Actress finally embraces resemblance to Hepburn

Kyle Lawson

The Arizona Republic

Oct. 3, 2004 

She was made for making an entrance.

Not tall, really, but with a carriage her mother would have insisted upon as proper posture, contradicted by a slight, angular lurch that brings a coltish eccentricity to her gait.

The hair, abundantly auburn, tumbles about the edges of her face, softening cheekbones etched with a harsh geometry. The voice is flinty, overlaid with a touch of huskiness that, when she chooses, she can use to devastating effect.

Katharine Hepburn?

No. Kate Mulgrew.

When Theater League announced that Mulgrew would appear at the Orpheum Theatre in Tea at Five, a play about Hepburn, the initial reaction was "Of course."

Few viewers of TV's Star Trek: Voyager have failed to notice Mulgrew's resemblance to the legendary film star. Certain camera angles make it seem as if Hepburn has taken over the body of Capt. Kathryn Janeway. It might be disconcerting if it weren't for the fact that Hepburn would have made a dandy starship captain.

In Mulgrew's early career, an interviewer would have brought up her resemblance to Hepburn at his peril.

"Growing up, my feelings for Katharine Hepburn were less than affectionate," Mulgrew says. "That can be put down to frustration over being so often compared to her. To a young girl who wanted to be an actress in her own right, such off-the-wall comparisons were odious."

The years have mellowed that girl.

"Now that I'm older, I love them," says Mulgrew, 49.

Because the cheekbones and the voice were gifts of birth, she's not above using them in her portrayal of Hepburn.

"On the stage, the lighting takes over," Mulgrew says, on the phone from her home in Cleveland. "Even I must admit the likeness is startling."

It stops there. Mulgrew says she was never interested in doing a literal impersonation of Hepburn.

"That's been done by every drag queen from here to Texas," she says. "I never met the lady, but I have done a great deal of research. My Hepburn is a mixture of reality and my imagination."

For Mulgrew, the key came when she finally understood what drove Hepburn.

"Underneath that Yankee grit was a great vulnerability, almost sadness," Mulgrew says. "There were terrible things in her life."

The greatest tragedy was her brother's death when she was 13. Hepburn found her sibling hanging from the rafters. She cut him down. Her father forbid her to talk of it. Hepburns did not commit suicide.

"She buried it deeply, but she never escaped the grief," Mulgrew says. "It is why she took such a direct aim on Hollywood. What could she lose that she hadn't already lost? She spent the rest of her life trying to understand why her brother killed himself, but she never did."

A new film, The Aviator (due in December), deals with Hepburn's affair with Howard Hughes in the 1930s. Tea at Five mentions it but concentrates on Hepburn's union with Spencer Tracy. That relationship lasted more than 30 years, although Tracy's Catholicism kept him from divorcing his wife and marrying Hepburn.

"Spencer Tracy was the love of her life - he was her life," Mulgrew says. "Howard Hughes wasn't important to her. His eccentricities drove her nuts - though, God knows, she was the queen of eccentricities herself."

Mulgrew is never surprised when Hepburn's name pops up on lists of all-time great role models for women.

"She wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, and when she got a 'no' it didn't bother her at all," Mulgrew says. "Her attitude was, 'I'm going to do it my way,' and she injected herself straight into Hollywood and broke down the old boys' club. Any woman would respond to that strength and keen intelligence. Katharine Hepburn was not a bimbo, that's for sure."

But would she have been a starship captain?

Mulgrew thinks not.

"In all my research, I never came across any indication that Hepburn had the slightest interest in space or the future. She was very much about the here and now. Happily, I get to keep the starship for myself."