Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep

For decades, the gold standard for acting was Katharine Hepburn. That is, at least, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. You may know the organization better as the one who gives out the shiny statuettes known as Woman of the YearOscars. Over her 62-year film career, Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role 12 times. If that wasn’t enough, she actually won four times, which is still a record for all onscreen performers. Frankly, those longtime records were ones that I expected would be forever out of reach. Enter Meryl Streep. With her nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Adaptation in 2003, Streep surpassed Hepburn’s record for acting noms. She has since added four more, for a gaudy total of 17! Her latest, of course, was for The Iron Lady, which resulted in Streep winning Sophie's Choiceher third Oscar last year. That ended a 29-year span – covering 12 nominations – during which she was shut out. Still, she is now just one win away from tying the immortal Hepburn. Now, it’s time for a point of clarification, or two. All of Kate’s nominations were for leading roles, while three of Meryl’s were for supporting roles. Nevertheless, that means that Streep has amassed 14 leading role noms to Hepburn’s 12. The edge goes to Streep. All four of Kate’s wins were for lead actress, though one of those, The Lion in Winter, was a rare Oscar tie (with Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl). On the other hand, one of Meryl’s three wins was for a supporting role: The Lion in WinterKramer vs. Kramer. The edge goes to Hepburn. Back on that March night in 1982, when Kate won her final statuette, on her final nomination – for On Golden Pond – it would have been more than reasonable to say that she was in a class by herself. Thirty years later, it’s clear that that class now has two members. Certainly, direct comparisons of the two actresses are a bit difficult. Although their careers did overlap by over 15 years, they are clearly of vastly different generations. Film acting has changed over the years. Check that, film acting has “progressed” over the years. The stagy performance that nonetheless netted Hepburn her first Oscar in A Cry in the Dark1934 for Morning Glory, would never win an award now. In fact, as Hepburn matured, as did motion picture acting in general, she became an ever-better actress. I don’t want to sound too harsh here. Keep in mind that “talkies” had only been on the scene for a few years when Morning Glory was released in 1933, and broad gesturing stage actors with great voices were largely replacing broad gesturing silent film stars with often mediocre voices. Hepburn was no worse, and arguably much better, than most other Hollywood actors of the period. She always possessed an obvious intelligence and she grew with the medium. Ultimately, she proved herself a star who On Golden Pondcould really act, not just a great beauty who could topline an A-production. Streep, by contrast, hasn’t had to change with the times in the same way as Hepburn had to do, as acting hasn’t changed appreciably in the past several decades. Street was a character star from the first moment she hit the screen.  Her rise to stardom was nearly as quick as Hepburn’s, though her first roles were in supporting roles, whereas Hepburn received starring turns from the beginning. That’s essentially the difference between the two. Streep remains a character star, though primarily in lead roles. She merits her fame for The Iron Ladyher consistently nuanced and believable performances, tackling a wide-range of characters and conquering a variety of accents and mannerisms. You don’t watch a Streep film to see Streep as iconic presence. You experience a Streep film to see her lose herself in whatever role she’s playing. Whether you prefer one over the other probably has more to do with your age, or artistic tastes. Personally, I enjoy both actresses for their individual strengths.  I admire Hepburn for her combination of grace and glamour (as well as for her aforementioned ever-present  intelligence) and Streep for her willingness to tackle challenging roles and her ability to exceed expectations through brilliant acting choices.  Of course, if you want to delve deeper into each one’s oeuvre (hey, there's a word that I don’t get to use very often!) and make your own comparison, we have dozens of Hepburn and Streep movies from which to choose at the Des Moines Public Library. If you’d like to see which of their performances were Oscar-nominated, investigate the following links. For Kate, click on http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000031/awards, while for Meryl, click on http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000658/awards.