Hepburn: classic feminist, independent and feminine

Monday, July 7, 2003 at 12:00am

If movie stars can be role models, then Katharine Hepburn was mine. I loved that old girl from the first time I laid eyes on her. She was tough, independent, strong-willed and humorous, yet feminine and, yes, sexy.

I doubt many of today's rising generation would get what I mean by "sexy." Hepburn sexy? That "crazy, psalm-singing, skinny old maid!" as Humphrey Bogart's character, Charlie Allnut, put it in The African Queen.

By today's standards of overt sexuality, Hepburn was a Presbyterian spinster. Yet she had more sex appeal in her right eyebrow than today's adolescent sex symbols have in all of their thong drawers combined.

Hepburn embodied the sort of sex appeal that simmers beneath the surface. She was the carefully removed glove to the in-your-face lap dance, a secret to be discovered. Beneath her buttoned-up, cheek-boned, aristocratic air was a highly seasoned tamale. Just ask Spencer Tracy.

But flaunting wasn't her game. When you've got it, contrary to the adage, you don't have to flaunt it. Instead, Hepburn oozed suggestion. Even in her role as the quintessential prude Rose Sayer in African Queen, she was far more appealing than most of the femme fatales from today's stable of quick 'n dirty beauties.

Just as the hint of impending doom in an Alfred Hitchcock movie is more terrifying than a bloody chainsaw whacking off someone's limb, the suggestion of romance is more Eros-inspiring than graphic carnality. Chainsaw massacres and precision porn are more shocking, but they're not more interesting or compelling. They're merely extreme, meant to provoke extreme responses.

Even when she was playing a traditionally masculine role, as when she and Tracy squared off as two married lawyers in Adam's Rib, Hepburn conveyed a strong yet vulnerable femininity. That's tricky stuff, but she pulled it off in spades.

What I loved most about Hepburn, though, was her indomitable spirit. She was the girl who wanted to play with the boys, who wouldn't take no for an answer, who never met a challenge she couldn't meet. She was a fiery feminist from the old school

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