In The Magazine

Screen Queen: Katharine Hepburn

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

star of both stage and screen, Hollywood’s Golden Age icon Katharine Hepburn speaks candidly on everything from her most iconic co-stars to the image she’s carefully crafted for herself. In this never-before-seen interview with Gregory Speck, the screen legend tells her own story—in her own words.

On Show Business

I think that film is the greatest medium in existence for attacking any subject you like. Film offers tremendous opportunity for communication, for you can say anything with it. And I was just bloody lucky. I was lucky beyond belief. Of course I got fired all the time, during rehearsals or after something had opened. But I was seen, and I got the job. I really don’t know how people today get in to be seen or to be read. Now you can’t get an agent because you must first join a union. But you can’t join unless you get a job, which you can’t do without an agent, it seems. It was all luck. I know many brilliant actors who didn’t become stars. Flashies become stars. Getting the part is very important, too. What I should be congratulated for is picking the material.

On Working with Spencer Tracy

Spencer was a brilliant actor, and I learned an awful lot from him. He never overdid it and he had a remarkable memory, remarkable concentration, so that whatever he said, with the utmost simplicity, came off a very firm foundation. I think he and Laurette Taylor were the best actors I’ve ever seen, She had that same gift, and yet life for them was extremely difficult. Living was a problem. Acting was their easy chair.

And Humphrey Bogart

Bogey was one of the few truly happy people, I think. Of course, Betty Bacall can tell us for sure. He drank out of merriment, because he liked the taste. The people who had trouble with it drank to escape. He drank too much, but not out of desperation. He was a charming actor, and he won the Oscar for [The African Queen]. He started out playing “mama’s boys” for he was very fine and upright and socially a very correct fellow. And then he degenerated into being a killer, while Spencer started out as a villain and then became a priest!

On Modern Pop Culture

It’s downright pathetic. You look at television today, not to mention the theatre, and movies, too, and it’s an empty bore. It’s really so damned sad that we’ve come to this state of affairs. You go to the theatre, and the first act’s about bodily functions, and the second act’s on sex in the puerile style. What’s it come to? I still think that the silent era was the golden age of Hollywood, for they made the most beautiful films, and the stars were lovely, and they had such character and personality. They demonstrated honorable qualities by which to live. I guess I’m part of the last generation that grew up instilled with a proper code of behavior. I came of age during a period when people “kept house,” so to speak. They don’t do it any longer. They just keep the television in the living room, and it’s just a garbage box, and so if you keep the garbage in the living room it will smell, and you will begin to smell like it.

On Her Own Political Orientation

You know, I’m a liberal . . . my family is socialistically inclined, and I’m a product of that upbringing. I still believe in the same liberal point of view about the same issues. But we must continue to recognize that poverty and the desperation of people are issues that need answers. Not to see them would be a fault.

On Criticism

Since 1930 I have never read a review about me. At that time I was doing the play Death Takes a Holiday on Broadway, and I was referred to as “the skeleton girl with the rasping voice.” Philip Merivale told me not to read reviews ever again. Reviews can be quite controversial, and provocative, which is good if it brings people to the theater.

On the Legend She’s Created

Well, I’m not a philosopher. I lead an isolated existence. I am an actress, which means I sell myself, my personality. I share myself, and that’s a form of prostitution. That’s the field, I know. I’m a personality, a performer. I was not considered beautiful. Everyone labors under that delusion. You know, I recently made a speech at the baccalaureate ceremony at Bryn Mawr, and I talked about Katharine Hepburn. There’s the image and presence that’s been created on the screen, a product of my work and that of others. But then there’s ne. I’m very different from the one everyone seems to know. She’s a legend, that is, a creation of, by, and for the public. But I don’t really know her. She was created by others. I’m sort of like the man who cleans the furnace. I keep her going.


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