The screen legend showed her versatility in comedy and drama over a career of more than six decades. ''Philadelphia Story'' and ''Golden Pond'' are among our favorites -- what are yours?

By Gary Susman
Updated July 04, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Katharine Hepburn: ZUMA Press/NewsCom

Adam's Rib

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Here are five great Katharine Hepburn films

”I think every actress in the world looked up to her with a kind of reverence and a sense of, ‘Oh boy, if only I could be like her.”’ So said Elizabeth Taylor on Sunday, upon hearing of the passing of Katharine Hepburn. Not just actresses but women everywhere wanted to be like her. When she wore trousers in ”Sylvia Scarlett” (1935), she sparked a fashion trend. When she was labeled ”box-office poison” in the late ’30s, she took control of her career (at a time when actors and actresses did pretty much whatever the studios wanted) by producing her own material, buying the rights to Philip Barry’s plays ”Holiday” and ”The Philadelphia Story” and adapting them into beloved screen versions. The fierce independence and self-reliance she showed on screen belonged to her in real life as well, and those traits helped her serve as a role model for generations.

Hepburn set the standard so often that it’s hard to single out just a few performances. Some of her movies, like ”Pat and Mike” (1952), in which the 45-year-old actress played a multitalented athlete, or ”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) — for which she won an Oscar as a woman whose daughter (played by niece Katharine Houghton) wants to marry African-American paragon Sidney Poitier — are remembered today more for their politics than for her acting. Other great performances, like the ones in 1937’s ”Stage Door” (where she plays a privileged ingenue much like herself) or 1962’s ”Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (where she delivers a powerful turn as morphine-addicted mom Mary Tyrone), have been seen by too few and are worth seeking out. The five below, however, are among those she’ll most likely be remembered for.

Bringing Up Baby (1938) Susan Vance (Hepburn), a classic daffy heiress in a classic screwball romantic comedy, trades double entendres with stuffy paleontologist David Huxley (Cary Grant). Directed by master of speed Howard Hawks, ”Baby” (named for Susan’s pet leopard) sends Hepburn and Grant through a dizzying set of supremely silly adventures that finds Grant utterly discombobulated by the end. After all, Hepburn’s Susan is a woman who’ll do anything to get what she wants, including driving her beloved nuts. Yet who wouldn’t fall in love with this sparkling dame?

The Philadelphia Story (1940) Hepburn rescued her career with the role of Tracy Lord, written for her by playwright Philip Barry. She’s the socialite who fascinates everybody, including cynical scandal-sheet reporter Mike Connor (Jimmy Stewart), who winds up falling for her. She’s due to be married to a nice but dull fellow, but she can’t shake ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant again), who keeps sticking around like a hungover party guest. As she often did, Hepburn shone so brightly that she made everyone else look good as well, notably Stewart, who won his only Oscar for his performace here.

Adam’s Rib (1949) Of the nine movies she made with off-screen lover Spencer Tracy, from the sexy ”Woman of the Year” (1942) to the valedictory ”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (he died days after filming was completed), ”Adam’s Rib” finds the duo at the peak of their partnership, deliciously fiery in their volatile chemistry and electric repartee. They’re married lawyers who find themselves trying opposite sides of a case involving a woman (Judy Holliday) accused of killing her husband. As usual, Hepburn gives Tracy as good as she gets, and if they both wear the pants in this case, there’s still ”a little difference” between men and women, as Hepburn admits. ”Hurrah for that little difference,” exults Tracy.

The African Queen (1951) This may have been the first of her spinster roles, but Hepburn wasn’t going to give in to aging without a fight. Here, she’s Rose Sayer, a missionary whose sparring partner is washed-up riverboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart, who, like Stewart before him and Henry Fonda after, won his only Oscar for his work opposite Hepburn). In a rousing adventure from director John Huston, the two find themselves combating World War I German forces, each other, and mostly the elements. As she puts it, ”Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.” Allnut, for his part, calls her a ”crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid.” They’re both right.

On Golden Pond (1981) In a movie industry that seems to have few opportunities for actresses over 40, Hepburn won three of her four Oscars after age 60. The last was for this lovely duet with Henry Fonda, in which they play a senior couple, Ethel and Norman Thayer, who refuse to go gently into that good night. Watching Hepburn’s Ethel in action — picking strawberries, diving off the prow of her speedboat, or giving a good slap to ungrateful daughter Chelsea (Jane Fonda) — it’s clear that what’s keeping the morbid Norman alive is the chance to spend one more day with this vibrant, no-nonsense woman.

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Adam's Rib

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