an actress but a messenger of social change


Works Cited

Dashiell, Chris. "Katharine Hepburn." Cinescene.com - Katharine Hepburn. Cinescene.com, 2003. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.cinescene.com/dash/khepburn.htm>.

"Hepburn, Tracy and Poitier Star in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." History.com. A&E Television Networks. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/hepburn-tracy-and-poitier-star-in-guess-whos-coming-to-dinner>.

"Katharine Hepburn." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 May 2012. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Hepburn>.

Levy, Emanuel. "FILM REVIEWS." Welcome to Emanuel Levy. Emanuel Levy. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.emanuellevy.com/review/adams-rib-1949-2/>.

On Golden Pond. Dir. Mark Rydell. Perf. Katherine Hepburn, Henry Fonda. Universal Pictures, 1981. DVD.

"Trivia." IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000031/bio>.



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