Katharine Hepburn, ‘Little Women,’ and The Strength of a Star Persona

What differentiates a movie actor from a movie star? On the surface, it may seem like semantics, but to anyone who is familiar with the world of pop culture and celebrity, there is a distinct difference between the two. Some amount of talent is (almost) always required to break into the film industry, but being a master of the craft does not automatically guarantee that an aspiring actor will become one of Hollywood’s marquee stars. The most talented thespian of their generation may go their whole life without making the leap into movie stardom. Conversely, a mediocre actor can become the biggest film star in the world.

In order to make the transition, a performer needs to have a certain celebrity persona. Generally, good looks and oozing charisma are thought of as being key to ascending into the upper echelons of movie stardom. While these two qualities are certainly key ingredients to creating a movie star, a strong celebrity persona is perhaps the most vital. Media scholars Christopher Moore, Kim Barbour, and P. David Marshall define a persona as “a creation comprised from an interpretation of one’s identity and how that identity is made into a public entity.” In order to become a box office draw and major celebrity, an actor must be willing to market themselves as a personality for audiences to connect with outside of the characters they play on the screen. This transforms them into a commodity for the public to worship and rapidly consume rather than just an artist, thus elevating them into movie star status. It ultimately does not matter if these constructed identities align with who these people really are behind closed doors as long as the façade never cracks in public, shattering the illusion for the audience and, thus, ruining their marketability.

The idea and value of a celebrity persona were a major part of the Old Hollywood system. With what is commonly referred to as the star system, film studios were incredibly controlling of their stars’ images. They worked hard to engineer appealing facades to market them to audiences. Common practices of persona building during this era include inventing stage names and origin stories for actors to adopt, orchestrating romantic relationships for the stars to take part in, and, most importantly, deciding what a star’s personality should be. In essence, a persona was just another character for the actors to play for the entertainment of the public— only this was “real life” rather than on the screen. 

Rather than focus on what made each star unique, Old Hollywood studios generally preferred to lean on a handful of archetypes to sell their stars. Some common personas hoisted up on the day’s stars include the innocent ingénue, the temping femme fatale, the lusty sexpot, the suave playboy, and the debonair gentleman.  The goal of these studios was to construct easily digestible and marketable personas, which is why the practice of typecasting became so prevalent. A celebrity’s persona would frequently dictate what kind of roles they were chosen to play because that is what audiences expected to see when they went to the theater to see their favorite star. The media critics Celia Lam and Jackie Raphael write that “marketing strategies for early Hollywood films sought to frame actors as ‘picture personalities’ reflective of an on-screen persona rather than off-screen identities” because it is the personas that made them bankable box office draws. For example, if someone went to see an Errol Flynn film, they knew that they would be in for a swashbuckling adventure, regardless of how being put in such a limiting box impacted the star and their opportunity to showcase their range and skills. Although these simple personas worked well in the short term, they ultimately did no real favors in creating a legacy for these stars; unless they were the prime example of the archetype they embodied, they generally have been overlooked as time passed.

Katharine Hepburn (COURTESY: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

One major star from the Old Hollywood era whose legendary status endures today is Katharine Hepburn. Uncoincidentally, she is also one of the few celebrities from this time with a three-dimensional public persona that did not adhere to simple archetypes like so many of her peers. While she remains legendary for her stacked filmography and record-setting four Best Actress Oscar wins, Hepburn is almost equally as iconic for the image she constructed for herself outside of her professional life. Her fierce independence and willingness to challenge gender conventions loom just as large in the public consciousness as her several memorable roles. Her continuing cultural resonance as a movie star means that her celebrity persona was extremely successful and well-crafted. Unlike most stars who had their images developed and curated for them by the studios without much of a say, Kate Hepburn is unique in the way that she was the proactive force in generating her persona. Rather than let the studio heads dictate her public image, Hepburn used her savvy to engage in her own self-mythologizing. In order to do this, Hepburn, who was notably more press-shy than her peers during her early career, used one of her early screen characters to help establish her celebrity persona. 1933’s Little Women was Hepburn’s fourth film credit and, at that early point in her career, was by far the biggest hit that she had had as a film actor, elevating her into the realm of movie stardom. This meant it was time for the actress to establish her persona to keep her newfound celebrity status. 

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Hepburn could not easily slot into one of the ready-made archetypes. Studio execs deemed her too unattractive to be a bombshell, and she was not demure enough to encapsulate the typical ingénue role. Her energy was much more distinct and difficult to pin down as a singular thing, both in real life and in the roles that she wanted to play. So, Hepburn took the reins into her own hands and decided to lean into her popular portrayal of Jo March to develop her star persona. She took Jo’s fierce independence, aversion to traditional gender roles and norms, and yearning for artistic greatness and fashioned them onto herself. Even now, describing those attributes of Jo’s, feels just like explaining some key aspects of Katharine Hepburn, proving just how strongly and effectively she was able to link herself with the character over time. Hepburn was able to utilize her persona so well that it is very hard to untangle her from Jo. By crafting this persona, Hepburn was able to achieve two things that eluded many of her contemporaries: she was able to participate in self-mythologizing and, by basing her celebrity persona off of a classic literary character, she was able to imbue herself with some of that timelessness. Both of these benefits have proven to be good for Hepburn in the long term, given the vast array of roles that spanned her lengthy career and her status as a Hollywood legend.

How Kate Met Jo

To understand how Little Women arrived at the perfect time for Hepburn’s persona-building, it is worth looking at the point in her career when the role came to her. After making a name for herself in the theater, the actress made the trek to Hollywood to see if she could make it in pictures. At age 24, Hepburn made her film debut in 1932 in George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement; the powerful film executive David O. Selznick, who was a producer on this film, spoke openly in later years about how he was initially hesitant to cast Hepburn in the film because he was concerned about whether or not she had the right “look” for the film. Still, ultimately he relented and gave her the opportunity based on her formidable skill in the craft of acting. Hepburn received strong reviews for the film. Her ability to hold her own against major star John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement encouraged the film studio RKO to sign the actress to a substantial contract based on the promise of her debut. Her next feature, Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong, was not quite the box office or critical success of her debut film. Still, critics praised her lead performance, foreshadowing the bright future ahead of her in film.

After a strong first year in Hollywood, the 1933-1934 film season proved to be crucial for Hepburn in terms of critical and commercial success and ascension into notability. Her first year in pictures placed her on the cusp of stardom, but her second year in Hollywood thrust her right into the center of the celebrity machine. The first of her films to be released in 1933 was Lowell Sherman’s Morning Glory, in which she played a rising actress eager for stardom. Her second role of the year was in Cukor’s adaptation of Little Women, in which she played Jo, an aspiring writer who feels out of place in the confining 19th century. Both of these parts saw Hepburn receiving universal praise for her work, with the actress winning Best Actress for Little Women at the Venice Film Festival and her first Best Actress Oscar for her work in Morning Glory. These films’ professional advancements and financial successes elevated Hepburn from a talented actor into a major star, meaning that it was time for her to establish her persona. It is here that she turned to Jo March for guidance and inspiration.

My Personality Was Like Her’s

Katharine Hepburn in Little Women (COURTESY: RKO Pictures)

Throughout her career, Hepburn carefully sowed the seed that she identified with Jo on a personal level. In her autobiography Me, she writes that Little Women “was one of [her] favorites” and that “this picture was heaven to do.” She echoes these same sentiments many times throughout her life, which is an effective strategy for reminding the public of how similar she is to Jo. It seems that even Hepburn herself bought into the narrative that she is just like Jo, as she is quoted in her friend Alan Berg’s biography Remembering Kate as saying, “I would defy anyone to be as good as I was in Little Women…They just couldn’t be, they really couldn’t be, because I came from the same general atmosphere, enjoyed the same things… I was enough of a tomboy myself; my personality was like hers. I could say, ’Christopher Columbus! What richness!’ and believe it totally. I have enough of that old-fashioned personality in myself. Coming from a big family where I had always been a little dramatic, this part suited my exaggerated sense of things.” By consistently bringing up Little Women, Hepburn strengthens Jo and her celebrity persona ties. 

Because of how effectively Hepburn utilized her persona, things can get a little blurry trying to figure out where Jo ends, and Kate begins. This ambiguity was by design; in the early stages of her career, Hepburn was fairly private with the press. She only really started being more open and accepting interviews later in her life. Once she was a big enough icon, she knew she could have full control over the situation. So, when trying to maintain some sense of privacy, having Jo as a reference point from which to derive her persona was easy to fall back on for the actress.

Personality-wise, both Hepburn and Jo are defined by their independence, sense of humor, and strong wit, their willingness to challenge gender roles, and their strong passion for their respective artistic crafts. In Alcott’s novel, Jo is depicted as a fiercely independent and ambitious young woman who dreams of becoming a successful writer. She is intelligent, creative, and passionate and often feels frustrated by the limitations placed on women in her time. It is likely that those aforementioned traits were a part of Hepburn’s personality before she starred in Little Women. Still, there is no doubt that the warm reception to her performance in the film encouraged her to lean heavily into those attributes when presenting herself to the public. In other words, these are the aspects of herself that she felt safe sharing with the public through her persona— and if she did not possess one of these traits, she would just seamlessly adopt it.

While it can be challenging to discern what personality traits the two genuinely shared and what was just persona, from a strictly biographical standpoint, it is undeniable that Kate and Jo do have some similarities. Much like the March family, the Houghton Hepburn family were notable New Englanders (although from different states: the Marches hail from Massachusetts, while the Houghton Hepburns are from Connecticut). The New England region is stereotypically thought of as being one of the most liberal parts of the United States, and the Marches and the Houghton Hepburns both share that assessment. Kate’s mother, Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, was a suffragette leader who was well-renowned for her work in the Women’s Rights movement. She undoubtedly instilled a set of liberal beliefs in her children, much like the March sister’s beloved Marmee did for them. Their similar upbringings and core values clearly explain why Hepburn would feel such a kinship with Jo and want to model her persona after her.

It is important to remember that Hepburn was playing a particular version of Jo that is distinct from the novel’s character. Like any adaptation, Cukor’s Little Women and Hepburn’s performance altered Louisa May Alcott’s novel to serve their strengths better. Cukor not only had to figure out how to shoot the source text in a cinematic way but was also tasked with creating an adaptation that spoke to the mood and ideals of the time. Whether directly or indirectly, all adaptations speak to the sociopolitical climate in which they were created; that is, whether it is conscious or not, there is always work done by the adaptor(s) that makes an adaptation more timely or emphasizes why the original piece still resonates with audiences years after its initial release. When Little Women, an American production of a distinctly American story, was released in 1933, the United States was deep in the midst of the Great Depression. So, as Katharine Kellet writes, “Cukor’s Little Women becomes a kind of allegory for the ideal set forth in the nineteen thirties to allay the prevailing fear and poverty: an activist spirit grounded in unbreakable ties to family and community.” While these themes are certainly present in the original novel, Cukor emphasizes them by stressing the March family’s turn to poverty from their once-comfortable lifestyle and their stress on the importance of familial bonds as a way to cope with their economic struggles as a way to show Depression-era families how they can still find joy amongst each other despite their financial situations.

Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, Katharine Hepburn, and Frances Dee on the set of Little Women (COURTESY: RKO Pictures)

Like any actor, Hepburn’s performance was guided by her director’s interests. So, her particular version of Jo placed an added emphasis on her resilience against hardships. Whether it be her falling out with Laurie after his failed marriage proposal or the March family’s economic struggles, Hepburn’s rendition of Jo is persistent and eager to tackle any and all challenges. Being tough in the face of opposition is another key trait that Hepburn adopted from Jo for her persona. Critics never shook her, and throughout her whole career, Hepburn gave off an air of unflappability. 

Hepburn’s image of not letting things get to her was a crucial part of her image when she lost a lot of goodwill in the late 1930s. After leading a string of commercial flops, Hepburn was labeled as “box office poison.” Despite her solid performances in said films, this cruel label stuck around and made her popularity decline. Despite the open revile against her, Hepburn kept plugging away at her film career (with a brief return to the stage, as well) until she was able to regain favor with The Philadelphia Story. Reteaming once again with George Cukor as her director, The Philadelphia Story proved to be exactly what was needed to return Kate’s popularity. Much like Jo, she understood what the audience wanted. Around this time, Hepburn said, “Moviegoers […] think I’m too la-di-da or something. A lot of people want to see me fall flat on my face.” So, that is exactly what she gave them: her first scene in the film features her character Tracy Lord falling directly on her face. She knew that to get audiences back on her side, she would have to let them laugh at her and be unafraid to make herself the butt of the joke, which Jo, specifically Hepburn’s rendering of Jo, would do. For Kate and Jo, resilience and adaptation are key to survival and thriving.

Alan Berg writes that Kate was offered the role of Aunt March in the 1995 Little Women adaptation starring Winona Ryder in the role of Jo. Berg quotes Hepburn as saying, “Please tell them that I would never even think of competing with [1933’s Aunt March portrayer] Edna May Oliver” because she is ostensibly not a character actor, which is what that kind of role would typically require. However, there is an interesting subtext to be read in why she turned down that role: Hepburn has based her persona so effectively for so many years that she could not appear in a version of Little Women where she does not play Jo. By the mid-90s, Hepburn has entangled herself so completely with Jo March that it is unfeasible for her to imagine herself as anyone else in that story. Here, the full scope of the effectiveness of her persona becomes clear. Even Katharine Hepburn herself bought into the compelling nature of her persona.

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