Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an American actress known for her fierce independence and spirited personality, who was a leading lady in Hollywood for more than 60 years. She appeared in a range of genres, from screwball comedy to literary drama, and she received a record (for either gender) four Academy Awards for Lead Acting Performances, plus eight further nominations. In 1999, Hepburn was named by the American Film Institute the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.
Raised in Connecticut by wealthy, progressive parents, Hepburn began to act while studying at Bryn Mawr College. Favorable reviews of her work on Broadway brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Her early years in film were marked with success, including an Academy Award for Best Actress for her third picture, Morning Glory (1933), but this was followed by a series of commercial failures culminating in the critically lauded but commercially unsuccessful comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), a pairing with Cary Grant. Hepburn masterminded her own comeback, buying out her contract with RKO Radio Pictures and acquiring the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, which she sold on the condition that she be the star. That comedy film, again co-starring Cary Grant, was a box office success and landed her a third Academy Award nomination, plus won her other co-star, James Stewart, his only Academy Award. Both movies are now are now considered among the greatest comedy films.
In the 1940s, she began focusing on a screen and romantic partnership with Spencer Tracy, which spanned 26 years and nine movies, although the romance with the married Tracy was hidden from the public. The partnership began with Woman of the Year (1942), continued with Adam's Rib (1949), both being "battle of the sexes" romantic comedies, and concluded with the race-issue drama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), also starring Sidney Poitier; Tracy died shortly after the movie's filming.
Hepburn challenged herself in the latter half of her life, as she tackled Shakespearean stage productions and a range of literary roles. She found a niche playing middle-aged spinsters, such as in The African Queen (1951), which landed her another Academy Award nomination and co-star Humphrey Bogart his sole Academy Award. Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) was another commercial and critical success and landed her another Oscar nomination. Hepburn earned three more Oscars for her work in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981), co-starring Henry Fonda, who won his only Academy Award for the movie. In the 1970s, she began appearing in television films, which later became the focus of her career. She made her final screen appearance at the age of 87. After a period of inactivity and ill health, Hepburn died in 2003 at the age of 96.
Hepburn famously shunned the Hollywood publicity machine, and refused to conform to society's expectations of women. She was outspoken, assertive, and athletic, and wore trousers before they were fashionable for women. She was briefly married as a young woman, but thereafter lived independently. With her unconventional lifestyle and the independent characters she brought to the screen, Hepburn epitomized the "modern woman" in the 20th-century United States, and is remembered as an important cultural figure.