The Two Hepburns: Honoring the Lives and Legacies of Katharine and Audrey Hepburn

By: Alex Phuong –

They are two of the most iconic actresses in the history of cinema. They have both won at least one Academy Award as “Best Actress.” They have starred in both Best Picture winners and Best Picture nominees. The only thing that they do not have in common is family relations. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn are NOT sisters. Nevertheless, these two leading ladies have portrayed some of the most iconic characters in cinematic history while showing audiences that women can just be as strong as their male counterparts.

Born on May 12, 1907, Katharine Hepburn had a long and illustrious career that spans basically the entire history of Twentieth Century cinema. She was lucky enough to live to the age of 96, and died of natural causes on June 29, 2003 in Connecticut, the same U.S. state in which she was born. Katharine Hepburn earned the nickname “First Lady of Cinema” because her filmography includes 53 acting credits that began when she initially appeared in A Bill of Divorcement in 1932, directed by George Cukor. Throughout the 1930s, Katharine Hepburn would appear in a series of films that allowed her to play a wide variety of roles, and even earned her first Academy Award nomination (and win!) for her role as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory (1933).

Ironically, Katharine Hepburn was not always the celebrated actress that she is recognized as of today. In fact, during the 1930s, she was considered box office poison because of financial failures like Bringing Up Baby (1938). Considered a crude form of humorous entertainment back then, Hepburn’s work in that particular film is now honored as one of the funniest performances of all time. That just shows how dynamic Katharine Hepburn was in terms of her adjustments in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Katharine Hepburn then rose to fame thanks to her role as Tracy Lords in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Hepburn reprised her Broadway role in this film, and earned an Academy Award nomination for such a clever comedy. Some might even consider that performance to be Hepburn’s best work. Because of the success of that film, Katharine Hepburn continued to have a long-lasting career. Some of her most memorable films include The African Queen (1951) and The Lion in Winter (1968). For her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katharine Hepburn played her own ancestor, and famously tied with Barbra Streisand for the “Best Actress” Oscar when Streisand won for playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968). It is safe to say that both of these fine actresses won Oscars for the best dramatic performance and best comedic performance by an actress in 1968, respectively.

Speaking of Academy Award recognition, Katharine Hepburn holds the record for the most Oscars acquired by a single actress. Meryl Streep is pretty close to tying with Katharine Hepburn, but that of course, depends if the Academy will ever give Meryl Streep her fourth Oscar.

Besides her awards and acclaim, Katharine Hepburn is famous for her independent spirit and for never being docile nor submissive. In fact, she received acclaim for bringing Jo March to life in Little Women (1935). That role definitely showcased the tomboy within such a formidable actress. Katharine Hepburn also almost earned the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), being a major contender for that coveted role before David O. Selznick cast Vivien Leigh.

Audrey Hepburn also exhibited independence, but did so in a more graceful and subtle manner. For example, she played the independent Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964), a role that required to talk back to the misogynistic professor Henry Higgins. Audrey Hepburn is much more elegant and not as upfront as Katharine, though. That is because Audrey defied the men around her while maintaining a feminine innocence to her leading roles.

Born on May 4, 1929, Audrey Hepburn actually had a very rough childhood. She had to cope with the Nazi invasion of Arnhem, Netherlands. Such trauma at a young age was one of the primary reasons why she turned down the leading role of The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Audrey’s real name was actually Audrey Kathleen Ruston, but would eventually find fame using the surname of Katharine Hepburn after someone spotted Audrey modeling. Her slim figure made her a beautiful young woman, which was no wonder why Audrey would land her first film role in Dutch in Seven Seasons (1948). A fun fact is that Audrey’s figure actually inspired the look of Princess Aurora in Walt Disney’s timeless fairy tale Sleeping Beauty (1959), a film released the same decade that Audrey rose to fame in the motion picture industry.

Audrey Hepburn did, in fact, find fame rather quickly after landing the leading role in Roman Holiday (1953). Her name itself was above the title of the film poster of that classic romance, and earned Hepburn her first Academy Award win and nomination. Audrey Hepburn would later go on to receive four additional nominations, and her last failed attempt at scoring Oscar gold was (ironically) when Katharine Hepburn won the Oscar for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Interestingly, that year was the only year in Academy Awards history in which Katharine and Audrey Hepburn competed against each other for the coveted “Best Actress” Oscar. Katharine Hepburn won the award for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, while Audrey received her nomination for Wait Until Dark. Each film is unique in its own right, with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner representing the shifts in civil rights and racial equality that characterized the late 1960s. Audrey Hepburn’s performance was recognized because of her uncanny ability to portray a blind woman trapped in one of the most dire circumstances imaginable.

Nevertheless, Audrey Hepburn still received the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and her son Sean Hepburn Ferrer would accept the award at the actual Academy Award ceremony in 1993 for which she was recognized posthumously.

Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn might not have been related, but they sure knew how to act. Both of their legacies live on in some of the most famous and important films in cinematic history. Even though they are dearly departed, they both continue to amass devoted fans from film lovers everywhere. People will never forget these two actresses because the name “Hepburn” is every bit as famous as Meryl Streep’s, and audiences will continue to admire the stellar work from two of the greatest actresses of all time. Even with the debate on who is the better actress, there really is no need to compare these two fine ladies because they are both unique and special in their own ways.

About Alex Phuong

Alex Andy Phuong earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University-Los Angeles in 2015. His love affair with cinema began after discovering Turner Classic Movies in the summer of 2004. His favorite film director is Woody Allen, and his favorite movie star is Kate Winslet.

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