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What Was Katharine Hepburn's Greatest Movie Ever?

In honor of the legend's May birthday, we rank her top 10 films

spinner image Katharine Hepburn poses in a silver dress and a red coat
Mondadori via Getty Images

There's a reason they called her Katharine the Great. One of the movies’ brightest lights — Katharine Hepburn — illuminated the big screen for a remarkable seven decades, earning an even-more-remarkable 12 Oscar nominations and taking home a statuette on four occasions.

From her coltishly refined tomboy arrival on the silver screen in the ‘30s to her elegantly feisty, grand dame curtain call in the ‘90s, Hepburn was the rarest of talents in an era of manufactured movie stars — she was a real-deal original who could adorably rat-a-tat her way through screwball comedies, make you reach for the Kleenex box in heavyweight emotional dramas, and transport you to the past in historical epics. On the occasion of her May 12 birthday (she was born in 1907), we can think of no better way to celebrate this singular star than presenting her Top 10 greatest movie performances (and where to stream them), counted down from number 10 to number 1. (Can you guess it before scrolling?)

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10. Holiday (1938)

spinner image Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant look at each other in the film Holiday
Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant
Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

Despite all of the great onscreen duets Hepburn played with Spencer Tracy, she had just as many with Cary Grant. This sophisticated (and underrated) gem is one of them. This time around, Grant couldn't be more in his wheelhouse as a self-made millionaire who arrives at the home of his well-to-do fiancée's (Doris Nolan) parents and throws their upper-crusty world into chaos. Most rattled of all, though, is his bride-to-be's older sister (Hepburn), who reacts to Grant's carefree nonchalance with a newfound thirst for her own independence. The pace is feverish, the class-war commentary is on point, and the two leads are at their bantering, bickering best.

Kate's Best Line: “I suppose like the great fathead that you are, you told Father all of your little hopes and dreams?"

Watch it: Holiday, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

9. Stage Door (1937)

Hepburn is nominally the main attraction here, but Gregory La Cava's sassy backstage drama is true ensemble delight thanks to pitch-perfect assists from Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, and Andrea Leeds. A group of striving, stardom-hungry actresses are thrown together in a boarding house and the fur flies. As in The Women, every line of dialogue is played to the backseats but is dripping with deliciously backhanded venom. If you're looking for an example of words being deployed as weapons of mass destruction, this is a great place to start.

Kate's Best Line: “Evidently, you're a very amusing person."

Watch it: Stage Door, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

8. Woman of the Year (1942)

If Adam's Rib (see number 4, below) takes the gold medal among Hepburn's on-screen pairings with Spencer Tracy, George Stevens’ Woman of the Year is a close silver. Receiving her fourth Oscar nomination for this scalpel-sharp romantic comedy (their first film together, for the record), Hepburn plays Tess Harding — a globe-trotting foreign correspondent for the New York Chronicle. Tracy, meanwhile, is Sam Craig — a gruff, no-nonsense sportswriter who swaps barbs with her in the pages of their newspaper. Of course, since this is a rom-com, those barbs are a form of meet-cute foreplay that will eventually spark into opposites-attract passion. The battle of the sexes, in this case, turns out to be a till-death-do-us-part draw.

Kate's Best Line: “I'm going to be your wife. You don't think that I can do the little ordinary things that any idiot can do, do you?"

Watch it: Woman of the Year, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

7. On Golden Pond (1981)

spinner image Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda star in the film On Golden Pond
Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda
Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

Kate won her fourth and final Oscar for this deeply affecting, autumnal swan song about an elderly couple (Hepburn and Henry Fonda) who return to their New England lake house one last time. But their idyll grows turbulent when they are joined by their resentful daughter (Jane Fonda), her new boyfriend and his surly teenage son. On its surface, On Golden Pond is presented as a melodramatic generation-gap drama. But it's elevated to something far richer and more resonant thanks to Fonda's curmudgeon with a soft, chewy center and Hepburn's outwardly fragile but fiercely protective matriarch who does her damnedest to hide her emotions until tragedy brings them to the fore.

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Kate's Best Line: “Listen to me, mister. You're my knight in shining armor. Don't you forget it."

Watch it: On Golden Pond, on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu

DON'T MISS THIS: 13 Great Rom-Coms Starring Older Actors

6. Little Women (1933)

Hepburn was just 26 when this, the definitive version of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel about the March sisters, hit screens. But the ingenue proved that she was already a formidable talent as Jo. Tracking the fleeting seasonal sorrows and joys of the March girls, the film's vignettes are anchored and fueled by Hepburn's miraculous performance, always aching for something more yet reluctant to let go of the past. Anyone who's seen the movie knows that Hepburn should have been nominated for an Academy Award, but she wasn't. Instead, she got the nod from Oscar that year for the backstage Broadway drama Morning Glory — and won. Right honor, wrong film.

Kate's Best Line: “Aren't we elegant!"

Watch it: Little Women, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

5. Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962)

Playing Mary Tyrone is the female equivalent of tackling Hamlet or Macbeth. It's the Mount Olympus that all great actresses must climb to prove their true greatness. And Hepburn summits this high-altitude challenge with precision, poise and pathos in director Sidney Lumet's remarkable adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's Great American Play. Earning her ninth Oscar nomination for her bravura performance, Hepburn is a bundle of exposed nerves, hopeless dependency and choking claustrophobia opposite Ralph Richardson and Jason Robards in a family tearing itself to pieces. Acting doesn't get much better — and rawer — than this. Its impact is unshakable.

Kate's Best Line: “It makes it so much harder living in this atmosphere of constant suspicion, knowing everyone is spying on me. That none of you believe in me or trust me."

Watch it: Long Day's Journey Into Night, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu

4. Adam's Rib (1949)

This is, hands down, the best of the nine on-screen collaborations between Hepburn and her longtime off-screen partner, Spencer Tracy. It's also the funniest by a mile. Here the two Hollywood legends play married lawyers on opposing sides of a case. He's all world-weary stubble; she's all straight-spined starch. Once again directed by George Cukor, this domestic comedy turns into a slow-simmering battle of the sexes that doesn't go out of its way to make a point but does so anyway. Both leads are perfection. But also keep an eye out for the film's secret weapon, Judy Holliday, as the bubbly blonde on trial for shooting her no good, two-timing husband. A masterpiece.

Kate's Best Line: “Now, you look here, Kip. I'm fighting my prejudices, but it's clear that you're behaving like a … like a … well, I'd hate to put it this way … like a man!"

Watch it: Adam's Rib, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

DON'T MISS THIS: The 10 Baddest Women of Classic TV

3. The African Queen (1951)

I suppose one way of looking at this Hall of Fame John Huston adventure-romance is to say it's the closest Katharine Hepburn ever came to making an action movie. Earning her fifth Oscar nomination, here she plays a prim missionary who uncomfortably partners up with a foul-mouthed, gin-drinking boat captain (Humphrey Bogart) to journey downriver one step ahead of invading Germans in the Congo. John Huston's movie deftly mixes treacherous whitewater moments with slower-paced character showcases, where Hepburn's buttoned-up propriety and Bogart's hard-living heathen act produce friction like two sticks rubbing together and making fire.

Kate's Best Line: “I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!"

Watch it: The African Queen, on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

2. The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Hepburn picked up her third Oscar nomination for this timelessly daffy love triangle, pitting her like a wishbone between two rival male suitors played by a fuddy-duddy James Stewart (as smitten reporter Macaulay Connor) and a dashing Cary Grant (as her ex, C.K. Dexter Haven). Those names! Whipped into a swoony froth by the great women's director George Cukor, it's easy to see why otherwise sane men would lose their marbles fighting over the hand of Hepburn's Tracy Lord. The Philadelphia Story is a boozy, slapstick-filled tale of upper-class love and honor that hasn't aged a day. If you know someone who has no patience for old black-and-white movies, here's one that will make a convert out of them.

Kate's Best Line: “My, she was yar."

Watch it: The Philadelphia Story, on Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

1. 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. Grant is great, to be sure, but it's Hepburn who steals every scene with her blue-blood rebel nonconformist streak. Never has she been such a wild wildcard than she is here. Like Grant, you can't help but fall in love with her.

Kate's Best Line: "Mark said that if he wants to wear a negligee, we have to let him wear a negligee."

Watch it: Bringing Up Baby, on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

Chris Nashawaty, former film critic for Entertainment Weekly, is the author of Caddyshack: The Making of a Hollywood Cinderella Story and a contributor to Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

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