“Call Me Kate” Review: Celebrating the Coolest Icon in Hollywood History

Katharine Hepburn passed away 21 years ago on June 29, but looking back on her life and career, she seems cooler and more relevant than ever. “Call Me Kate,” a new documentary, reminds us why Hepburn’s fierce, intense, graceful personality still resonates today, especially in an age when Variety calls Kim Kardashian an actor. How the hell did we get this far?

Oh, and by the way, Hepburn won four Academy Awards, which she repeatedly said she did not care about. “Put it in a bag or something,” she said when receiving the news about her third Oscar over the phone.

Hepburn was hyper energetic, funny, and a deep thinker, according to her friends. She pioneered – not only in wearing pants – but in being business savvy in this male-dominant industry and daring to say no to the system that wanted to mold her. An almost Victorian discipline gave framework to her life, swimming or playing tennis every morning, making sure she had enough sleep and good food. She also never forgot her roots in Connecticut, and spent the final years of her life close to where she grew up.

She always spoke candidly about her luck in having a stable home, caring and intelligent parents, and wild, free experiences in safety until the age of 15. Hepburn had a joyous childhood, but when her brother committed suicide at 16 everything changed. Her family dealt with the grief by pretending as if nothing had happened, as if Tom never existed. This repression led Kate to experience anxiety attacks and become less social, eventually being homeschooled and extremely shy. However, she vowed to live a secret life for her and her brother, and as she says “One day I decided to do something with my life, so I did”.

After moving to New York, Hepburn’s journey to stardom was rocky. She got understudy roles but was usually fired. She became part of high society circles through a friend, married but soon realized she had too much energy to stay in one place. Her husband, Leland, threw his life aside to follow her and help her no matter what, but she eventually moved to LA, and he moved on. Her big break came with a lead role in a play that received great critique. Her headshot was sent to George Cukor (who became her mentor), landing her a major part in “A Bill of Divorcement” opposite John Barrymore. It is a shame that the documentary only briefly touches on the fact that Barrymore was a real “hunter” when it came to young actresses, and his mannerisms due to being an alcoholic were often less than polite.

Call Me Kate, unfortunately, is also poorly edited, chopped into tiny pieces in an attempt to be “expressionist”, showing associations and details while Kate narrates. This clunky approach disrupts the rhythm. One refreshing exception is noticeable in the pacing and visuals when discussing the tragedy of her brother. Despite these flaws, the rare footage of young Kate, her first screen tests, and stage performances are exciting to watch.

Call Me Kate

Bringing Up Baby

Despite Hepburn’s rapid rise, the film’s transitions often make no sense, such as moving from a scene in “Morning Glory” to footage of her museum, “The Kate.” The linking is poor, and sometimes we skip years and years of events or only mention milestones in two sentences.

The 1930s saw many acting careers fade, especially with the advent of talkies, but Hepburn persisted despite making some bad movies. “Bringing Up Baby” was not appreciated at the time (personally, it is my favorite screwball comedy of all times), and a hurricane that swept through her family home marked the end of her relationship with Howard Hughes. The film skips many in-depth stories, like this one, which could have provided richer context.

Hepburn’s business savvy was evident when she bought the rights to “The Philadelphia Story,” selling it to a studio in a great business decision. Despite being an aristocrat, she found a way to relate to Depression-era moviegoers and make them accept her by choosing to play fallible, relatable characters. In “Woman of the Year,” she introduced a new female ideal: the independent, important woman. She negotiated Spencer Tracy to play opposite her, leading to their undeniable chemistry and not-so-secret love affair of almost three decades.

Their relationship was unique, with Tracy’s ongoing alcohol problems and guilt-fueled depression. Tracy felt he brought trouble to people’s lives. Hepburn said she first knew what love was at 34 when she met Tracy, putting his needs first and seeking his approval for everything. Their relationship exceeded simple romantic love. Hepburn even took five years off from work to nurse the gravely ill Tracy. She continued to wear his jumpers to feel his presence even decades after his death. “Call Me Kate” also touches on Hepburn’s fight against censorship in the 1940s, her work with John Huston on “The African Queen,” and her competitive nature, even with the young Jane Fonda on set.

Despite its flaws and having a very unrefined structure, “Call Me Kate” reminds us that Hepburn was a doer, always holding up her standards. Director-writer Lorna Tucker, may have chosen a cheesy ending, but overall, she has done a decently job with capturing the essence of Hepburn’s relentless spirit.

In the end, “Call Me Kate” is a reminder of Hepburn’s incredible legacy and why we should celebrate her and other elegant, strong, intelligent women in cinema and in life.

“Call Me Kate” is now available on Netflix.

~ by Dora Endre ~