• One afternoon in the early '70s, Katharine Hepburn and two friends entered a loge box in the London theater where Harold Pinter's Old Times was playing. Hepburn soon went prone on the floor of the box to get a closer view of the play — her chin in her cupped hands, her eyes rapt as a schoolgirl's on Christmas morning. That day the laser beam of Hepburn's gaze outshone the spotlights and, nearly, the actors onstage. Did people notice her? Oh, yes: Hepburn was the show, and she knew it. Not for nothing was her autobiography titled Me.

    She always had that imperious radiance: in childhood, surely, discussing weighty issues with her Brahmin parents; in her Broadway youth; and later, forever, in movies. Hollywood handed her four Oscars for Best Actress (the most any star has won) and eight additional nominations but was confounded by her steely hauteur. Film stars typically possess a glamorous version of the common touch; they are of the earth. Hepburn was apart and above, an aristocrat from some loftier time and code. But she was no standard Great Lady; her emotional intelligence was too prickly. She blew hot and cold in the same breath — her fire had Freon in it.

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    For 60 years, moviegoers couldn't keep their eyes off her. She was often parodied but never duplicated. A new actress might be called a Marilyn Monroe type or a Drew Barrymore type, but there was no Kate Hepburn type. There was only Kate Hepburn. With her death last week, at 96, the cinema lost its most domineering goddess.

    That flinty spirit was born and bred in Hepburn. Her father, a surgeon, campaigned against venereal diseases. Her mother, who earned graduate degrees from Bryn Mawr and Radcliffe, fought for legalized birth control and women's suffrage. "I was taught to speak out. My parents welcomed debate," Hepburn said in 1981. "My smell for reality comes from them." Kate, who made her public debut at 8 in a Votes for Women Crusade and later spent afternoons handing out leaflets to factory workers, followed her mother's path to Bryn Mawr — and was suspended for smoking. By rebelling, throughout her life, she was simply being a dutiful child.

    She stormed Hollywood at 25 in the soaper A Bill of Divorcement. All elbows, and eyes that raked the screen, Hepburn managed to upstage John Barrymore and was immediately a star. Her studio, RKO, put her straight to work: 14 films in the next six years. A year after Divorcement, she played the headstrong, stagestruck ingenue in Morning Glory and won her first Oscar.

    The '30s were blessed with bright, beguiling actresses and superb roles tailored to their wit and independence. Hepburn got her share: the virginal "lady flyer" in Christopher Strong, irresistibly manic Jo March in Little Women, the small-town social climber in Alice Adams, the cross-dressing Sylvia Scarlett and another terrific haughty-actress part in Stage Door.

    She made her two best-remembered early comedies in 1938, both with Cary Grant, illuminating Philip Barry's rueful social comedy Holiday, then giving herself over to the frenzied farce of Bringing Up Baby, in which she pours the anarchic energy of all the Marx Brothers into her slim, forceful form. She's jaw-droppingly enchanting in these two films, but by now her ferocious femininity had perhaps worn moviegoers out. A prominent movie exhibitor declared her (though not Grant) "box-office poison," and RKO was done with her.

    Not to worry: Hepburn had Barry write her a fat Broadway hit, The Philadelphia Story. She secured the movie rights, persuaded MGM to make it with her as the star and got pleasantly pawed by Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Hepburn was back to stay. But Barry's plot had given producers a naughty idea. If they couldn't tame Kate by breaking her will or scaring her off, they would put their annoyance with her airs in the script. From then on, many of her films — Woman of the Year, The African Queen, The Rainmaker — are about the coarsening or humanizing of Hepburn by some rough all-American Joe.

    Fortunately for Hepburn, the first of these Joes was Spencer Tracy. In him she met her match and the love of her life. In their nine films together — and offscreen as well — he was the solid earth she stood on, soared from and, when her flights became too dizzying, was brought back to. Tracy and Hepburn didn't wed in real life. (A Roman Catholic, he refused to divorce his wife.) But their film teaming was, in its way, an ideal second marriage: a union of equals, each distinct and distinguished, blending without surrendering a jot of their tetchy personalities.

    Their two best films together were written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin and directed by Hepburn's forever friend George Cukor (10 collaborations across four decades). In the buoyant, caustic Adam's Rib, she is a lawyer so full of herself that she drives Tracy nuts. The effortlessly charming Pat and Mike showcases the athletic talents that her father had encouraged. Of the angular sportswoman, Tracy quips, "Not much meat on her, but what there is, is 'cherse.'"

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