Best Katharine Hepburn Movies: Top 5 Classics Most Recommended By Fans

With a film career that lasted 60 years and a record-breaking number of Academy Award wins, Katharine Hepburn is no short of a movie star. Starting her film career in the ’30s under contract with RKO Radio Pictures, Hepburn sky-rocketed to fame in such pictures as “Morning Glory” and “Little Women”. Later in the ’40s, she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she starred in several films, famously with Spencer Tracy. She worked all the way up to the age of 87 in movies and TV, retiring in 1994 and leaving behind a legacy of some of the best Katharine Hepburn movies. 

Among greats such as Meryl Streep, and Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn was also voted one of the best female actors of all time. Known for her distinctive style and independent spirit, Hepburn was an icon for women’s rights and empowerment. Her subtle yet powerful portrayals of complex female characters were often ahead of their time and have since become timeless

Though her impact on women and her headstrong attitude no doubt continue to keep her in people’s hearts, her world-record accolades certainly do as well. During her career, Hepburn was nominated 12 times for Best Actress at the Academy Awards and won a total of four times, making her the record-holder for most Oscars by an actor in that category.

But let’s talk about what Katharine Hepburn did best: movies. Of the 44 feature films (and eight TV movies), which are the go-to watches recommended by fans? Look no further as we at StudyFinds have researched across ten sites to give you the definitive list of the top five best Katharine Hepburn movies of all time. “But what if I don’t agree with the list?” No worries, comment below your favorite if we missed it, we would love to hear from you. And now, without further ado, the list. 

Katharine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story” 1940 (“Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Philadelphia Story’, 1940” by thefoxling is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.)

The List: Best Katharine Hepburn Movies, According to Experts

 

1. “The Philadelphia Story” (1940)

“After being labeled ‘box office poison’ in the late ’30s, Hepburn returned to the stage and found great success in Philip Barry’s play ‘The Philadelphia Story.’ Her then-partner, Howard Hughes, helped her acquire the film rights, leading to her triumphant big-screen comeback. Smartly written by David Ogden Stewart and nimbly directed by George Cukor (both of whom Hepburn hand-picked for the project), this is a glimmering, sparkling example of high-brow Hollywood entertainment,” explains Gold Derby.

"The Philadelphia Story" (1940)
“The Philadelphia Story” (1940)

“Hepburn’s sparkling wit and charm are on full display in ‘The Philadelphia Story’, and her chemistry with co-stars Cary Grant and James Stewart is delightful. The film’s sharp dialogue, stylish direction, and wonderful performances make it a true classic. Hepburn’s performance is a testament to her versatility and comedic timing,” says Movie Web.

BFI also had similar feelings saying, “George Cukor’s evergreen version of Philip Barry’s Broadway comedy of manners started its life as a vehicle to resuscitate Hepburn’s public persona. She stars alongside Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and John Howard and gets to pick her favorite as spoiled glamourpuss Tracy Lord. Here Hepburn really lets her hair down, with Cukor again playing to her strengths – her irresistible glow, know-it-all charm, and fantastic sex appeal.”

2. “Bringing Up Baby” (1938)

Although initially a box office failure, “Bringing Up Baby” would later become somewhat of a cult classic for Hepburn fans. Following its re-releases and showing on television, the film’s story charmed audiences for years to come. “Hepburn had always shown she could play comedy if required, which was not often. But this movie showed her dazzling comic energy, timing, and flair – her lines delivered with absolute seriousness and conviction. It is a comedy with distinctly Wodehousian touches, featuring Hepburn and Grant. The film’s crazy twists and outrageous inventions bring it close to a masterpiece of surrealism, especially the scenes with a leopard called ‘Baby‘ that give the film its title,” says The Guardian.

"Bringing Up Baby" (1938)
“Bringing Up Baby” (1938)

“Arguably the fastest, fizziest comedy from Hollywood’s Golden Age of Screwball, Howard Hawks’ madcap, mismatched romance stars Katharine Hepburn as a flibbertigibbet heiress whose pet leopard named Baby leads a bookish paleontologist (Cary Grant) on a wild chase from Manhattan to Connecticut. The live-wire, opposites-attract chemistry between Hepburn and Grant is so electric it may short out the fuse box in your home theater,” describes AARP.

Live About further recalls the film as “a fine screwball comedy pairing Hepburn as a ditzy socialite with Cary Grant as a studious, stuffy paleontologist—horn-rim glasses, dinosaur bones and all. The very silly plot also involves a tame leopard named ‘baby’ and a terrier with a penchant for burying bones—even the fossilized kind.”

3. “The African Queen” (1952)

Marking this first and only film of Hepburn and screen legend Humphrey Bogart, there’s no doubt that “The African Queen” earned its spot on this list with both powerhouse performances. “Hepburn is brilliant as Kate, a British missionary living in German East Africa (an area that today comprises parts of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi). When the First World War breaks out, and German colonists attack Kate’s village and family, she quickly realizes that an ungodly skipper delivering supplies (Bogart) is her only hope,” describes The Culture Trip

"The African Queen" (1952)
“The African Queen” (1952)

“Based on the novel by C.S. Forester, ‘The African Queen’ not only marks Katharine’s first color production but it’s often considered to be her first foray into ‘middle-aged’ roles. Set in 1914, the film stars Kate as Rose Sayer, a British missionary stationed in a small village in German East Africa with her brother, Samuel. Their only source of mail and supplies comes courtesy of Canadian expatriate Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart in an Oscar-winning performance) and his small steamboat, ‘The African Queen,'” sites Reel Rundown.

 Brothers Ink recounted Katharine Hepburn taking her part “quite seriously” in ‘The African Queen’; according to Hepburn’s autobiography,” John Huston initially found her performance to be too serious-minded. One day, he visited her hut and suggested that she model her performance on Eleanor Roosevelt, putting on her ‘society smile’ in the face of all adversity. After Huston left, Hepburn sat for a moment before deciding, ‘That is the best piece of direction I have ever heard,'” surely making “The African Queen” an essential film for her as an actor as well. 

4. “Adam’s Rib” (1949)

Of course, we could only talk about Katharine Hepburn’s movies part of the time before we mentioned one she made with Spencer Tracy. The pair made nine films together throughout their careers, but it was the 1949 comedy “Adam‘s Rib” that made our list. “‘Adam’s Rib’ isn’t just one of the best ’40s Katharine Hepburn movies. It’s also one of the very best Hepburn movies of all time,” states Retro Gazing. “In our opinion, this romantic comedy is THE best Hepburn-Tracy pairing.” 

"Adam's Rib" (1949)
“Adam’s Rib” (1949)

Collider similarly raves about the coupling saying, “There are few romantic screen pairings as prolific or beloved in their heyday as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and they had such a knack for comedy and banter in addition to their desire to take on hot-button topics, even their most thought-provoking movies are still very light and enjoyable without ever feeling heavy-handed. There’s perhaps no better example of this than ‘Adam’s Rib’, a movie that tackles women‘s equality with this witty and assured approach and was released smack dab in the middle of Hepburn and Tracy’s run of films together.”

Known for her comedic roles, this film showcases the best of Hepburn’s abilities and her personal humor. “Her performance is sharp and witty, capturing Amanda’s quick wit and sly humor. The film was, without a doubt, a critical and commercial success. ‘Adam’s Rib’ is a hilarious and insightful exploration of gender roles and power dynamics, and Hepburn’s performance is a testament to her impeccable comic timing and effortless charm,” claims,  Movie Web.

5. “The Lion In Winter” (1968)

“Maybe it was the democrat in her, but Hepburn rarely played monarchs or aristocrats, however blue-blooded she appeared. But she landed the best actress Oscar in the outrageously soapy ‘The Lion in Winter’ for her resoundingly authoritative and theatrical performance as Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O’Toole’s English Henry II in the 12th-century court in northern France” The Guardian recalls. 

"The Lion In Winter" (1968)
“The Lion In Winter” (1968)

“Hepburn performed in a number of period pieces throughout her career, butThe Lion in Winter’ is likely the best in her oeuvre,” Coming Soon raves. Hepburn acted in upwards of tenfold period pieces throughout her career, including “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Mary of Scotland”, but her performance in “The Lion In Winter” is the one that earned a spot on this list. 

“Just one year after winning her second Oscar for ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’?, Hepburn collected a third Best Actress trophy for Anthony Harvey’s exquisite historical drama. Adapted by James Goldman from his own play, ‘The Lion in Winter’ centers on King Henry II’s (Peter O’Toole) struggle to choose an heir. Watching O’Toole spar with his co-star as husband and wife is more exciting than any fistfight. Hepburn famously tied Barbra Streisand for the prize,” Gold Derby describes as “The Lion in Winter” proved to fans and the Academy that, once again, Katharine was a giant of her time.

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About the Author

Jilly Hite

Janelle is a freelance writer from New York. Her writing focuses on parenting, tech, business, interior design, education, and telling people’s inspiring stories. Janelle has written for Mustela and Newton Baby and has bylines in Pregnant Chicken, Syracuse Woman Magazine, the Baldwinsville Messenger, and Family Times Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in literacy from the State University of New York at Oswego.

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