Hollywood, which is crowded with luscious cuties, decided that Katharine Hepburn was no great beauty. Her body suggests a collection of fine bones held together by freckles. Her vivid, angular face is topped by red hair pinned up any which way. Her penetrating voice can be as disturbing as some of her strong opinions. When she first arrived in Hollywood, her agent, Myron Selznick, took one look and groaned: "My God, are we sticking them $1,500 a week for this!"
Broadway felt much the same way about her abilities. Critic Dorothy Parker helped brush Kate off the stage with the withering comment: "She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.'' Producer Joseph Verner Reed thought she might be better at high hurdles than at acting. Playwright Benn Levy said flatly: "She looks a fright, her manner is objectionable, and she has no talent."
In Kate Hepburn's 24 years on stage and screen, her detractors have been many. Yet most of them have had to eat their words. The most damning thing ever said of her was in 1938, when Harry Brandt, a movie exhibitor, labeled Kate "boxoffice poison." But this year Kate is stronger than she ever was: her last two films, The African Queen and Pat and Mike, are top box-office hits of the season.
Two years ago, Kate dazzled Broadway and the road as Rosalind in As You Like It. This week, in London, she is playing to packed houses and critical huzzahs in the title role of Bernard Shaw's The Millionairess. Written in 1935 when Shaw was a spry septuagenarian, the play deals with a forceful, bossy young woman who makes her own rules and discards husbands and lovers the way other people discard paper napkins. The play was considered indifferent Shaw and dull theater until Kate turned it into a personal triumph. The critics drowned in their own superlatives: "A blockbusting performance''"A human hurricane""Conquest by storm""One feels as excited as the man who went over Niagara in a barrel."
Passionate Pro. Her great personal success in the Shaw play may be explained by the fact that the part suits her down to the ground. For Kate Hepburn is a Shavian heroine in real life: strong-minded, talkative, alternately irritating and fascinating, bursting with electric energy and remedies for all the world's ills. In Shaw's words, she is the born "decider, dominator, organizer, tactician and mesmerizer."
Kate is full of theories, from a special way of brushing your teeth to a special way of digesting a meal ("You just have to get the seat of your pants higher than your head"). She believes that it helps her think more clearly to take at least five baths a day; she shampoos her hair oftener than Mary Martin has to in South Pacific; she likes to wrap her feet in wet cloths. Her insatiable curiosity is equaled only by her dauntless enthusiasm. She strides earnestly through each new city, inspecting everything from museums to maternity wards. When she got to Africa for the filming of The African Queen, she caroled: "What divine natives! What divine morning glories" and began searching for a bamboo forest, because she wanted to know what it would feel like to sit alone in the middle of one.