Incluvie Foundation Gala - Learn More

Kate Called the Shots in 'Call Me Kate'

'Call Me Kate' is for the fans. It's an intimate account of an iconic film star.

Call Me Kate (2023)

3.5 / 5
3.5 / 5

It’s easy to feel there’s nothing salvageable from the past. That much of what’s preceded us, the conformity, suffocating oppression, and intolerance is best discounted and forgotten. That there is enough strife and turmoil in today’s world that outweighs any relevance or similarities a previous decade or generation may have on our current reality.

I look directly to Hollywood, specifically old Hollywood, where delineations and labels are in black and white, both literally and figuratively. Awful, demeaning stereotypes are ubiquitous in early-era films like the egregious The Jazz Singer and The Birth of a Nation. But even further down the line, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth whenever I encounter racism or subjugation in what are known as “classic films.”  One does not have to venture too far into the old vault to see the awful portrayal of Native Americans in The Searchers or Mickey Rooney’s gross display of a Chinese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’sI find it hard to compartmentalize these offensive bits when doing my own investigation into film history.  While there is great quality and originality, it will always be interwoven into these totally unacceptable trends and tendencies.  There is no escaping it.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), Look (Beulah), and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) in The Searchers

I address this before delving into Call Me Kate, a new documentary on the silver screen starlet Kathryn Hepburn recently released on Netflix, because Miss Hepburn, despite her independence and pioneering efforts for women, was very much a product of her times.  As a white, cisgender, affluent woman she had advantages and opportunities that others didn’t. And she is not excluded from the ignorance or naivete that pervaded her industry and the world at large at that time.

That being said, let’s get to the documentary.  

Like a few documentaries released in the last decade, specifically Listen to Me Marlon and Love, Marilyn, Call Me Kate invites the viewer in for a more intimate account of an iconic film star from an earlier era. Through the use of previously unheard tape recordings, interviews, and video footage, director Lorna Tucker constructs a behind-the-scenes account of the four-time Oscar winner’s life. Slow-motion recreations combined with interviews with Hepburn’s nephew, Mundy, and playwright Bonnie Greer, also fill in the gaps of her story and add important perspective.

We learn about Hepburn’s upbringing. Raised in Connecticut, surrounded entirely by male siblings, Katherine admits early on that she “always wanted to be a boy.”  Her father was a doctor while her mother was a suffragette.  She would have Katherine hand out leaflets at the local fair for women’s voting rights. It’s easy to see her mother’s influence on her daughter’s feminist ideals and principles.  

Katharine Hepburn

Tragedy struck early in her life when her older brother, Tom, committed suicide. Katherine’s father was also abusive, having high expectations for his children and, after his son’s suicide, pretending as if Tom never existed. Hepburn also suffered from anxiety attacks that forced her to be home-schooled for a time. Despite this rocky childhood, Hepburn decided to move to New York to become an actress. Katherine’s mother supported her and was proud that her daughter was doing something unexpected for women. 

In a dynamic that was progressive for its time, Katherine’s first husband, Luddy, put his own career aside for Kate and her acting career, doing whatever he could to make Kate a star. Whether that be paying for lessons, driving her to rehearsals, or helping film her auditions. 

Kate was ambitious and unapologetic about her chase for fame. Her marriage to Luddy was not known in the industry and she was honest about her affairs with “big players” like her agent Leland Howard, who taught her how to negotiate with studios, and business magnate, Howard Hughes, who Hepburn admits “opened doors” for her.  

She won her first Oscar for a film called Morning Glory, but it was not all smooth sailing.  After making more than a few flops and dealing with an audience that had some disdain for her aristocratic “la-dee-da” persona, Hepburn’s studio salary went from $150,000 per picture to $10,000. Knowing her career would be over if she accepted the heavily reduced offer, she declined.  

Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) and Eva Lovelace (Katharine Hepburn) in Morning Glory

After retreating home, she received a phone call from her friend, playwright Philip Barry, who pitched a play called The Philadelphia StoryProving herself a shrewd business woman, Hepburn knew it would be a hit so she purchased the film rights. 

The Philadelphia Story was one of a few triumphs for Hepburn. She also scored in Bringing Up Baby and Woman of the YearThe latter set a record when the script was purchased by Louis B Mayer and Joe Mankiewicz for an unheard-of price of $100,000 (a big number for 1942). She was paid an additional $100,000 to star in it and $10,000 for her commission.

It was on Woman of the Year that Katherine would meet Spencer Tracy.  She believes Spencer didn’t like her initially due to her ‘ambiguous sexuality’ and that she ‘always wore pants.’  Regardless, their not-so-secret love affair would last until Tracy’s death in 1967.  

Due in part to the advice of friends like Laura Harding and director George Cukor, and a business acumen that developed and grew over time, Miss Hepburn worked well into her eighties.  She seemingly evaded the common stereotype that women are done in Hollywood after hitting a certain age.  She won the last of her four Oscars at 74 years old for On Golden Pond

Norman Thayer Jr. (Henry Fonda) and Ethel Thayer (Katharine Hepburn) in On Golden Pond

While never having children, Miss Hepburn would have an incredibly successful career, breaking down barriers and opening doors for generations of women to come.  

Call Me Kate succeeds in adding warmth and likeability to Miss Kate that was not revealed to me before. In the past, I saw her as cold and overly intense, but this documentary succeeds in showing both an aggressive film actress and businesswoman and a sensitive person with very real, human flaws. 

What the documentary lacks is much historical context and framing. We learn little about the stuffy society Kate grew up in and the classic Hollywood studio system that dominated the movie industry. But I guess that is to be expected in a film titled Call Me Kate. In not really dwelling on these details of time and place, the movie achieves a timeless quality. Like a dream, a flashback, or an entry in a journal.  

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart

Call Me Kate is for the fans, not the film scholars or the socially conscious critics.  By not diving into the more controversial or challenging aspects of Miss Hepburn’s life, the movie becomes a sort of documentary-lite.  I don’t mean to rip into the quality of the film.  However, it occupies a small corner of a space where a much more expansive dialogue between the actor and the times she lived in can be had.  

In spite of all of this, I recommend Call Me Kate because it is revelatory, enjoyable, and improves on what is already a towering legacy.