Broad Cinema: Katharine Hepburn Was A Trailblazer

More than her acting, it was her willingness to defy stereotypes.

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a weekly column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

This week, we celebrate Katharine Hepburn, whose classic The African Queen plays the Alamo Drafthouse later this month. You can get your tickets here.

Imagine a time when women didn’t wear pants. Not because they felt like wearing skirts (and I’m sure many of them did), but because it was considered outrageous. Okay, maybe that doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but women could be arrested for wearing pants in public at one time. One woman in Hollywood defied that and it changed fashion perceptions. When Katherine Hepburn wore jeans to RKO studio, they took them from her. Instead of bowing to studio demands, she decided to walk around in her underwear until they gave them back. It led to a clothing revolution. Hollywood magazine called it just that back in 1934.

Katharine Hepburn made 43 films over sixty years in Hollywood. That alone would be a feat. Still, getting cast as a lead when you’re a stunning young actress isn’t exactly unusual. Young, beautiful women were often the focus of films back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Hepburn’s acting was praised, and she won awards. However, what Katharine Hepburn did to break barriers and defy stereotypes is what makes her stand apart from the rest. Her defiant nature began to change things for women in Hollywood.

The influence stars had on the public was enormous. Inside Hollywood, however, it was the studios that ruled. Maybe an underwear protest wasn’t going to get Hepburn fired or stall her career, but asking for what she was worth could have. Hepburn’s first film was A Bill of Divorcement opposite John Barrymore. Before she began filming, she demanded a raise to $1,500 a week, a huge amount of money in today’s terms. No one made that until they were established. Hepburn got what she wanted.

The roles she played were smart, strong and far more assertive than the ones we were seeing in the theaters back then. Think Bringing Up Baby. She wasn’t afraid to look unglamorous for the time, cutting her hair and even playing a woman pretending to be a man in Sylvia Scarlett.

A few bad films could destroy an actress, and Hepburn definitely had some of those. She was box office poison here and there in her career. When it first began to stall, she decided not to take it lying down. Hepburn bought the rights to A Philadelphia Story and starred in the play. It did so well, she was approached by studios wanting to turn it into a film. She chose MGM, agreeing to do it only if she picked the director, her co-stars, and starred in the film herself. She helped develop Woman of the Year as well, again picking the participants and starring. This one was about an independent woman whose success caused trouble in her relationship. Strange stuff for Hollywood back then, but Hepburn pulled it off. She pulled it off so well, in fact, that she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Women in Hollywood had a shelf life back then, in terms of nabbing the leading roles. Not 25 anymore? Well, madam, perhaps it’s time to retire and become a hermit, of whom many whispered tales will be told. Where is she now? Is she still pretty? What a shame her looks faded. Hepburn wasn’t taking that. She’s famous for embracing the “spinster” role as she got older. She played a series of ladies, both Shakespearean characters on stage (she was the only major Hollywood actress working on Broadway) and new characters on film. One of the most notable, of course was Rose Sayer in The African Queen. She embraced these roles, from Summertime to The Rainmaker, something most actresses didn’t do once the bloom of youth had fled. (She was nominated for Best Actress for all of them.)

You can’t overstate the influence that seeing someone famous do something unusual has on the populace, whether it’s in fashion or the roles being offered to women. There is no doubt that strong roles for older women like Katharine Hepburn paved the way for Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren. Critic David Thomson said of Hepburn's role in The Lion in Winter, “She [was] so remarkable, she may have given the misleading impression that Hollywood is interested in old people.” They were, giving her nominations for Suddenly, Last Summer and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. She won for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, A Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond in ’68, ’69 and ’82 respectively.

Hepburn proved that you could defy what’s expected of you in Hollywood and build a career on it. Thanks for the pants, Katharine.

Get your tickets here!