How Katharine Hepburn Defied Sexist Ageism in Hollywood


Harrison Ford

It is a widely acknowledged fact in Hollywood today that leading men are permitted to age on screen while their female colleagues are required to keep at least one toe dipped in the fountain of youth. The charts in this Vulture article compare the ages of leading men and their love interests film by film. Though actors like Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, and Richard Gere age into their 50s and 60s, only seldom are their leading ladies as old as 40.

This problem isn’t unique to the film world. A recent British study shows that older female television presenters are pushed off screen.

“…out of 481 presenters at all the networks only 26 women over 50 are regularly on screen. Of presenters over 50, just 18% are women. This group makes up just 5% of presenters of all ages and sexes and 7% of the total workforce both on and off screen. While there are regularly 188 women on screen, making up 39% of that workforce, the majority of them are under 50.” (Women and Hollywood)

In an article last year, The Hollywood Reporter celebrated the increased popularity and box-office clout of actresses of mature years. But even they had to admit:

“But not all the news is encouraging. A recent USC study tracked characters appearing in the 500 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2012 and found that the percentage of females between the ages of 40 and 64 has not changed meaningfully over time. The majority of all female characters onscreen in the 100 most popular films in 2012 were between ages 21 and 39. And, among characters in the 40- to 64-year-old range, males outnumbered female characters by nearly 4-to-1.

And for all the evidence that suggests that, cast in the right vehicle, older actresses can triumph, it’s not clear that everyone in Hollywood has received the message — particularly at those studios where male execs dominate.” (Revenge of the Over-40 Actress)

Susan Sarandon, one of the few mature actresses still finding leading work in Hollywood, often talks about the struggles a female actor has in Hollywood.

“When people say, ‘Do you think you’ve lost work because of your politics?’ I say, ‘No, You lose work because you get old and fat!’ That’s when they write you off in Hollywood.” (Women, Ageing and Hollywood)

Were things different back in the day?

During what is now considered the Golden Age of Hollywood, from about 1930 through 1965, older actress were seldom seen in leading roles. Some veteran actresses, like Edna May Oliver, Marie Dressler, Marjorie Main, and Mary Wickes were able to make names for themselves as character actors, but they were seldom romantic leads. Many stars that started out in Hollywood as ingénues continued to act into their later years, but they often portrayed “monstrous feminine” characters – wicked, twisted, pathological mothers, and sadistic next door neighbors. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford found renewed success in such roles.

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Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)

Katharine Hepburn made 30 films after the age of 40. She played the romantic lead in 12 of them. She was a mother in only 10. Two of her mother roles were of the sadistic variety: as Violet Venable in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959) and as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962). Hepburn earned 3 of her 4 Academy Awards for movies she made after the age of 40. Six of her last 30 films were made playing opposite Spencer Tracy. Other leading men of this period of her career included John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Henreid, Bob Hope, Rossano Brazzi, Peter O’Toole, Harold Gould, and Laurence Olivier.

The trajectory of Hepburn’s career after her 40th birthday proves that filmmakers in Hollywood at the time still saw her as sexually pertinent to romantic film texts. Not only was the Hepburn character permitted to continue in romantic roles, but audiences continued to find these performances credible.

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Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in John Huston’s THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

For example, Hepburn was in her early 40s when she played the spinster Rose Sayer in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) with Humphrey Bogart, yet it does not seem in the least bit unusual to hear Rose and Charlie dream about a future together – a future that includes grandchildren, no less. Hepburn was 50 when she made DESK SET (1957), yet both Gig Young and Spencer Tracy pursue her as if she were a 20-something.

Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Gig Young in Walter Lang's DESK SET (1957)

Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, and Gig Young in Walter Lang’s DESK SET (1957)

Hepburn was almost 80 when she played Margaret Delafield in James Prideaux‘s made-for-tv movie, MRS. DELAFIELD WANTS TO MARRY (1986). In this film text, the Hepburn character defends the right of older women to pursue romance, sex, and marriage. As with many of her earlier movies, Hepburn does not shy away from vocally addressing important social issues. MRS. DELAFIELD is a hugely overlooked film, because it tackles such issues as anti-semitism, ageism, social class conflict, and homosexuality.

MDWtMHow is it that Hepburn was able to maintain a steady career of romantic roles into her later years when so many other of her era failed to do so? Can actresses today learn from her example?

There are a number of reasons Hepburn was “permitted,” by the system, to have the career she did. In the first place, she had spent years building up a relationship of respect with the studio bosses and actors agencies in Hollywood. She took her career seriously, was professional in negotiating scripts and working on set, and she was discrete about her private life. All these factors contributed to her being taken seriously when she wanted to pursue anything unconventional (like wearing trousers, bossing people around, and making movies when she was older).

Katharine Hepburn also continued to work very hard on her craft, returning to the stage to try Shakespeare and the classics. She even made a musical (“Coco” (1969)). By putting personal effort into developing her career, Hepburn was able to maintain her sellable status as a performer. She was willing and able to take roles that more stagnant actresses would not have attempted. Like Davis and Crawford, Hepburn was not afraid to appear grotesque on screen, as long as the role had a purpose and did not reveal any sort of desperation for work.

These are all very practical reasons that there was a place for an older Hepburn in the movies. But the most significant reason for Katharine Hepburn’s success as an over-40s actress was her complete self-confidence. She was not so insecure about her looks that she let them prevent her form making movies. She was not afraid to age in front of the cameras or to let her beloved public see her ageing. Hepburn was not obsessed with trying to look like the perpetual 30-year-old. She kept herself fit by playing tennis and swimming. For a time she died her hair, and she liked to keep her neck covered. But she maintained a healthy realism about her looks, which permitted her to carry on as usual. My favorite Katharine Hepburn scholar Andrew Britton puts it best when he says:

“The answer to the question of how it was possible for her to lend herself to her late films has already been implied. ‘She is what she is because that’s what she wants to be.’ Purely reactionary in its dramatic meaning, the remark tallies with Hepburn’s sense of herself: her personal pride in her achievement, and in the self produced through it.” (Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist)

This post is written in conjunction with the Diamonds and Gold Blogathon hosted by Wide Screen World and Caftan Woman.


9 thoughts on “How Katharine Hepburn Defied Sexist Ageism in Hollywood

  • Rich

    To examine Hepburn’s over-40 success is to see how much the marketplace has evolved (or perhaps devolved) to the point where Hollywood in general caters to youth to an unprecedented degree. Could you imagine her in a superhero movie or a young-adult adaptation? Somehow, I can’t imagine her settling for that. Good job.

    • MargaretPerry Post author

      I can imagine her being a Katnis- or Merida-like archer. But nothing that would have her in tight leather pants and her bosom sticking out, no. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Vicki

    Hepburn blazed a trail for ‘older’ actress in Hollywood, and it’s such a shame that the example she set hasn’t translated to contemporary Hollywood. I’m in two minds about why – I do agree with Rich’s point about catering solely to the youth market – but I think that’s only half the problem. There’s a lack of challenging roles for women in general so, as they can’t build up a reputation as a ‘serious’ actress during their earliest films, they become typecast and are never considered for mature roles. Hope that makes sense?
    Love reading your contribution anyway!

  • Marta

    Hi Margaret, fascinating analysis!
    If only Hollywood execs could see more actresses in the same way maybe we would have more interesting, âgée leading ladies.

  • Le

    Wow, Margaret, this is basically a scholar’s article on the theme!
    You put everything very well. When I say that Kate should be the role model of every single aspiring actress, In really mean it, and she should be a role model even for mature actresses who may lose their position as leading ladies. To mention one in the graphic: where is Julia Ormond now?
    And Mrs. Delafield wants to marry is a movei that might have escaped me, but that I’ll look forward to watch!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/04/o-vento-sera-tua-heranca-inherit-wind.html

  • Leah

    What an insightful review. It’s no wonder women older than 40 are flocking to cable TV shows, where their worth is being appreciated properly. It’s exciting to see women who never were properly valued in film suddenly gaining audiences and awards. But it’s disheartening to see that the audiences they’re gaining isn’t translating into such rewarding roles for women on the big screen.

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