Powerful diva who embodied the golden age of Hollywood

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The Independent Online

When people say they don't make movies like they used to, what they really mean is they don't make movies with Katharine Hepburn any more.

No actress since the dawn of the screen age has better embodied the suaveness, the style, the elegantly turned banter and the sheer cinematic magnetism that people regard as hallmarks of Hollywood's golden age. That age probably never was quite as golden as people like to remember it, but Hepburn's triumphant progress through such movies as Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib and The African Queen came pretty damn close.

In an era when leading actresses often needed a leading man to justify themselves in the eyes of the studio top brass (think Bacall and you think Bogart; think Joan Fontaine and you can't help remembering Cary Grant or Laurence Olivier right alongside her), Hepburn needed no such justification to assert her forceful presence and brilliant wit.

For sure, she was identified for a long time by her association - both on screen and, more ambiguously, off - with Spencer Tracy, but theirs was the ultimate sparring partnership, a true meeting of equals. In many of their films - starting with Woman of the Year (1942), right up to Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967), shot when Tracy was already dying of cancer - Tracy often seemed to exist on screen primarily as an excuse for Hepburn to triumph effortlessly over him.

Not that he didn't do his best to come back at her. According to legend, on their first meeting she said to him: "I'm afraid I'm a little big for you, Mr Tracy." To which he replied: "Don't worry, I'll cut you down to size."

Hepburn was not necessarily the most versatile of actresses - not for her the soul-plumbing depths and chameleonic changes of her only close competitor in the Oscar stakes, Meryl Streep. Indeed, her imperious manner and assertiveness in the age before feminism made her more than her share of enemies. One exhibitor infamously described her as "box-office poison" in the late 1930s, a remark that caused her to snub Hollywood until she could pave the way for a triumphant return in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.

The unforgiving Dorothy Parker, meanwhile, once remarked: "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B."

What Hepburn lacked in versatility, however, she more than made up through sheer force of character. No performance of hers ever allowed you to think of her as anything other than the free-thinking, well-bred, Bryn Mawr-educated, fiercely independent woman that she was. She knew her own mind and commanded instant respect. Even when she did step some distance from her stock persona - as she did to great effect as the southern matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer (1959) - you still knew every instant that this was Katharine Hepburn. As Kenneth Tynan once memorably put it: "She is not versatile. She is simply unique."

She was forever getting herself in trouble with producers and directors, who fired her with impunity and frequently rehired her again when they realised they could never do better than her.

At times she professed to be bored of the movies, even when delivering some of her greatest triumphs, such as her 1938 turn as a scatty heiress driving Cary Grant to distraction in Bringing Up Baby.

In later years, she appeared less often but picked her roles with singular good taste - A Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962), The Lion in Winter (1968) and On Golden Pond (1981) being good examples. Her final screen appearance was as Warren Beatty's aunt in Love Affair (1994).