Katharine Hepburn was nominated for a whopping 12 Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role, more than any other actress in her time. Although Hepburn won the Oscar for four of her film roles (MORNING GLORY (1933), GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967), THE LION IN WINTER (1968), and ON GOLDEN POND (1981)), she never once attended an Academy Award ceremony to accept an award. It wasn’t until she presented Producer Lawrence Weingarten the Irving G. Thalberg Award at the 46th awards ceremony in 1974 that Hepburn ever appeared at the Oscars.
“I’ve never been to an Academy Award [ceremony]. Now, if I sit here, in my chair, where I must be honest with myself so I’ll progress and my character will improve, why don’t I go to the Academy Awards? It has to be because I’m afraid that I’m gonna loose. Doesn’t it? I don’t approve of my attitude, of not going. I think that’s cheap of me. Second rate. Second rate, not to go. It’s a group activity.” (interview with Morley Safer for “60 Minutes”)
When nominated for her first Academy Award in 1934 for her performance in MORNING GLORY (1933), Hepburn intended to reject the award. Luckily, her agent took matters into his own hands and accepted the statuette on her behalf.
“I had sent them a wire, through my agent Leland Hayward, to say that I didn’t believe in awards, and that I really didn’t feel that I should compete. Some pompous, asinine thing, you know. He just put the wire in his pocket and said thank you very much, that I was deeply honored. There I was… he just changed the wire! ‘Cause he thought it was childish.” (on Dick Cavett, 1973)
Hepburn admitted that she must have been simply “too gutless” to attend the ceremony to receive her Oscars.
“Too gutless. Afraid I wouldn’t win it. It must be that. It couldn’t be anything else! Or that I have no dress. I have no dress. My father said about his children, ‘My children are very shy. When they go to a party (and this would include that [the Oscars]), they’re afraid they’re going to be neither the bride nor the corpse.'” (Cavett)
For all her nominations and wins, the one and only time Katharine Hepburn attended the Academy Awards ceremonies was to present, not receive, an award. Producer Lawrence Weingarten, who had worked with Miss Hepburn on ADAM’S RIB (1949) and PAT AND MIKE (1952) was terminally ill when he was selected to receive the coveted Irving G. Thalberg Award in 1974. Weingarten said the person from whom he would most like to receive the award, was none other that Katharine Hepburn.
Hepburn initially rejected the invitation to present the award when the president of the Motion Pictures Academy, Walter Mirisch approached her. She insisted she had nothing to wear. However, her respect for Weingarten led her to finally accept the invitation, though she turned down the Academy’s offer to set her up with a dressmaker – she insisted on wearing plain slacks and a jacket in place of the traditional evening dress.
David Niven introduced Miss Hepburn’s surprise appearance thus:
“To secure the identity of our next presenter has called for a security operation of truly royal proportions. And why not? Gertrude Stein might have said ‘A star is a star is a star,’ but to me, this is a star. Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Katharine Hepburn!”
Hepburn biographer Charlotte Chandler recalls the audience’s reaction to Hepburn’s appearance:
“I was in the audience that evening, and a palpable gasp and ecstatic response when Katharine Hepburn was announced as presenter was unforgettable. The audience rose, applauding respectfully for Weingarten, but carried away with enthusiasm for Katharine Hepburn, who was appearing at the Oscar ceremonies for the first time.” (Chandler)
Katharine Hepburn always spoke as if she were on a soapbox at one of her mother’s suffrage parades, and her speech for the Academy Awards was no different. Perhaps her broad gestures, clipped statements, and awkward pauses would have been more appropriate for a senate hearing on birth control, but there is no doubt that the Hollywood glamor set were more than a little charmed by Hepburn’s star appearance on the stage that night.
“Thank you very, very much. I am naturally deeply moved. I am also very happy that I didn’t hear anyone call out ‘It’s about time!’ [laughter] I am the living proof that a person can wait forty-one years to be unselfish. [applause]”
Weingarten couldn’t have been more appreciative of his dear friend’s tribute to him in presenting him with the award, tearing up as he praised her as an artist and a human being.
“Well, my dear Kate, I feel completely incapable of responding to that outpouring of love. To have Katharine Hepburn and the award at the same time is an emotional package that I cannot cope with. To all but her intimate friends, Kate’s performances on this screen have revealed the patrician, the sophisticate, and the iconoclast. But tonight she has revealed to you another side of her character. As you can see, she is a considerate, sympathetic, unselfish, and altogether beautiful human being.”
This post is written in conjunction with the 31 Days of Oscars blogathon hosted byOnce Upon a Screen, Paula’s Cinema Club, and Outspoken & Freckled. Week one featured historic Oscar snubs. Week two is devoted to miscellaneous categories (check out my post about writers Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin). Academy-nominated actors are being celebrated this week. Stay tuned for the directors in week four, and the movies in week five!