Perfect Playmates: Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant

Cary Grant & Katharine Hepburn | Art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

There’s a moment in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby when you know that Katharine Hepburn is going to marry Cary Grant. Her character, the maniacally dizzy heiress Susan Vance, makes up her mind about Grant’s bumbling and strait-laced paleontologist, David Huxley, as she stares at him from across the room. Her chances seem slim, as she’s repeatedly torpedoed his plans to score a big donation for his museum. It seems perilous for them to be in the same room together; in this scene alone, she’s managed to split the back of his jacket, while he’s ripped off the back of her skirt. Yet as she gazes at him, you know they’re destined for each other. Her countenance is pure Hepburn: eyes shining, chin and chiseled cheekbones tilted upward, confidently meeting the future. This is no dreamy, soft-focus gaze, it’s a pure expression that communicates much more than starry infatuation—assurance, esteem, and a shimmering delight. 

The gaze hints at so much of the sparkling, enduring quality of romantic relationships in the movies Hepburn and Grant made together. Theirs are strange and sterling kinds of love matches; they tumble toward happy endings through chaos and adventure, through misunderstandings and trickery, all with an effortless grace. Their chemistry, rooted in freedom and fun, casts a very specific, effervescent kind of enchantment. Unconventional and optimistic, their partnerships are forged on mutual respect, but are no less adaptable and daring for it. 

Grant and Hepburn made three films together that are now considered classics of the screwball era: Bringing Up Baby in 1938, George Cukor’s Holiday in the same year, and another Cukor film, The Philadelphia Story, in 1940. Casting them opposite one another feels like a natural fit; their high-toned personae seem inherently compatible. Hepburn’s compelling patrician hauteur, tempered with Yankee grit and good cheer, complements Grant’s suave elegance, gentle irony, and comedic grace. Their effortlessly delightful pairings are grounded in a philosophy of play, both in gender relationships and with the uncertainties of life. It’s surprising that two Hollywood legends, among the most iconic stars of all time, made these spirited romantic comedies that powerfully argued for flexibility with one’s identity—the ability to adapt and laugh at one’s self and to allow for the variability of one’s beloved—as part of a good romantic partnership.  

Grant and Hepburn were actually first paired in an earlier Cukor film, Sylvia Scarlett in 1935. Nobody talks much about this movie, likely because it’s a ludicrous mess, and Grant and Hepburn don’t end up together, even though the movie pushes them in that direction. Yet still we see hints of what eventually will bring so much shine to their future on-screen pairings. 

Their performances in Sylvia Scarlett demonstrate some of the most loved and remembered elements of their later films—impeccable comic timing and graceful physical comedy. Bringing Up Baby is a screwball comedy classic because of the way Grant and Hepburn move in perfect sync through a series of sprints and pratfalls, in a madcap evening’s search for a frisky dog, a valuable dinosaur bone, and Susan’s runaway pet leopard (the titular Baby). A good chunk of the film is just Grant and Hepburn running around together, in perpetual motion, volleying rapid-fire dialogue back and forth the whole time. In the final scene, when David finally realizes he loves the maddening yet liberating Susan, she tells him: “I just wanted to keep you near me, so I just did anything that came into my head.” It’s a stalker’s credo, to be sure, but also a philosophy of how to keep a relationship alive—improvising as you go, in a whirlwind, trying to hang on to each other even as you’re plummeting down a ravine.

Physicality—these dynamic bodies copying each other—becomes a kind of love language, a way of acting out compatibility, of knowing each other and being together. Hepburn and Grant perform so many magical two-handed comic bits in Baby, but I’m always particularly charmed by one great, understated moment. Susan and David, along with Baby, have driven to Susan’s house in Connecticut. In the garage, they try to keep Baby calm by singing a song she likes (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”). Getting out of the car, they do a hastily choreographed routine, attempting to corral Baby into a little stable, making up new lyrics as they go. As they sing, they communicate through gesture (shut the garage door first; don’t forget to open the stable door before Baby gets out of the car), working together to achieve their tasks with balletic precision. It’s by no means the most slapstick-funny gag in the film, but it’s a lovely dance of domesticity; an elegant, fantasy illustration of true quotidian partnership. 

As important as physical improvisation is to the Grant-Hepburn romances, self-improvisation is equally fundamental. Lovers come together through play with identity and a loosening of the ego. At the opening of Baby, Grant’s David is engaged to his prim and efficient assistant, Miss Swallow. She envisions a practical, work-focused marriage, where none of the trappings (honeymoons, children) get in the way of their research. It’s already clear this is not the kind of companionship that David needs—his agile schoolboy enthusiasm practically bursts out of his lab coat. When Susan repeatedly cracks open his buttoned-up reserve with her chaotic, often destructive energy, she teaches him the value of not taking things (or himself) too seriously. When Miss Swallow sends him off to impress his donor, she tells him: “Remember who and what you are.” But meeting Susan throws all that out the window; she teaches David how liberating it is to forget yourself entirely. In their zany quest, Susan wheedles him into assuming a number of identities—a big game hunter, a zoologist, a lothario crook. These charades vex David, but they put his comic and improvisatory skills to the test, and get him (comfortably or not) out of that stuffy lab coat. 

The master class in impersonation, though, comes from Susan herself when she adopts the persona of the gangster’s moll, “Swinging Door Susie.” Baby’s comedy of errors eventually leads to the local police station, where most of the characters, through a series of mishaps, have ended up in the cells. The sheriff won’t believe anyone when they try to identify themselves. (“They’re all impersonating somebody,” he says, suddenly a philosopher.) Susan’s new role, intended to help them escape, is ludicrous—patched together with a Cagney-esque accent, a lot of slang, and a quickly-sketched narrative of a gangster woman scorned. The delight of the scene is in seeing the mismatch between high- and low-class movie star images, the commitment Susan brings to the performance, and the pleasure she so clearly takes in it.

Play and role-playing, in addition to the delight they bring, have a deeper significance in the Grant-Hepburn films. They’re ways for people to figure out what’s really important, who they are and what matters to them. Hepburn’s Susan is almost a drag take on a ditzy heiress; her breezy, woodpecker-ish laughter slightly arch, her quavery tears a bit mannered. It’s almost as if, in her mountains of chiffon and an array of wild headgear, Susan knows she must play her rich girl role to the hilt, so that David can learn the true value of life and how partners go through it together. At first glance, she seems to be one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “careless” wealthy people, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake, breezily dismissing smashed and stolen cars, broken glasses, burnt clothes. 

Yet Susan is not careless about what she wants and what she values, and she helps David learn what not to care about. An heiress has a kind of unique authority to warn against holding on too tightly to possessions, or to overvalue a life based on false certainty. She is utterly unfazed by the ruination she wreaks; she just gamely plods through it. That Yankee stick-to-it-iveness never abandons her, and she relishes the joys of adventure. She loves the moonlight, she tells David when they’re lost in the woods together, “and I do so love being with you.” 

This philosophy is put to a spectacular test in Baby’s final scene, when Susan comes to see David while he’s working on his brontosaurus skeleton, and they declare their love. Susan must scramble atop the dinosaur’s spine as she escapes a falling ladder, and, inevitably, the whole skeleton collapses to the floor. As David clutches her amongst the ruins, we know that there’s no mess they can’t put back together as a team. Hawks’ films can be anxious about male-female relationships, and about women entering male spaces. But when these transgressions do occur, relationships and identities that form can be more androgynous. The cynical reading of Baby is that Susan beats David into submission, that he declares love out of sheer exhaustion. It’s thanks to Grant and Hepburn’s ability to communicate compatibility, affection, and esteem through physicality—even in the most diabolical of screwball situations—that the true depth of the film comes to life. 

Agility as a sign of sympathetic personalities, so key to the Grant-Hepburn dynamic, produces the most iconic moments of their next film together, Holiday. Grant plays the jovial Johnny Case, a self-made man who wants to cash out while he’s young to enjoy life, to play things on the fly. Cukor makes the most of Grant’s acrobatic training—Johnny clears his head and expresses his joie de vivre by doing a back-flip, a manifestation of his happy-go-lucky personality. After a holiday romance, Johnny gets hastily engaged to Julia Seton, a millionaire’s daughter. Julia and her father try to talk Johnny out of his adventurous plans and into a desk job at the family bank. Hepburn’s character—Julia’s older sister, Linda—is enchanted with Case and his philosophy. This time, it’s the heiress who needs rescuing from her “museum” of a mansion, and the chains of social conformity that come with money. (“Life walked into the house this morning!” Linda exclaims after first meeting him.) Sisterly loyalty means that it takes Linda about two-thirds of the film to realize that Johnny is actually the perfect man for her. Physically, though, she senses it much earlier. At a small gathering with his oddball friends, Johnny and Linda show off a trick they’ve been practicing. With great swiftness and élan, he helps her up so that she’s standing on his shoulders, and then they both fall forward into a perfect double somersault. It’s a thrilling thing to watch—the effusive joy Johnny and Linda feel radiates from the screen.

Instantly, though, the true implications of the performance reveal themselves. Just as they hit the ground, Julia and her father burst through the door, looking horrified. The camera cuts back to Linda and Johnny, still on the floor. They have identical, wide-eyed expressions of shock, as if they’ve just been caught in bed together. Physicality is so central to their on-screen chemistry that it’s not just companionable, it’s erotic. 

At the beginning of Holiday, Johnny praises Julia as the “perfect playmate.” But of course, it’s Linda who clearly merits this title. She and Johnny bond in the “playroom”—her spiritual home, full of childhood memories, the only cozy room in her cavernous mansion. They banter as they play with toys, Linda assuming the role of the stern, bossy older sister checking out the fiancé, Johnny shooting back with cheery flippancy. Through this jolly faux-fraternal play they gradually slide into a deeper intimacy. Their play, as in Bringing Up Baby, affirms compatibility and a readiness to leap into life’s uncertainties. 

When Linda finally decides to run off with Johnny, she gives a marvelous little speech in support of his world view. “His little dream may fall flat, you think. Well so it may? What if it should? There’ll be another.” She wants to be beside Johnny from one adventure to the next. “And if he wants to come back and sell peanuts,” she concludes, “Oh, how I’ll believe in those peanuts!” Play not only embraces the risk of life as an adventure, but also accepts it as a precondition for a partnership.

The Philadelphia Story—Grant and Hepburn’s last film together—continues exploring play, flexibility and risk, though in more bittersweet and poignant keys. These themes raise mature questions about the making and re-making of identity, about what relationships can and cannot endure. The straits for malleability and flexibility seem narrower here, the possibilities for reinvention slimmer. Both stars are more like classic images of themselves—their personae have gelled, reduced down to the characteristics that made them iconic. As the about-to-be-married heiress Tracy Lord, Hepburn doubles down on chilled patrician hauteur, sometimes erupting into self-righteous fury. Grant plays Hepburn’s ex-husband, C.K. Dexter Haven, a fellow blue-blood who Tracy left because of his alcoholism. As the newly-sober Dexter, Grant is already basically the debonair leading man he would play for the rest of his career. Dressed in an impeccable, narrow-waisted suit, his physical grace is now carefully coiled and contained, used only for the deftest, smallest moments of comic reaction. Tracy and Dexter’s zany days of early courtship are behind them, the potential for fun greatly tempered by recrimination and regret.

The extent of their rift comes out in a beautiful, brutal scene where Dexter forces a conversation about their failed marriage. Dexter (and the film itself) believes that all “first-rate human beings” must have a sympathy for “human frailty.” Tracy, too self-controlled and too insistent upon self-control in others, must cultivate this sympathy. This is a tricky thing for the film to pull off, as it suggests that a strong-willed woman needs to be cut down to size, and accept male misbehavior. But in truth it is a deeper, more valuable feminist-humanist lesson: it is better—as Dexter suggests—to be loved as a real woman, with idiosyncratic passions and frailties, than to be worshipped as a goddess and have to constantly live up to that image. (This is how Tracy’s pompous, politically ambitious fiancé sees her: he offers her a marriage that “[represents] something…something straight and sound and fine.”) Dexter, as the only one who understands that lesson, is her true match. Yet, in this scene, almost entirely dialogue-driven, and stripped of their old ebullient physicality, Dexter doesn’t soften the blow. He keeps very still, even as he bluntly lays out the cost of her coldness. He doesn’t soften his disappointment that she abandoned him during his moment of weakness, but instead offers her a vision of herself beyond the goddess trap, the possibility of a more flexible identity. She is a flurry of activity around him, fiddling with her robe and hair as she tries to rebuff him. “What are you trying to make me out as?” she yells, her façade cracking as her chin wobbles. “Tracy, what do you fancy yourself as?” he replies, reminding her that the choice is hers.

When it transpires that a drunken Tracy fancies shedding her goddess image via a sexy, champagne-fueled late-night interlude with Jimmy Stewart’s Macaulay Connor, Dexter’s equanimous reaction shows that the renewed partnership he offers Tracy is not one contingent upon sexual fidelity, but rather a commitment to a way of living and being together. (Grant really shines in an earlier scene with Stewart, playing the admirably understanding straight man to the drunken Connor, who is trying to work out his feelings for Tracy. He’s the gentleman recovering alcoholic: a reassuring babysitter to the drunk and befuddled babes in the woods, cleaning up their messes with deft elegance.) When Dexter learns of Tracy’s moonlight escapade, he’s more amused than wounded. His eyes go very wide, then with that graceful efficiency of movement, he swiftly hides the evidence. He recognizes this moment for what it is: a necessary catalyst for self-discovery.

Tracy and Dexter reconcile when they rediscover their graceful comic synchronicity, as Grant pulls out his sympathetic second man routine when an extremely hungover Tracy tries to reconstruct the past evening. Hepburn is genius here, moving between mock-breezy laughter and slack, wide-eyed horror as details come back to her. Dexter teases Tracy a little, blowing his pipe near her bleary eyes, and finding funnier and funnier ways to jog her memory. But he stays by her side as she confronts the shock of her own frailty. They have a heartfelt exchange when the humbled Tracy, in a sidelong way, apologizes for not sticking with him. As her tears break down that famously chiseled exterior, his face, close beside her, is warm and unruffled as he casually forgives her everything. Tellingly, some of Grant’s old exuberance resurfaces when Tracy calls off her wedding—Dexter leaps up singing as he gleefully destroys one of the elaborate centerpieces.

The happy ending is rushed. Tracy and Dexter suddenly hijack her planned wedding and tie the knot. There’s some suspense and hijinks before Dexter delivers his surprise proposal. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Not the least, but I’ll risk it.” She promises to be more loyal. “Be anything you like,” he tells her. Love does not oblige you to be one single thing for the beloved. If, as a drunken Tracy has declared, “the time to make up your mind about people is never,” then that is true for spouses too, and it is by embracing this that Tracy and Dexter can reunite. This story has not been about taming a shrew, but about returning a couple to a place of play, where marriage is loose and adaptive, a leap into adventure. 

The Philadelphia Story ends with a freeze frame of Tracy and Dexter at the altar; a paparazzo has furtively grabbed a shot of them. They’re looking directly at the camera, and their shocked expressions recall the moment they’re caught in their somersault in Holiday. It brings them back to where we want them to be: at the peak of their comic-erotic powers, captured for our gaze. But, knowing it’s the last time we’ll see them together on screen, it feels too unfinished. I want just a little bit more.

It’s worth contemplating, when we think about what made Hepburn and Grant’s chemistry so magical, the queer connotations of their public personae and histories. As to their personal lives we can only speculate; nevertheless, unsubstantiated but enduring rumors of their bisexuality have, over time, become one element of their respective star images. Whatever the case, their personas have undeniably queer valences. Hepburn—whose androgynous style and independent demeanor made her a legend—was a long-time favorite impression for drag queens. Grant’s dandyish masculinity—itself a careful performance learned by a poor boy from Bristol—often skirted with the queer. In Baby, he runs around in a woman’s fluffy robe shouting “I’ve gone a bit gay!” 

But what might it mean to say that Grant and Hepburn delight and electrify on screen because they queer the norms of heterosexual coupledom? Philosophers and theorists have often viewed queerness as broader than sexual identity, what Maggie Nelson calls “all kinds of resistances and fracturings and mismatches.” Their films defy conventional notions of what love and marriage should be. They’re not anything as easy or meager as support for a career, a means of making and keeping money, or of looking esteemable in the public eye. Nor are they things that can’t be reinvented as partners grow and change. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called this kind of queerness “a continuing moment, movement, motive.” “Keenly,” she said, “it is relational, and strange.” How else could we see Grant and Hepburn’s idiosyncratic whimsies and intensities, their headlong rushes into catastrophe and uncertainty, their tenets of freedom and forgiveness? The title card of Sylvia Scarlett—Grant and Hepburn’s first ill-fated film together—contains a dedication. “To the adventurer, to all who stray from the beaten track, life is an extravaganza in which laughter and luck and love come in odd ways, unexpectedly—but they are none the less sweet for that.” And while Grant and Hepburn don’t take that adventure together in their first film, it is a rather queer manifesto that defines all the others that follow.

I am a bisexual woman, married to a man. I can’t say I never feel anxiety about how queer I am, or how heteronormative. But I am, and have, a good playmate. When I mull over the buzzing possibilities of Sedgwick’s words—mismatching, continual movement, the strangeness of relationality—I find all the things that drew me to these films when I was young, and the possibilities they promised for relationships between men and women. I see the torn ball gowns, the swinging jail cell doors, toppling brontosaurus spines, and pitch-perfect somersaults. And I want to watch it all again.