Another Hepburn has a birthday today and I'd be remiss to let this one go unnoticed. The great Katharine Hepburn, one of the biggest stars in the history of the movies, who died at 96 in 2003, living a long, fruitful life as one of the most unique and memorable screen presences of all time. Named by the American Film Institute as the greatest female star of all time, actually- and here's what for me are her most essential films:
1) The Philadelphia Story (1940)
She became a star in the early thirties with movies like Little Women and Alice Adams, but this is the one that directly cemented her on screen persona the way she's remembered- the upper class, intellectual, fiercely independent modern woman, who, because of the time, always has to get taken down a peg or two by the men just so they can stand in her presence. That's kind of annoying, but when Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart are fighting over you that's not a bad place to be, and the acting is amazing from all three leads in this one.
2) Woman of the Year (1942)
The first (and my favorite) of the nine movies she made with Spencer Tracy, her legendary on and off screen love interest. There's a slight mystery to the exact nature of their 27 year relationship, but here where they met, there's no doubt that the sparks were there. The chemistry between them is charged and this remains their most romantic movie, despite being a battle of the sexes comedy where Kate, of course, is the one that must ultimately be molded again to fit the man's idea of what she ought to be. It's ok though- they could knock her down on screen all they wanted but it could never happen off. She was just too much herself.
3) Summertime (1955)
In this one Kate is an older single woman alone on a summer vacation to Italy. What a concept, right? Of course it's been stolen many times since then, from Under the Tuscan Sun to Eat, Pray, Love, but David Lean's original is the best. This is what could be called a gooey chick flick now, but it's unapologetically romantic (she has a summer fling with the hunky Rossano Brazzi) and thanks to being filmed on location during the height of tourist season, functions as the best kind of travel porn, as Italy always does. One of the best of the 50's tearjerkers.
4) Bringing Up Baby (1938)
Before Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant was probably her best match on screen, and this is without a doubt, for me her funniest and most out there performance. Bringing Up Baby is the most classic example of a screwball comedy and it's so nutty that it may not necessarily be for everyone, especially modern viewers, who aren't used to this kind of comedy at all (I've heard that some people hate this movie in particular, actually). But the performances from the two leads are so bold and full on that it's gotta be worth at least trying out. Grant and Hepburn are hilarious as a befuddled scientist and a possbily insane kook who purposely sets out to trip him up. I love this movie exactly because it's the kind that can't be made anymore- I don't think anyone would be brave enough (actor or director) to even try.
5) Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
This was the last movie that Hepburn and Tracy made together before he died, and though the subject's dated now, Hepburn is one of the great movie moms, and in her later years has lost absolutely none of her fire and intelligence as the progressive parent who must face her daughter's choice of a husband. I love her in this because, unlike some stars in their older years, who tend to lose that charisma that made them when they were young, Katharine Hepburn really never did, and throughout her nearly 6 decades in the movies she remained nothing but herself to the very end, a source of comfort and reassurance that nothing, not age or men or even illness (she had Parkinsons in her later years) was ever going to bring her down one notch. And it never did.