“The Odyssey of The African Queen” on Arte: Katharine Hepburn, subversive icon or star model in Hollywood?

Actress renowned for her nonconformity, the heroine of one of John Huston’s masterpieces, still the Oscar record holder, had to soften her image to become popular, her feminism being perceived as threatening.

When released, in 1952, The African Queen’s Odyssey, an exotic adventure film partly shot in the Congo, where she plays a single missionary who loves the adventurer Bogart, Katharine Hepburn has already started her second part of her career. This had taken a singular turn, ten years earlier.

Originally, there was a retouching of the scenario. The presentation in 1942 of The Woman of the Year, brilliant marital comedy by George Stevens, makes you cringe. The ending, in particular, which sees Katharine Hepburn, as a columnist, demonstrate her intellectual superiority to her sports reporter spouse, played by Spencer Tracy. While the boys have just entered the war, this slap in the face of masculinity does not reach the public invited to the preview. Two years earlier, after a series of failures that earned her the nickname “box-office poison”, “Kate” had regained the favor of spectators as an heiress transfigured by love. ” In indiscretions, of George Cukor, Hepburn, the spoiled and hyperactive child, was brought back to earth, decrypts the historian John Kobal. A common man, played by James Stewart, told her that she was not a creature of ice, but a “real woman”. »

Until then, she had rejected the stereotypes that the studios wanted her to endorse. Arriving in Hollywood in 1932 with a husband, Ludlow Oggen Smith, whom she quickly divorced, and a companion, Laura Harding, constantly by her side, Hepburn won a first Oscar in 1934, but saw her career stagnate. Daughter of a progressive doctor and a suffragist, this athletic bourgeois, who wears men’s pants, avoids society life and does not erase her New England accent, questions more than she seduces.

After a first Oscar, Katharine Hepburn’s career no longer took off, her personality questioning more than she seduced the public.

Photo Bridgeman Images

His affected playing ends up tiring the critics. The egotism and androgyny of its heroines, of the pilot of The Silver Moth in cross-dressing Sylvia Scarlett, drive a wedge between the actress and her audience. Who wonders who is Katharine Hepburn, who seems to do without men in her life as on the screen, to whom we only lend brief affairs with John Ford and Howard Hughes, and whose fetish partner, Cary Grant, represents for her more of an alter ego than an object of passion.

While continuing to preserve her unique way of life, the star returned to grace within the very conservative MGM will agree to sacrifice her combat feminism on the altar of popularity. “La Métro felt that its character in The Woman of the Year was so strong that he ultimately had to be tamed and chastened”will tell the screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. The latter then writes a new ending where Kate prepares – and misses – breakfast for her husband.

” This is how, writes essayist David Thomson, that Hepburn had become beloved, while Tracy had just found a companion for whom he did not need to give up his dignity. She looked at him with adoration, an attitude she had rarely shown on screen. The rumored rumor of an adulterous affair between “Spence”, who is married, and Kate completes the humanization of the actress now back in line. It is true that this transgression is almost reassuring in view of the current rumors about his bisexuality. The success of nine films shot by the couple; the devotion of Hepburn, who lives with his secretary but devotes himself to Tracy until her death in 1967, changes viewers’ perception of the long-rebellious one.

” More and more, analyzes the academic James Naremore, she became the symbol of a domesticated and inoffensive feminism, to the point of expiating all these years of independence, by playing the spinsters who declare their admiration for these aging icons of virility, like Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne. » It is this mutation, crowned by three other Oscars – record unmatched to date -, as well as its longevity which explain why Hepburn, who died in 2003 at 96 years old, has become an institution. Its subversion, meanwhile, is being rediscovered by new generations.


To have
s The African Queen’s OdysseySunday December 18 on Arte at 9 p.m.

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“The Odyssey of The African Queen” on Arte: Katharine Hepburn, subversive icon or star model in Hollywood?