10 Life Lessons We Learnt From Katharine Hepburn

Trail-blazing, two-piece suits and the odd tantrum - movie legend Katharine Hepburn was a formidable force. No wonder the BFI has dedicated an entire season to her, including classics like; The Philadelphia Story (1939) and The Lion in Winter (1968).

In our April issue – out now, Marie Claire chats exclusively with critic Hannah McGill and Angela Allen, now 86 years old, who worked on set as a script supervisor on The African Queen (1951), to share the life lessons that the inimitable Ms Hepburn has all taught us…

1. Show ‘Em Who’s Boss

Angela Allen, then just 20 years old, worked closely with Katharine (or Katy as she calls her) on the set of The African Queen. She reveals: ‘She’d say to me “Tell Bogie [co-star, Humphrey Bogart] to go learn the next scene…and the one after!” He’d laugh and say, “Well, if I learn those two I’ll forget the first one.” But she gave the orders.’


2. Don’t Follow Fashion Trends (Set Them!)

Ms Hepburn channeled androgynous chic before it was even cool, pre the Annie Hall and Alexa Chung eras. Critic, Hannah McGill explains, ‘wearing trousers seems like nothing now, but at the time it made a strong statement.’ The fashion rebel once turned up to the Oscars in 1974 to present an award in her gardening clothes and clogs.


3. Embrace Your Individuality

‘One of the roles that really worked for her was in Little Women, in 1934, playing the tomboy character, Jo. McGill explains, ‘people warmed to her boyish quality – it made her loveable.’


4. Who Runs The World? Girls!

Hepburn was committed to working on female-led films, even if they weren’t commercially successful. McGill says, ‘she liked to choose roles where the female character had the leading part – where it was a story about a woman’s life.”

5. Ignorance Is Bliss

Hollywood film legend, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn famously enjoyed a 25-year long ‘affair’, while he was still married. Angela recalls: ‘Spencer Tracy never visited her on set, but there were photos of him in her cabin. Everybody sort of new he was her lover, but nobody mentioned it to her. She was very private.’

(Photo: Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn)

6. Trust Your Gut

Hepburn famously bought the rights to The Philadelphia Story (1940) in what Hannah McGill describes as ‘an early example of an actor taking control…she was also important enough to have a say in who was cast with her’, including leading men like Cary Grant.

(Photo: Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story)

7. Single Ladies, Unite…

Angela says: ‘Chatting in the canteen, she’d say to me “Don’t get married, Angie!” She’d been married briefly, but said it wasn’t a success.’


8. Never Discuss A Woman’s Age

“On the plane to Africa I noticed on Hepburn’s passport that it was her birthday, so I said “We better sing Happy Birthday.” But the production manager told me to shut up. She was in her 40’s, but you didn’t mention age. You wouldn’t mention her age because it would have limited her future parts,’ according to Angela.


9. Be Discreet

‘Once in Africa we had to go to “Katy’s Toilet” – a special raft. The boys used to get so fed up!” says Angela Allen.


10. Haters Gonna Hate…

‘Hepburn was considered to be difficult – the public had this love-hate thing with her’ explains McGill, ‘nobody really liked her bossy demeanour’ Although her battle-axe reputation wasn’t completely unfounded, in her later years ‘Jane Fonda showed up on the set of On Golden Pond in 1981, and Hepburn pointed her finger and said “I don’t like you!” But in many ways, it’s that independent spirit and fierceness that have stood the test of time. 60 years of acting + 4 (record breaking) Oscar wins = one class act.


The Katharine Hepburn season is showing at BFI Southbank until 19 March; The Philadelphia Story is in selected cinemas

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