Very few actresses have the longevity and sustained success of Katharine Hepburn. After becoming a theater star on Broadway, she immediately transitioned to a leading lady in Hollywood. Her upper-class Connecticut upbringing allowed her education and a sense of class that translated into a particular confidence on film. While her earliest roles came in modest dramas, she hit her stride as one of the leading figures of the screwball comedy period in the late 1930s. After starring in all-time classics Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story, she continued being America’s sweetheart with two decades beside Spencer Tracy, perhaps the most famous on-screen couple in the history of Hollywood. Hepburn is most remembered for the fiercely independent spirit that permeated her characters and made her as important and popular as the male stars she worked alongside.
The African Queen isn’t a clean start for her late career period, but it is relatively near the end of her most prosperous period of co-starring roles with Spencer Tracy [only three came after The African Queen, their last pairing is highlighted below], so it works out pretty well. In The African Queen, she plays Rose Sayer, the sister of a missionary in German-occupied Africa who is forced to flee at the onset of World War I. Her way out comes in the form of the title vessel and its owner, the gruff drunk Charlie Allnut, played by Humphrey Bogart, who won his sole Oscar in the role.
The film absolutely leans on its two stars, as they spend nearly the entire runtime alone together on the small boat. It is a classic odd couple, with Hepburn’s buttoned-up and proper woman a perfect foil for the blue collar manly man. Rose is thankfully much more than the uptight old maid she may appear to be, ready to get her hands dirty and necessary to rein in her unreliable captain. She quickly becomes a full partner in their relationship, despite being completely out of her realm. Her first hairbrained idea of creating ramming torpedoes using the scarce cargo is hilarious but also ingenious, an idea that totally stuns Charlie. Hepburn plays Rose with a wonderful verve; she seems to have as much fun as Rose on the river in what must have been a terribly difficult shoot.
She also works incredibly well with Bogart, just as she has done with strong movie stars throughout the eras. Having to quickly turn her odd couple partnership into a legitimate romance isn’t an easy task, but she really brings out a sweetness from the character without sacrificing her resilience. Rose and Charlie are a completely improbably romantic pairing and yet it completely works—certainly, it helps that these are two movie stars audience have grown to know and love for decades. Given that Hollywood now rarely puts middle age actors in adventure romances like The African Queen, their pairing is doubly impressive. If The African Queen were remade today [maybe I shouldn’t even suggest it…], there is no doubt the Rose character would be transformed into a much younger actress, trading in Hepburn’s experience for overt sex appeal. That would be a damned shame and a poor tribute to this film and performance.
As Hepburn moved past The African Queen, she went on a roll with some of the most towering and well received performances of her career. Though many of her most loved films may have come during the screwball era, she became an absolute Oscar dynamo in the coming years. She received 7 of her 12 Oscar nominations following The African Queen, winning in three of those roles. Famously, though, Hepburn never attended an Oscar ceremony, noting that her prize was her work—this dedication shows through in every performance. The six films highlighted below include those three iconic roles, as well as a few that are much less remembered. The 16 years between The African Queen and the first on the list unfortunately overlooks excellent performances in Summertime, The Rainmaker, and Suddenly, Last Summer, focusing on her final decade of consistent work.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner [Stanley Kramer, 1967]
Hepburn received her second Oscar for Best Actress in Stanley Kramer’s interracial marriage drama as Christina Drayton, the mother who is surprised with news of her daughter’s engagement. Without seeing or knowing the particulars of the film, you might expect a certain kind of character and performance, but Hepburn really defies the easiest expectations. When she first hears of the news Kramer is smart enough to let Hepburn’s face carry the heavy lifting here, and her reaction is complex but completely understandable. Unlike the speechifying that happens elsewhere in the film, this brief moment says everything about the fear and sadness the mother has knowing her young daughter is ignorant to the full scale of her decision. Hepburn’s performance throughout Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner holds one of the most extraordinary set of eyes I’ve ever seen on film. Her eyes look like they could explode into tears of sadness, anger, or joy at any given moment. When she finally does have a moment to fully show this emotion, it isn’t surprisingly that it is mostly from joy [with maybe a touch of melancholy mixed in]. The last of her performances with Spencer Tracy [who sadly died shortly after the film’s release], it is a wonderful capstone to their partnership. They may no longer be spry young lovers, but as the film’s conclusion reminds us, they haven’t forgotten that they once were. In a film that hasn’t aged quite so well for what at times comes off as hemming and hawing over interracial marriage, this is a beautiful sentiment to leave on.
The Lion in Winter [Anthony Harvey, 1968]
As Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hepburn turns in a staggering performance amidst family quibbles and dirty politics. She is appropriately strong willed among the macho men around her, but she brings an extraordinary amount of life and humor to the role. Hepburn turns the haughty dialogue to an endless line of zingers—my favorite [I don’t think I’m alone in this] is definitely “Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians!,” but there are many others. OK, here’s another: “I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it justice!” Yet as the film goes on, the softer side comes out, evolving into a well-pitched dramatic performance. Here, she shares the scene with not one but two powerhouse performers, Peter O’Toole and a young [and quite strapping] Anthony Hopkins as her husband and most ambitious son, respectively. Eleanor takes on a bigger role in the film’s second half, but the character is arguably a supporting one especially considering O’Toole’s King Henry II being the clear focus. Still, Hepburn was nominated for and shared the win [a rare tie for the Oscar, with Barbra Streisand of Funny Girl] for Best Actress. It was her second consecutive win and third overall, making her the first woman to win three Best Actress awards and forever cementing her as the cinema’s greatest actress. But this wouldn’t be her last hurrah...
The Trojan Women [Mihalis Kakogiannis, 1971]
Hepburn continued playing royalty as Hecuba in The Trojan Women, a European art film based on the ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides. The film is staged very much as it must have been in 415 BC, in an open space with a large cast performing as “the chorus,” literally surrounding the main actors as they deliver long monologues. At times this gives The Trojan Women a striking look, especially when director Kakogiannis [credited as Michael Cacoyannis] uses the camera’s movement to full effect, adding modernity to the classical. This style of play is an actor’s dream, and with actors like Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave let loose on long and emotional monologues, it is definitely a showcase. The film takes place during the mythological Peloponnesian War, after the city of Troy has been destroyed, leaving the women widowed and to be enslaved. Hecuba, the wife of King Priam, suffers particular hardship as her daughter Cassandra has gone mad and she learns of the death of another daughter, Polxena. Hepburn cycles through anger and sadness seamlessly, all while delivering the dense dialogue. Her costuming covers her entire body, save only her face, which has a nice highlighting effect on the actress’s most important feature. Overall, The Trojan Women is an odd clash of styles, not entirely satisfying as a film, but it is definitely a platform for performance.
The Glass Menagerie [Anthony Harvey, 1973]
From an ancient tragedy, to a modern one, Hepburn next starred in an ABC television adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie. This was the first of several television movies Hepburn would star in, though she still would have a few theatrical releases left. I can’t speak to The Corn Is Green or Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry, but this turn was an absolute success, nominated for six Primetime Emmy awards, including a nomination for Best Lead Actress [she would lose to Cicely Tyson, however]. This was also a re-team with The Lion in Winter director Anthony Harvey, though on a much smaller scale. His direction of The Glass Menagerie focuses primarily on the play’s dialogue and performances, without doing much to visually differentiate it from a stage production. Naturally, Hepburn plays Amanda Wingfield, mother to rebellious Tom [a dashing Sam Waterston] and lonesome Laura [Joanna Miles, who took home an Emmy for her fabulous performance]. Amanda is the perfect kind of role for Hepburn at this stage of her career—she may be past her prime, but the actress is able to bring a tangible sense of history that comes through the character. Undoubtedly, this is an underseen film and it’s certainly not an essential turn in Hepburn’s career. If you’re looking for a version of The Glass Menagerie, you’re better off with the more cinematic Paul Newman directed one, but seeing Hepburn in the main role is well worthwhile.
Rooster Cogburn [Stuart Millar, 1975]
In what you could consider her penultimate film of interest, Hepburn co-starred in a classic Western, alongside the icon of American Westerns in the sequel to one of his most beloved films. Considering the span of Hepburn’s career, it is quite notable that she never did a lot of work in the genre—from what I can tell, she only tackled the West twice before, The Rainmaker  with Burt Lancaster and and Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass . So sharing the screen with John Wayne in a follow up to True Grit is a strange and fun little Hollywood footnote. The basic premise is similar to the original: Rooster Cogburn is on a long journey to find a group of ruthless killers and he has some unwanted company with a personal stake. But where True Grit’s companion was a young girl, Rooster Cogburn matches him up with Hepburn’s Eual Goodnight, old spinster daughter of a preacher. Like The African Queen, it is another odd couple scenario with almost the same dynamic—the proper woman of God plus the old drunk rascal. Her position vacillates between potential future wife and den mother as she cooks and cares for Rooster and harps on his lesser qualities. All in all, it’s actually pretty cute. And, really, her presence does classy up the joint, especially with John Wayne clearly on his last legs [he seems like he literally can barely stand at this point]. The film’s light adventure tone doesn’t allow for too many big dramatic moments, and yet Ms. Goodnight’s farewell to her new one-eyed friend lands with tears in her’s.
On Golden Pond [Mark Rydell, 1981]
Though it wasn’t her last role, On Golden Pond presented a nice swansong for Hepburn. She won her fourth and final Oscar for Best Lead performance, over past and/or future winners, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, and Diane Keaton, all arguably in the peak of their careers. In the film, she plays Ethel Thayer, the ageing wife of Norman [Henry Fonda, who also won the Oscar for his performance], who spend every summer in their vacation cottage in the idyllic countryside. The film’s emotional core is grounded in their relationship, but Norman gets more of the narrative thrust—his birthday [perhaps his last] is a major plot sequence and his relationship with estranged daughter [Jane Fonda] gives most of the narrative stakes. In terms of character arc, the film charts Norman’s move from curmudgeon to the burgeoning relationship with his grandson, which opens him up. Ethel is always present and always there to throw a loving jab at her obstinate husband, and she is as delightfully sweet as expected. Honestly, this isn't one of my favorite Hepburn performances, but I can't deny the beautiful context in her casting. Simply put, On Golden Pond wouldn’t be remembered so fondly if it weren’t for Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. Likely any two other actors cast in the film and it probably doesn’t click so well—depending on the replacements it could have been a fine movie, sure, but not as golden.