Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn in THE AVIATOR (2004)

In 2004 Martin Scorsese directed Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR. Cate Blanchett co-starred as Katharine Hepburn, Howard Hughes‘ long-term girlfriend in the 1930s. In this post, I will analyse Blanchett’s overall look and her general performance as the great KH. Then I will break down the scenes in which Hepburn and Hughes are portrayed and discuss the accuracy of the filmmakers in portraying their relationship.

Katharine Hepburn, left – Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, right

I would like to start by saying that I enjoyed watching THE AVIATOR. I really respect Scorsese‘s love of all things classic Hollywood and the way he incorporates themes and genres from old films in his work (i.e. HUGO (2011)). Leonardo DiCaprio has never thrilled me, even back when I was introduced to him in TITANIC (1997) and all the other 3rd-graders were swooning over him. He picks really good, thought-provoking texts, but as an actor he seems very “Meryl Streep“: talented, but without magic and genius. My other, and final, criticism of THE AVIATOR is that Hughes is always so angry. I think writers/actors/directors do this to increase tension, but it just seems cheap and unrealistic to have him storming all over the place shouting at people. But maybe that’s just me. So, on to Cate Blanchett.

Winning the Academy Award for her role as Katharine Hepburn made Blanchett the first to win an Oscar for portraying a previous Oscar-winner. To prepare for the role, Blanchett watched the first 15 Hepburn films (noble soul) and took cold showers, as Hepburn frequently did. She also worked diligently with a speech coach to master Hepburn’s distinct Hartford/Bryn Mawr twang – I must say I was very impressed with the outcome. 


I cannot tell you how thrilled I am that they remembered that Katharine Hepburn was a red-head. Because all of her early pictures were in black and white, many photo colorists mistakenly assume she was a brunette. Not so, Moe. Early cartoons and caricatures of Miss Hepburn show her with fiery red locks. Press interviewers reference her ginger hair and freckles. In THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940), C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) refers to Tracy (Hepburn) as “Red” numerous times throughout the film. Three different wigs were used by Cate Blanchett in this movie.

Blanchett’s high cheekbones make her perfect for playing Katharine Hepburn, who’s bone structure was once described as “the finest calcium deposits this side of Dover.” Makeup artists working on the film applied freckles to Blanchett’s face, arms, and chest so she would better resemble the eternally sunburnt Hepburn.

Talented costume designer Sandy Powell (MRS. HENDERSON PRESENTS (2005), THE YOUNG VICTORIA (2009), HUGO (2011)) did a fantastic job with Blanchett/Hepburn’s wardrobe. The high-waisted, baggy trousers, loose-fitting blouses, and dramatic formal gowns Hepburn is remembered for were all superbly displayed in THE AVIATOR. The result was stunning.

It is abundantly clear that Cate Blanchett did her research in preparing for this part. I can honestly say her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn was the best I have ever seen. She used Hepburn’s mannerisms – the forceful hand gestures, the jaunty walk – but she also captured that strange combination of strength and vulnerability, feminist independence and sexual romance unique to the Hepburn persona. In some instances, the writers tended to caricaturize a little too much, especially in the scenes where she just prattles, but more on that later. It was neat to see Blanchett’s choices and be able to trace them back to a specific Hepburn performance.


The first time Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn met was during the filming of George Cukor‘s SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935). Hughes was a friend of Cary Grant‘s, who was starring alongside Hepburn in the picture, and he asked Grant to arrange for him to meet Hepburn. Like in THE AVIATOR, Hughes made a big show of landing his plane near where they were filming. Unlike the film, Katharine Hepburn was less than impressed with his grand gesture:

“I was somewhat taken aback because I had heard it rumored that Hughes would like to meet me. And apparently this was how he’d figured it out. I gave Cary a black look and we all had lunch. I never looked at Howard. What a nerve!” (Hepburn)

In the movie, Hepburn is on a blanket on the beach being made up by beauticians, a shot taken directly from a real photo. Howard simply walks up to her and asks her out and she smiles. The implication in this scene, and for many of their scenes together, is that Hepburn is simply his girlfriend – she is picked up by him, she dangles on his arm at functions, she is home when she comes home, etc. But this is a movie about him, so it should be that way. I’m not used to seeing her story from another point of view. It doesn’t bother me, as long as the bulk of the portrayal is based on truth.

As shown in the clip above, Hepburn and Hughes’ first date was on the golf course. Although his entrance wasn’t shown in the film, Hughes landed directly on the green of the Bel Air Country Club golf course while Hepburn was playing, “practically on top of us”:

“I must say it gave me pause. I thought that he had a hell of a nerve and was very pushy. The Club was furious. Howard Hughes was nothing daunted. We finished the nine.” (Hepburn)

This scene in THE AVIATOR makes me cringe a bit because Hepburn is shown in caricature rather than character. Blanchett is almost twitchy trying to give meaning to the script’s prattling drivel. She laughs twice in a manner distinctly Susan Vance from BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and nothing like Hepburn’s real laugh. There is an awkward jerky energy that in this scene that is unlike Hepburn’s easy, down-to-earth enthusiasm. It’s not that anything in the scene is inaccurate, it’s just unrealistic. One finds it very hard to believe that Hepburn and Hughes could actually make a pair because she is so overwhelming.


This is both my favorite and my least favorite scene of the movie. On the one hand, Scorsese has allowed me to sit down with my favorite family in the whole world! It was awesome that they included Hepburn’s ex-husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith (Luddy) as well. He remained good friends with the family and was always taking home videos, much to Hughes’ chagrin:

“Dad made his famous remark: ‘Howard, Luddy had been taking pictures of all of us for many years before you joined us and he will be taking them long after you’ve left. He is part of this family. Go ahead. Drive. You need a seven iron.'” (Hepburn)

On the other hand, this scene has the most inaccuracies:

  1. As Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes drive up to Fenwick, the sub-title says: “The Hepburn Estate.” The Hepburns didn’t have an estate, they had a beach house. At the time Hepburn and Hughes were dating, the Fenwick house was still a modestly sized wooden building, rather than the larger brick house built after the hurricane of 1938.
  2. Mrs. Hepburn’s (Kate’s mom’s) hair wasn’t red – she was a brunette. She also wasn’t as much as a fluttery bully as was shown in the film. She was a very intelligent college-bred woman who had been active in politics for many years. Scorsese’s film paints her as a sort of eccentric who pounces on anyone who doesn’t agree with her principles. And in my research, I have not found any reason to believe that she would look down on anyone for reading trade journals or being interested in flying.
  3. Luddy asks about the airplane Hughes is engineering and then calls it airplane guff. In fact, Luddy loved airplanes and engineering. In Charlotte Chandler‘s biography, Hepburn mentions that Luddy could have built a plane.
  4. Mrs. Hepburn: “We don’t care about money here, Mr. Hughes.”
    Hughes: “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it. Some of us choose to work for a living.”
    This exchange is entirely inaccurate and gets at the root of why the Fenwick scene in THE AVIATOR has missed the mark in describing the Hepburns, a mistake made by many who confuse Hepburn’s star persona with the reality. Dr. Hepburn was a surgeon, a urologist, who had been raised a minister’s son in impoverished post-Civil War Virginia. Mrs. Hepburn had been orphaned at 16 and had had to live off the charity of her unkind wealthier relations. Both individuals worked their way through college. When they married, he was just a junior doctor at Hartford University Hospital. Dr. Hepburn did work for a living. Mrs. Hepburn had a career of her own as a social rights political activist. Hepburn grew up very comfortably as the daughter of an upper-middle class professional, but she was not a member of the American aristocracy. She was certainly no Tracy Lord (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY).
post-1939 Hepburn house at Fenwick

However, despite my objections to these untrue aspects of the dinner at Fenwick scene, it was certainly true that the Hepburn clan did not like Howard Hughes very much:

“My parents were never fond of Howard, if the truth be told. They didn’t express their opinions to me because it was felt I was an adult, in principle, anyway. I should make my own choices. But their attitude was clear, and Howard was aware of the way they felt.” (Chandler, 107)

“My family were not too sympathetic to Howard. In the first place, he was everlastingly on the telephone. And the telephone was in the dining room. And we were a big family and always had visitors. Long telephone conversations did not suit the atmosphere.” (Hepburn, 201)

The Hepburn family at Fenwick:
Mrs. Hepburn, brother Dick, sisters Marion and Peggy,
Grandfather Hepburn, brother Bob, and Katharine

Blanchett’s performance of Hepburn in this scene is very good though. She has really captured the atmosphere of her relationship with the family – her enthusiastic arrival, her easy way of conversing with them, and the way she does not put herself in an oppositional position to them in order to defend Howard.


The last scene I want to look at is the one in which Hepburn dumps Hughes. The previous scene showed her meeting a man on an empty set somewhere, and we’re supposed to believe this was Spencer Tracy. I didn’t have a clue who it was supposed to be until several scenes later: a.) because you couldn’t see who it was, nor were there any other defining features and b.) we know how/when Hepburn and Tracy met and hooked (not on a deserted film set) up based on numerous interviews and documentaries Hepburn has made on the subject. So, I thought that was a bit strange. But I liked the break-up scene, at least as far as Cate Blanchett‘s performance is concerned. She did a great job portraying Hepburn’s strength of character, not wavering when Hughes got upset, trying to maintain the dignity of the thing when Hughes was being immature. The exchange tells a lot about both characters, though DiCaprio‘s performance was a bit modern and clichéd  It is in this scene in particular that Blanchett captured Hepburn’s unique combination of strength and vulnerability.


There are several other scenes in the film with Hughes and Hepburn together, but these were the most prominent. In another scene, Hughes returns home to Hepburn after having crashed him plane and hurt his foot. She expresses enthusiasm about his having broken the speed record and then starts to mop him up. This scene shows a side to Hepburn many do not acknowledge – how she loved to care for others. She was raised in a family that worked tirelessly to improve the lot of the less fortunate, so she was always encouraged to think of others before herself. Hepburn is often portrayed as a selfish person (mostly by herself) because she was so independent, but she was also very caring. She took five years off from her film career to look after the ailing Spencer Tracy. I thought this scene captured that angle of her very well. Another exciting scene is when Hepburn and Hughes ditch their swish Hollywood friends at a club and go out flying instead. That is typical Hepburn, though I’m surprised she went to the club at all. 

Scorsese, Blanchett, and DiCaprio in hurt foot scene

Cate Blanchett is almost faultless in her performance as Katharine Hepburn. She nailed the look, the voice, and the mannerisms like a pro. The dialogue written for the Hepburn character is not bad – in some cases it can seem a bit hammy, overdone, a caricature. The film text was a bit heavy trying to portray her as a glamorous Hollywood star, rather than the press-dodging, down-to-earth, practical Bryn Mawr girl from Hartford. As so often happens, Hepburn’s film persona was mistaken as truth. But to give credit where credit is due, the filmmakers clearly did a good amount of research into Hepburn’s background and career, making THE AVIATOR a worthwhile film that I can recommend with few reservations.

Howard Hughes and Katharine Hepburn
in an airplane

24 thoughts on “Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn in THE AVIATOR (2004)

  • mkmcginnis

    Margaret! I love your analysis of The Aviator. It’s so interesting to hear a true KH historian’s take on Blanchett’s portrayal. I remember watching the film years ago and being completely wowed by how much Blanchett sounded and acted like her (granted my knowledge of KH comes mostly from her films). Anyway, thanks for a great read!

    P.S. I must say that I do disagree with you about Leo’s acting though. 😉

    • Marcie

      I agree a hundred percent with mkmginnis: you did a great analysis of cate’s performance. I’m mostly grateful that she’s not letting Kate slip into oblivion and helping carry on the legacy. But I love me some Leo!

  • Emma

    I did like Cates portrayal as, well, Kate. Sometimes I thought some of her mannerisms and her voice her occasionally forced but I suppose Kate was an individual and that had to be expressed. Also, the outfits in ‘The Aviator’ were simply breathtaking.

  • Sofia

    Wow you know your stuff! When I watched The Aviator in 2004 I had no idea who Katharine Hepburn was, so I didn’t really see Blanchett’s performance from that angle – I must watch it again. She’s such a great actress, I’m sure she *did* do well.

    Oh, I’m sure (hope) any inaccuracies must have an explanation, I don’t see Scorsese being careless about such things! But it wouldn’t be a surprise if they did make a caricature out of her sometimes, films tend to do that, unfortunately.

    But about the dinner scene: maybe her mother was being so unpleasant (even about airplanes) because, like you said, she didn’t like him. And maybe Hughes throws the money talk because he assumed they always had it, like he didn’t really know their past. Did people in general knew about her parents upbringing? Because we often assume things about public figures that are completely wrong.

    • Margaret Perry

      Thanks, Sophia. You make a really good point – I don’t think many people would have known about Mrs. Hepburn’s background because she definitely didn’t like to talk about it. I think the inaccuracies about the family were just to simplify things a bit. I agree that Scorsese isn’t careless. Thank you for commenting – I hope you enjoy Blanchett’s performance when you get to watch it again!

  • Groggy Dundee

    Really excellent, infomrative post. I recently wrote a similar piece and I know how difficult it is to compare a performance to a real person. You did a lovely job!

    I’m no fan of The Aviator but Blanchett was one of the better things about it. Then again she’s usually excellent.

  • calakutha

    Once again, you wow me. I’ve always wondered how that portrayal was seen by someone with a more learned Hepburn lens. Now I know. Good work, Margaret. 🙂

  • calahan

    You have wowed me, again. Great piece, Margaret. I’ve always wondered how Cate Blanchett’s portrayal was viewed through the lens of a Hepburn devotee. Now I know. 🙂

  • silverscreenings

    To be honest, I was not blown away by Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Hepburn when I originally saw the movie, but you’ve made some good points about her performance. Thanks for posting your assessment. 🙂

  • TheVern

    If someone wanted to make a life story about me, I would chose Cate Blanchet to portray me. She doesn’t do just mere imatations, she becomes that person. I loved reading all the history about the real Hepburn while you described The Aviator

  • Sun Smith-Foret

    Thanks, Margaret, for the very thoughtful analysis. I truly appreciate the details and tid-bits. They make a whole as much as can be made about s performer of the magnitude of Kathryn Hepburn. I’ll definitely couple her and Kate B. in a piece. I’m already thinking about colors and scale. Let me know your thought if you have a visual inspiration.Please let me know about your posts and I’ll follow. The comments are useful as well.

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      I’m so excited to see how that piece unfolds. I’ll have to knock some ideas around the old brainbox and see what I come up with. The first thing that comes to mind is how Scorsese used classic lens filters to get that old movie feel in the colouring – especially where the reds and greens were concerned (see DiCaprio’s peas in the nightclub scene, or the grass on the golf course, and her hair, etc.). KH was a redhead with freckles, and that doesn’t come across in her B&W films, but they captured it for THE AVIATOR. Although, KH loved flying because of HH and she always dreamt of playing Earhart – so themes of flight, which was such a popular past time in the 1930s, could be really interesting – that classic art deco silver of aviation… I’m just rambling now, but that’s what’s coming to mind, aesthetically.

      • Sun Smith-Foret

        Themes of flight fit both the Blanchette/Scorsese film and the fact that KH liked flying. I had no idea.. I have to think about the color pallet. My mind goes to prints that are somehow very feminine and very strong graphically. I’ll watch Aviator again to look at the clothes and interior design. I’ve got some fabric printed with golfing bites. I’ve seen Aviator 3 times but was thinking about other aspects and not planning a piece. This is fun, Margaret. Thanks for the great input. Your blog is truly an amazing accretion of passionate thought about film. I got to Mata Hari and was shocked at how she died. You are such a good researcher.

  • Taylor Sartre

    I look forward to viewing The Aviator again from a new perspective after having read your concise and informative review! When it comes to Kate, you’re the top!

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