Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story
Alpha performer ... Katharine Hepburn with Cary Grant (left) and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

Katharine Hepburn’s 20 best films – ranked!

Alpha performer ... Katharine Hepburn with Cary Grant (left) and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

With the Hollywood legend’s classic romcom The Philadelphia Story turning 80 next month, here is our critic’s rundown of her finest performances

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 07.52 EST

20. State of the Union (1948)

Katharine Hepburn is exactly the kind of star who should be in a Frank Capra picture. This presidential election drama was a great talking point in its day – not least because it daringly made mention of real-life contenders of the time such as Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft. Hepburn plays Mary Matthews, the estranged wife of an industrial tycoon (Spencer Tracy) who is running for office on the Republican ticket, a campaign secretly bankrolled by his wealthy mistress (Angela Lansbury). Mary agrees to return to his side because of his manifest idealism, but wobbles as he appears to get slowly sucked in to the cynical political world.

19. Desk Set (1957)

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set
A madcap office party ... Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

A madcap 50s office party of a movie, with Hepburn giving it her full imperious hauteur, written for the screen by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, parents of Nora, Delia, Hallie and Amy. Hepburn plays Bunny Watson, who is that sexiest of things, a librarian – at a TV company, efficiently retrieving all manner of facts and stats from old-fashioned books. Then the company brings in a smug computer expert, Richard Sumner, played by Tracy, to streamline the data handling (as no one used to say in 1957) with bleeping machines. He presumes to patronise Bunny. She is stung. Romance is on the way.

18. Morning Glory (1933)

At 26, Hepburn picked up her first Oscar for this movie about the eternal magic of showbusiness. She plays Eva Lovelace, a small-town gal who dreams of Broadway, but finds New York a tough place to be. On her way to the top, she has zany romantic adventures with a roguish middle-aged producer, played by Adolphe Menjou, and a handsome playwright, played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. This was the first movie that showed audiences her forthright, unconventional, even slightly tomboyish manner (wrongly described as “eccentric”): the patrician confidence, the gift for comedy and that unmistakable Bryn Mawr voice, the vibrato quaver of which would grow with age.

17. Stage Door (1937)

Hepburn is the stagestruck heiress holding her own against tough broads Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball in this zinging, fast-talking comedy about women in the theatre. The setting is a ladies’ theatrical rooming house called the Footlights Club, where the unemployed women are always gossiping and back-talking. They are highly suspicious of Hepburn, whom they see as a rich phoney-baloney slumming it while they need the money. They crack wise at Hepburn’s expense and she replies airily: “Evidently, you’re a very amusing person.” But she wins their respect and love in the end.

16. Undercurrent (1946)

Hepburn and Robert Taylor in Undercurrent
Cult noir ... Hepburn and Robert Taylor in Undercurrent. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

This cult noir melodrama from Vincente Minnelli is growing in esteem among Hepburn fans, not least because she plays (against type) someone who is variously aghast, submissive, romantic and demure – closer to the kind of role that might be given to Ingrid Bergman. The film is a marital nightmare of obsession, like Rebecca or Gaslight. Hepburn is Ann, a naive young woman who, scared of being left on the shelf, has rushed into marriage with the superficially charming Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor), only to find that he is angry, moody and paranoid about his young brother, Michael (played by Robert Mitchum), who has gone missing. Soon, poor Ann is in deadly danger.

15. Holiday (1938)

Hepburn was renowned for her partnership with Tracy, but her double-act with Cary Grant was just as polished. This great George Cukor movie is a prime example – like The Philadelphia Story, it is a comedy of well-to-do manners based on a play by Philip Barry. Hepburn plays Linda, a wealthy young woman who is disconcerted, like the rest of her family, when Grant’s self-made millionaire Johnny Case shows up on the doorstep, engaged to her younger sister. Evidently, he is defiantly uninterested in well-bred niceties and social manners and disillusioned with his future in-laws’ dour Protestant work ethic. He confides in Linda his desire to take off on holiday and discover the meaning of life. She is secretly amazed and entranced. There is a spark.

14. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

Dean Stockwell, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Family misfortunes ... (from left) Dean Stockwell, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards and Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Photograph: Allstar/Embassy Pictures Corporation

An Oscar nomination (and one for a Golden Globe) was Hepburn’s reward for her performance in this adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play. She is front and centre as Mary, the morphine-addicted, insomniac mother of a wretchedly dysfunctional family in Connecticut before the first world war, playing opposite Ralph Richardson, who is a preening, ageing stage actor and alcoholic. Her equally troubled sons are played by Dean Stockwell and Jason Robards. She is agonised by the thought that she has sacrificed her best years to her husband; Hepburn’s Mary is the ghost that haunts the whole movie. Her pained, strained voice dominates its emotional music.

13. Alice Adams (1935)

Fred MacMurray and Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams
Back on top ... Fred MacMurray and Hepburn in Alice Adams. Photograph: Allstar/RKO

George Stevens is another of the greats with whom Hepburn worked. Alice Adams is the film that put her back on top after a few turkeys that had given rise to rumours that she was “box office poison”. It is a fervent tale of small-town love based on a novel by Booth Tarkington (of The Magnificent Ambersons fame). Hepburn is Alice, who has upper-middle-class pretensions while being not-so-secretly stricken with Dickensian shame at her family’s lowly social status and their lack of money compared with their neighbours. Then she falls in love with a likely young man, played by Fred MacMurray.

12. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Earnest and affecting ... Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

This earnest film was one of the high-water marks of Hepburn’s “late” period (although she was still only 60), playing opposite Tracy. They are the middle-aged white couple whose avowed liberalism is put to the test when their daughter brings home the black man she wants to marry – Sidney Poitier. This got Hepburn an Oscar nomination (embarrassingly, none of the film’s slew of Academy Award nominations and awards went to Poitier), perhaps in honour of the way she coolly maintained her screen presence in the face of the men’s grandstanding performances, especially with the comic touch she brought to getting the news at first: “Just let me sit down a minute and I’ll be all right.” It is all a bit stagey, but Hepburn’s quiet sadness at losing her daughter to marriage (quite aside from the interracial crisis) is affecting.

11. The Rainmaker (1956)

Burt Lancaster and Hepburn in The Rainmaker
Fiercely watchable ... Burt Lancaster and Hepburn in The Rainmaker. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

The repressed “spinster” is Hollywood’s now forgotten romantic template and cliche – and Hepburn was brilliant at it. The Rainmaker is a fiercely watchable romance-cum-satirical-parable that pairs Hepburn with that ardent leading man, Burt Lancaster. She plays Lizzie Curry, a Kansas farmer’s daughter in the Depression, where agriculture is hit with drought and Lizzie wonders if she will ever get married. Lancaster plays Bill Starbuck, a handsome crook and conman who drifts from town to town, exploiting the locals’ credulity and desperation by claiming to have supernatural rainmaking powers. He also has his eye on lovely Lizzie. Of course, her emotional drought equals the meteorological drought. Vulgar Freudians may wonder if the promise of a drenching flood has any further metaphorical possibilities.

10. Song of Love (1947)

Hepburn in Song of Love
Underrated ... Hepburn in Song of Love. Photograph: Richter/Cinetext/Allstar/MGM

This is one of Hepburn’s most charming, distinctive and unworldly performances, which perhaps does not get the respect it is due (although it is a romanticised and fictionalised biopic romance). Song of Love imagines the part that music played in the tortured relationship between the musicians Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms (played by Hepburn, Paul Henreid and Robert Walker). It was dismissed as sugary by some who felt that Hollywood was getting above itself with its theme of classical music. Hepburn learned to play the piano so that her concert scenes looked convincing, although her playing was dubbed by Artur Rubinstein.

9. On Golden Pond (1981)

‘I don’t think there’s anyone here or watching who doesn’t appreciate the amount of love and gratitude represented by this Oscar’ ... Jon Voight accepts Hepburn’s best actress award for On Golden Pond.

Extravagant sentimental love and Hollywood ancestor-worship from the entire industry and the awards establishment greeted this barnstorming tear-jerker. Hepburn, 74, played the vulnerable matriarch role that had become the trademark of her silver years. She won an Oscar for playing Ethel, who for decades has had to deal with her grumpy and increasingly forgetful old husband, Norman, played by Henry Fonda. The couple spend every summer at their idyllic cottage on the shore of Golden Pond in New England and it is here that they must reconnect with their only daughter, played by Jane Fonda. Hepburn’s job is to minister with tact and delicacy to her husband’s moods; there is great style to her dignified self-effacement.

8. Summertime (1955)

David Lean directed this sweet, sad movie – a cousin, perhaps, to his Brief Encounter – starring Hepburn in the yearning “spinster” mode. A beautiful, lonely, single woman from Akron, Ohio, fulfils a dream from girlhood and comes to Venice on holiday; here she is immediately discomfited by the romantic attentions of a handsome local (played by the Italian actor Rossano Brazzi), who is impatient with her prim scruples about the fact that he is already married. There are not many movies in Hepburn’s career that give the kind of solitude that Lean gives her here – a solo stage to showcase her character’s loneliness and sadness.

7. Little Women (1933)

Wonderfully charming ... watch the trailer for Little Women.

This came out in the year of Hepburn’s first Oscar winner, 1933, and it was in some ways the performance that put the stamp on the persona that made her a Hollywood legend: Jo in George Cukor’s lovely version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, playing easily 10 years younger than her actual age. However, the inherent intelligence and maturity of Hepburn made this an easier sell than it might have been with other performers. Hepburn’s Jo has wonderful charm in the family theatricals, where she plays the hero and the moustachioed blackguard, and also when she has to sing out: “Look at me, world, I’m Jo March and I’m so happy.”

6. Woman of the Year (1942)

Spencer Tracy and Hepburn in Woman of the Year
Wised-up ... Spencer Tracy and Hepburn in Woman of the Year. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

George Stevens’s romantic comedy Woman of the Year is the best of Hepburn’s pairings with Tracy, a wonderfully wised-up Beatrice and Benedick contest in which Hepburn is allowed to be a strong, professional woman. She is Tess Harding, a high-flying foreign correspondent on the fictional New York Chronicle, who speaks several languages and is always whisking around the world. Tracy is Sam Craig, a tough sports writer who is nettled by her dismissive comments about baseball. He begins a feud with her in the pages of their paper, which soon sparks a romance, in which Sam somehow finds himself being second string to Tess’s diva celebrity.

5. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer
Gothic craziness ... Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

Only very rarely did Hepburn allow her mannerisms and persona to be used for villainy or black comedy in the movies, but this is the prime example – perhaps the only example. It is a gripping but thoroughly macabre story based on a Tennessee Williams play. A wealthy and autocratic woman, Violet Venable, played by Hepburn, is attempting to coerce a young doctor (Montgomery Clift) into lobotomising her niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) because of her babblings about how Mrs Venable’s highly strung and artistic son Sebastian met his untimely death. This happened suddenly, the previous summer, in some Spanish fleshpot – in a mysterious accident witnessed by Catherine. Mrs Venable is clearly in a state of denial about her son and her gothic craziness is startling.

4. The Lion in Winter (1968)

Maybe it was the democrat in her, but Hepburn rarely played monarchs or aristocrats, however blue-blooded she appeared. (She did play Mary, Queen of Scots in a world of fancifully imagined kilts and tartans in John Ford’s odd Mary of Scotland in 1936.) But she landed a best actress Oscar in the outrageously soapy The Lion in Winter for her resoundingly authoritative and theatrical performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O’Toole’s English Henry II in the 12th-century court in northern France. Eleanor is his estranged wife, recently released from prison, and their sparring and political machinations are uproarious. “I could peel you like a pear and God himself would call it a justice!” yells Hepburn.

3. The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Catherine Shoard, the Guardian’s film editor, explains why you should watch The Philadelphia Story. Guardian

Hepburn ascended to greatness in this sublimely happy, witty romantic comedy of remarriage, a genre that licensed men and women to feel attracted to their former spouses – and so confer respectability on sexual roaming, a classy promiscuity of the mind. Hepburn is the statuesque heiress Tracy Lord, who is acrimoniously divorced from her previous husband, CK Dexter Haven (Grant), and preparing to remarry. Haven, clearly still hopelessly in love with his ex-wife, gets a reporter (James Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey) to gatecrash the ceremony, posing as distant cousins. Hepburn faces off superbly with Grant and Stewart – and establishes herself as the film’s alpha performer and a Hollywood deity.

2. The African Queen (1951)

Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen
Gloriously naive ... Hepburn with Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen. Photograph: Allstar/United Artists

“I never dreamed that mere physical experience could be so stimulating!” The speaker is the prim Christian missionary Miss Rose Sayer, played by Hepburn with a high choke collar and broad-brimmed hat – her character having just breathlessly piloted a rickety old boat through some dangerous rapids. It is a gloriously naive and yet honest admission from this naive but courageous character. With this movie, Hepburn’s “spinster” genre found its high point. She is thrown together with the grumpy and often drunk riverboat captain Charlie Allnutt, played by Humphrey Bogart, on a mission in 1914 to attack the Germans in German East Africa, whose boorish troops were responsible for the death of Rose’s brother. Just when their downriver journey looks like being a metaphor for sexual initiation, it becomes a real sexual initiation. There is great comedy in Hepburn’s first line to Bogart, the morning after their night of love: “Mr Allnutt, dear …” she says delicately. “What’s your first name?”

1. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Cary Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby
A superhero of screwball comedy ... Hepburn opposite Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby. Photograph: Allstar/RKO Radio

Hepburn had always shown she could play comedy if required, which was not often. But this movie showed her dazzling comic energy, timing and flair – her lines delivered with absolute seriousness and conviction. It is a comedy with distinctly Wodehousian touches, featuring Hepburn and Grant. The film’s crazy twists and outrageous inventions bring it close to a masterpiece of surrealism, especially the scenes with a leopard called “Baby” that give the film its title. (No nonsense about CGI in 1938: Hepburn acted with a real leopard; its trainer, whip in hand, was just off camera.) Grant is a palaeontologist on a mission to assemble a brontosaurus skeleton – and missing just one bone. Hepburn is a scatterbrained, plain-speaking, undiplomatically direct young woman with a leopard that has to be subdued by singing to it. She falls in love with Grant and sets out to sabotage his impending wedding. Hepburn is a superhero of screwball comedy.

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