During her rise to fame and the 60 years she spent in the spotlight, Katharine Hepburn refused to follow the rules. She was entirely herself — sometimes to the shock of Hollywood and her adoring followers. In public, Hepburn was a strong, pioneering actor who refused to be relegated to the role of a debutante and who pushed to do exactly what she wanted. But we now know that in private, it was sometimes a very different story. A new documentary has revealed previously unheard tapes and unseen footage of Hepburn showing a vulnerability that is changing the way people look at one of Hollywood's greatest actors.
Pioneering progressive — even as a young woman
The documentary Call Me Kate hit Netflix in May 2023 to mark the 20th anniversary of Hepburn's death. Among the newly discovered treasures unearthed by the filmmakers were audio tapes, home videos, and photos that the public at large had never seen before. These all cast a new light on the outspoken and bold Hepburn, who attributed her almost unprecedented attitude to the encouragement of her progressive parents. She was the definition of "free-spirited," both as an adult and as a child.
She once insisted on being called "Jimmy" Hepburn
At the age of 9, for example, Hepburn shaved her head, wore her brother's clothes, and only answered to the name "Jimmy". Hepburn never let her beauty or femininity dictate her life or her choices. As a child, she marched to the beat of her own drum. She became even more independent as her fame increased. Not everyone appreciated Hepburn's outspoken personality, though. In fact, mega-producer David O. Selznick didn't want to cast Hepburn in one of her early roles because he thought the audience wouldn't like her.
The star that almost wasn't
He wasn't alone in this opinion, either. In 1952 Time magazine ran a story about Hepburn that covered some of the negative reactions she had during her first years in Hollywood. For example, her agent Myron Selznick at first complained, "My God, are we sticking them $1,500 a week for this?!" And playwright Benn Levy once criticized her stage appearances: "She looks a fright, her manner is objectionable, and she has no talent." Then in 1938, a movie exhibitor branded her "box-office poison." As you may imagine, Hepburn had a few thoughts on the matter.
A rocky start to her movie career
“I strike people as peculiar in some way, although I don’t quite understand why. Of course, I have an angular face, an angular body and, I suppose, an angular personality, which jabs into people,” she told Time. But director George Cukor — who made The Philadelphia Story with Hepburn — said she actually had a "sub-collegiate idiotic" attitude toward Hollywood at first. Time reported that Hepburn went out of her way to insult people and tell outrageous lies to the press. But as a woman in 1930s-era Hollywood, she may have had good reason to be a little "angular."