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Fierce for the Holidays - Fierce Women Features - Katharine Hepburn

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Fiercely Independent

Katharine Hepburn may be immortalized as a Hollywood star, but underneath her beautiful exterior lies a soulful depth of intelligence and fierce independence. Known for her spirited personality, Hepburn redefined conventional thinking and societal expectations of women. She was outspoken, assertive and constantly bucked the Hollywood system by refusing to play the role of an off-screen starlet.

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Hepburn’s temperament after the cameras stopped rolling set her apart from other actresses who basked in the glow of media attention. Instead, she refused to give interviews or sign autographs. At times she even rejected the notion of wearing makeup and immortalized the pant suit. The rest of us can thank her for making trousers chic. One instance when the costume department of RKO Studios hid her trousers for being unladylike, she walked around in her underwear, refusing to get dressed until they were returned to her. She was quoted at the time saying “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

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Hepburn didn’t need the flashiness of fame and celebrity to validate her artistry. Nor was it the reason behind her career. Her love for acting began long before her silver screen legacy while studying history at Bryn Mawr College. She went on to seriously pursue her passion for acting after graduating in 1928.

Hepburn cut her teeth with several years of theater, performing both on and off Broadway. Finally, after four years she was discovered by a RKO talent scout and was offered an audition. She landed the role and got her big break into film starring opposite of John Barrymore in the 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement. The huge success of the film led to a lengthy contract. It was during Hepburn’s time with the studio that led to her first Academy Award for Morning Glory - the first in a record breaking achievement of four statues that would be awarded to her.

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Hepburn’s success eventually hit a hiccup after a series of film flops. Undeterred by this, she remained calm and steady, despite being labeled as “box-office poison”. Taking matters into her own hands, she bought out the remainder of her contract with RKO. She then returned to the stage and later appeared as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story. The playwright Philip Barry had written the part specifically with Hepburn in mind. His instincts proved to be dead-on as the production captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike. The success of the hit show once again propelled Hepburn into the limelight.

Seizing the moment, she acquired the motion picture rights to The Philadelphia Story stage play with intentions of bringing it back to Hollywood. Knowing she had a hit in her back pocket, she negotiated a starring role for herself when she sold it to MGM. As expected the movie was critically acclaimed and garnered multiple Academy Award nominations. Reinstating Hepburn as Hollywood royalty and ensuring her legendary status.

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With her comeback efforts showing prosperous results it wasn’t long before the studio giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picked her up. It was during this time that the unexpected happened. Usually one to shun romance after living independently for so long, Cupid’s arrow finally struck pay dirt with her recurring co-star Spencer Tracy. The screen duo fell madly in love while making their first film together. The pair went on to make nine movies in an on-screen partnership that lasted 25 years. Their off-screen relationship lasted 27 years after an illness that took Tracy’s life in 1967.

Lasting Legacy

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Hepburn’s achievements are notable even by today’s standards. In 1999 she was named by the American Film Institute as the Greatest Female Star of Classic Hollywood Cinema. Over the course of her long and prolific career, she made dozens of films and garnered a stunning twelve Academy Award nominations, winning four. Her credits include many of the most celebrated pictures of all time: The Philadelphia Story (1940), The African Queen (1951), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner(1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), On Golden Pond (1981). Her fierce screen presence consistently over-shadowed her male co-stars. Proving that no one puts ‘baby in the corner’. Hepburn was more than your typical starlet. She transcended to become the 20th century’s first modern woman.