Katharine Hepburn’s TV movies

Hepburn Love Among the Ruins
Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn and George Cukor on the set of Love Among the Ruins (June 1974)

This post is my contribution to the Big Stars on the Small Screen blogathon, hosted by How Sweet It Was. I wanted to write about Katharine Hepburn’s TV movies because it was one of these acceptably-cheesy afternoon movies that introduced me to the actress. Check out all the other entries here.

It’s not surprising that Katharine Hepburn chose to finish her career on the small screen.  unconventional to the last, she embraced the diverse roles that these lower-budget productions afforded, proving that the ‘made-for-TV’ moniker doesn’t have to be synonymous with ‘made-for-the-bargain-bin’. As Douglas Sirk had proved in the 1950s, melodrama could be done with artistic flair and integrity, and Hepburn – along who a host of equally distinguished co-stars and directors – set a new standard for small screen movies.

Katharine_hepburn_the glass menagarie 1

The first TV movie Hepburn appeared in was The Glass Menagerie (1973), directed by Anthony Harvey. Based on Tennessee Williams’ four-character memory play of the same name, it’s an intense but well-crafted drama. Hepburn played Amanda Wingfield, an ex-Southern belle who’s abandoned by her husband and finds herself longing for the ‘Old South’ she remembers from her youth. There’s an excellent chemistry between the four actors and although the action centred around a small apartment and there’s not much physical movement, each one plays off the other beautifully.

Apparently, the actress wasn’t keen on the part initially, but was persuaded to take the role for the opportunity to work with Harvey again – in 1968, the pair had made The Lion In Winter together. It was a bold decision for Hepburn to take, but it was one that paid off. At the heart of the play (and indeed the film) is an interplay of anxiety and tenderness, and Hepburn is, by turns, outrageous, humorous and melancholic. Although she might not have rated herself as an actress, and perhaps there’s always something of ‘Hepburn’ in the roles she played, she inhabits Wingfield, calling on her own personality when needed. The faded Southern belle  is independent but intelligent, eccentric yet grounded – all adjectives that could be used to describe Hepburn herself.

Katharine_hepburn_the glass menagarie 1
Left: Hepburn on stage in The Philadelphia Story, Right: in The Glass Menagerie

Costume fact: the dress that Hepburn wears in The Glass Menagerie is actually the same one she wore for the 1939 stage version of The Philadelphia Story. Designed by Valentina, Tracy Lord’s wedding dress was an elaborate affair – pink silk organza, chiffon and crepe de chine, a fusion of modern and romantic elements – and personified a contemporary Southern socialite. Hepburn saved the dress in her personal collection, and bought it out of retirement in 1973, adding a corsage and a neckpiece. Because the actress had retained her slim figure, the waist only had to be let out slightly.

Katherine Hepburn and Dick Cavett pictured in 1973.
Katherine Hepburn on The Dick Cavett Show in October 1973

Hepburn’s second TV outing is probably her best known. Set in Victorian London and co-starring Laurence Olivier, Love Among The Ruins (1975) tells the story of a wealthy widow (Hepburn) who is sued for breach of promise by a (much younger) fiance. Oliver plays the respected barrister hired to defend her case. The film was a success at the Emmy Awards, where the two actors picked up awards for Outstanding Performance, and director George Cukor won the gong for Outstanding Directing. Emanuel Levy suggests that the film itself was born during Hepburn’s 1972 interview with Dick Cavett. When he asked her if she regretted never having played opposite Olivier she commented “Well! Neither Larry nor I are dead yet.” It took a letter from Hepburn and Cukor to persuade the actor into  the role, but the audience should be grateful they did, as the duo are a perfect small screen pairing.

Hepburn Love Among the Ruins 1
Love Among the Ruins
Hepburn Love Among the Ruins 1
Love Among the Ruins

The actress would go on to make six more TV movies, including The Corn is Green, Mrs Delafield Wants To Marry and The Man Upstairs. Each time she declared that the performance was going to be ‘her last’ but every time, she was persuaded out of retirement – one suspects she might not have needed much persuading. Her last role was in One Christmas, which was released in 1994. Based on a short story by Truman Capote, the film is set in 1930 – in some ways it seemed like the Hepburn had come full circle, back to the era where her career started. Back then, the publicity department had been keen to play up her ‘quirks’ (think: wearing slacks, not posing for pictures and ‘female companions’), in 1994 it was time to play up her legacy; who would’ve guessed how far she’d go?

Hepburn The Man Upstairs
The Man Upstairs

There are lots of reasons why Hepburn made a great small screen actress and why she was able to keep working for so long, but in my opinion, her lack of sexuality played an important part. The exact opposite of a femme fatale, she never played for looks, and her inherent stubbornness meant that, although she (almost) always got the boy, you had the feeling she was ambivalent to him. In the entire range of her movies, it’s difficult to recall (with the exception of Woman of The Year and The Philadelphia Story) an unembarrassed clinch or sexual situation (and don’t forget about the cold showers she reputedly took). Because Hepburn was never tied to her looks, incredible though they were, she was able to transcend them and embrace other forms of typecasting. Her authenticity and sense of self reflected in her ‘natural’ characters; she could make an audience believe whatever she wanted – it wasn’t screen-dependent.

Further reading: The Philadelphia Story / Bringing Up Baby and Born for the Part, a wonderful obituary


13 thoughts on “Katharine Hepburn’s TV movies

  1. Great article! It’s easy to forget these were made-for-TV movies because they are pretty much up to the standard of feature-length movie movies. I don’t know why, but I find MRS. DELAFIELD WANTS TO MARRY (1986) and LAURA LANSING SLEPT HERE (1988) especially endearing.

    1. I must admit I haven’t seen either of those – one of the reasons why I didn’t write about them! I think so many of Hepburn’s TV films have stood the test of time, clearly they were full scale productions!

  2. I love that she kept that gorgeous dress! Thanks for tracking these down, they all sound fascinating—I love that even in the early days, TV was giving stars a chance to do something a little different. And that Cavett interview is hilarious!

  3. An interesting and thoughtful review of Hepburn’s TV-movies (and I didn’t know about the dress story, fantastic). I suppose part of her willingness to work on the small screen was simply that she might have looked at it as another world to conquer.

    1. I completely agree. Watching her on Cavett I was reminded how independent and strong-willed she was (I know those words are always used in conjunction with KH, but she really was) and I can imagine that she enjoyed a medium that went against Hollywood conventionality.

    1. I’m gutted that I never had the chance to experience them in that way – they’ve always been marketed as an ‘afternoon weepie’, which kind of diminishes their accomplishments!

  4. Thanks for this great overview of all Katharine’s Tv appearances. It was indeed an event when her show was scheduled.
    Love the story about the dress. Joe amazing.
    A shame she always covered up her neck in later years.

    1. She was such a classic beauty. Apparently the dress only had to be let out 6-inches, which I can well imagine! And yes, she always did cover her neck – I don;t think I’d ever noticed that before!

  5. My favorite of her made-for-TV films is the charming LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, which features two delightful performances from the stars. I love the quote you included about Olivier.

  6. How much I want to watch these films! I love Kate so much, but they’re kind of hard to find. Love Among the Ruins, for her Emmy win and Laurence Olivier, is the must-see.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

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