Around 1986, if memory serves, Life magazine ran a filler portrait gallery of Hollywood actresses, a glossy tribute to the female gaze: Elizabeth Taylor’s come-hither stare, Grace Kelly’s mildly affronted stare, Janet Leigh’s panicked stare. And dropped amid all this studio-lit pulchritude like a misplaced AARP ad: a seventysomething Katharine Hepburn in a tree, pruning. Too intent on her task to give good gaze, hair wriggling free of her signature topknot, she was the only woman photographed actually doing rather than being, and the only one captured, as the phrase goes, “past her prime”—that tired old stamp Hepburn variously defied through a fourth Oscar win at age 74 and vigorous yardwork.
She wore her sharp-edged beauty like a favorite pair of trousers, and she walked like a man when she was treated like a child, or a has-been. The time George Cukor slapped her face and called her an amateur on set, she coolly replied, nose upturned, “That’s your opinion.” In 1938, the trade papers labeled Hepburn “box-office poison” and she narrowly lost out on playing Scarlett O’Hara, so she went and orchestrated the immortal Philadelphia Story. She withstood the death (an apparent suicide) of her adored elder brother and Spencer Tracy’s decades-long self-annihilation—the latter endured at some cost to her career. At the cusp of the McCarthy era, she used her voice to advocate freedom of speech, and however meandering a read, her 1991 memoir Me proved the rare autobiography that earned its auto. A wing of feminist film theory could be devoted to her cast of characters: the definitive Jo March in Little Women, Tracy’s nemesis-at-law in Adam’s Rib, or the title role in her first collaboration with Tracy, Woman of the Year—and that she was, whichever year you please.