In Rick Foster’s play, Kate: The Unexamined Life of Katharine Hepburn at American Stage, actress Janis Stevens was simply Kate. She channeled the mind of 92-year-old Katharine and wore it as easily as you put on a sweater. From the chirping of her speech to the essential shaking, in a wheelchair in an attic of memories, on New Years Eve 1999, Janis took us behind the scenes of an unlikely 1930s Hollywood star.
Enterprising, unconventional and progressive, Katharine Hepburn was a force to be reckoned with. Raised by socialist and atheist parents, an activist mother and a urologist father, the couple taught their many children to be strong and independent.
At an early age, Kate decided she wanted to be a boy for a while, like her brothers, cutting her hair, dressing in her brother’s shirt and pants, and demanding to be called Jimmy. Instead of reacting negatively, her mother loved her creative expression.
Janis looked into my laptop camera and exclaimed, “If her first daughter is also her second son, whatever, she loved it.”
Tragedy has repeatedly struck the Hepburn house, but Kate has learned to cover up her emotions despite the immeasurable loss and wear a smile to mask the despair. Forward, Always Forward was Hepburn’s motto. She knew she had to bounce back from setbacks and obstacles because that was the Hepburn family way of life.
Although her mother is proud of her stage career, she refused to support her career in film. When discovered by an RKO Radio Pictures talent scout on Broadway, she was offered an audition for a role with John Barrymore in the 1932 film, A divorce certificate. She never looked back. Although her mother never came to see the movies her daughter was in, that didn’t stop Kate from pursuing her passion.
With bold traits, Janis told us how Katharine created her own opportunities in Hollywood, despite a time when women were seen and not heard. She bought the rights to the film and produced her own films, with the caveat that she had absolute control over the cast, crew, director and, of course, was her star. In a career spanning more than six decades, she has won four Oscars.
When Janis spoke about Spencer Tracy and Phyllis Wilbourn, you thought she was talking about a personal experience with the heart. She gave a glimpse of the true love she shared with Spencer, friends and lovers to her nanny before she passed away. She never revealed, but hinted that there was more to the long-standing relationship with her secretary and friend, Phyllis, whom she took care of as Phyllis succumbed to dementia.
Kate would hide her loneliness and sadness behind the smile. Her private life has helped shape and teach her how to be an amazing actress. Janis portrayed Kate with such compassion and wisdom, by the time the play ended you felt that you indeed had an insider’s connection to the life of the beloved actress.