Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ranking the Oscar Winning Performances of Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn in Summertime
As Oscar Sunday lingers closer, it's time to look at the rich history and commemorate each passing day with something unique and special. For today's entry, it feels important to mark the 4 days left by honoring the only actress in Oscar history to have 4 acting wins: Katharine Hepburn. With a total of 12 nominations, she is widely considered one of the best actresses in classic film history for her strong and independent women characters and her charming and distinct voice. Her legacy lives on and while she may not have won for her most iconic films (The African Queen, The Philadelphia Story), she left behind an enviable body of work the likes of which are hard to ignore. The following is a ranking of her 4 wins.

1. The Lion in Winter (1968)

If there's one complaint that can be lobbied on Katharine Hepburn, it's that her style of acting is dated, uninteresting by modern standards. She is both at times classically trained, even in her funniest titles, and overwhelmingly subtle about scenery chewing. Her 12 Oscar nominations may show her range, but none of her work manages to express her capabilities quite as effectively as this 1968 film that saw her pit flamboyant language against Peter O'Toole, thus creating one of the most compelling historical melodramas of the 60's. It was also the year that Barbara Streisand tied in Best Actress for Funny Girl. In a sense it was symbolic of the Old Hollywood style of acting fading, leaving behind Hepburn's strong nomination track until the mid-80's with On Golden Pond.

2. On Golden Pond (1981)

Even if this was a sentimental vote, it was a fitting farewell (Oscar-wise) for Katharine Hepburn. Co-starring with Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond is one of the quintessential films about one's autumn years, featuring two actors whose decades of work are still important to modern audiences. The film is quaint (and that's not an insult), reflecting on the simple struggles of old life while giving Fonda one of his sweetest and most endearing roles. This was the film that put Hepburn in the unfathomable 4 Oscar wins category and thus cements her legacy as one of the all time greats. Her earnestness alone in this film is worthy of acclaim. Fun fact: This was the second highest grossing movie of 1981 with $119 million, behind Raiders of the Lost Ark. It beat Superman II, Arthur, and For Your Eyes Only.

3. Morning Glory (1933)

There are two ways people remember Katharine Hepburn. Like Bette Davis once sung, "They're either too young or too old." It's easy to see why she won for her first outing in 1933 (despite a 35 year gap until her next win) as she played an actress who could do no wrong. The film itself feels very dated in the ways that most early 30's films did. However, Hepburn's charisma was present even then, notably in a prophetic scene where she recites Shakespeare and alludes to becoming one of the greats. It may be a lesser film in an impressive career, but it showed that even at an early age, Hepburn was destined for greatness. This also marked the first time that she wouldn't attend the ceremony despite winning. She would keep this up for her entire career.

4. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (1967)

The film has nothing but good intentions when it comes to discussing race. Despite this, it still seems jarringly simple when compared to co-star Sidney Poitier's other racially charged film In the Heat of the Night. Katharine Hepburn co-starred with real life husband Spencer Tracy and daughter Katharine Houghton in a drama about an interracial couple. While dated, it should be seen as a compliment for how tame this message movie seems by today's standards. Even then, Hepburn is often overshadowed by Tracy's swan song performance, including a memorably rousing speech that was evident of the political climate of the late 60's. It may not have the bite that it used to, but most everything about it still holds up otherwise.

If you liked these, also check out her nominated roles in: Suddenly Last Summer, The African Queen, The Philadelphia Story, and Woman of the Year


  1. "The film has nothing but good intentions when it comes to discussing race. Despite this, it still seems jarringly simple when compared to co-star Sidney Poitier's other racially charged film In the Heat of the Night."

    Of the two racial films in the 1967 Best Picture lineup, you point to GWCTD as the safer, simpler film? Guess Who... addresses interracial marriage and the gap between offspring and parents in an eye-poppingly open fashion (achieved by shutting in the characters in the same house for the entire afternoon). In The Heat Of The Night, on the other hand, buries the race issue into a murder mystery. All that Guess Who... has are the issues, naked before the characters.

    1. I understand that the issues are more direct, but I still think that Guess Who still feels a lot tamer by today's standards. It's like Gentleman's Agreement's Anti-Semitism plot. They're well intentioned, but social progression has made them more time capsules of the political climate of their era than lasting pieces of art. At most, I am willing to accept that it is a solid exploration of the political climate of progressives in the late 60's who may be for freedom, but cannot take certain freedoms.

      While race is still secondary to the mystery, In the Heat of the Night resonates more because of what it represented. It has Poitier standing up to racists and playing a confident black man in a time where that wasn't common. This doesn't include the fact that it was shot in the south in a time so hostile, Poitier slept with a gun under his pillow.

      Maybe Guess Who isn't the simpler film thematically, but I still think it's safer by today's standards. Don't get me wrong. I like both of these films, but there's something too familiar and studio system about Guess Who in ways that I feel has dated it. Poitier's Mr. Tibbs resonates more just for his sheer confidence to stand up to evil.

    2. But that's the beauty of Guess Who.... It's so stagy and pure that it appears to be dated, but it actually isn't. It's characters of two different kinds of races literally having to deal with the intimate mixture of blood. Made in that era, it's a Stanley Kramer classic. Made today, it's a lackluster Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher romantic comedy.

      In The Heat Of The Night works as an murder mystery with some action in it, but that story could easily be told today because, sadly, it's probably more commonplace. But the subject of an interracial marriage still has that dramatic awkwardness that the parents of both sides of the couple must face. That's a racial issue on top of a generational issue on top of the simple stress of preparing for the marriage and surrendering of the flesh and blood you raised from birth. All that layered together makes for a more complex drama.