Bette Davis vs. Katharine Hepburn

Bette was a lime and Katharine was an orange. When I’m drinking tequila, I want a lime. When I wake up in the morning, I wouldn’t drink lime juice with my coffee, would I? So goes my analogy with the two Queens of Classic Hollywood, arguably the best actresses who ever came out of Hollywood. My respect for their talents depend upon my mood and the time of day. Why should it be that Bette Davis is entertaining at night but too caustic in the morning while Katharine Hepburn is charming at ten a.m. but her voice grating after the moon glows? Still, I loved their spunky personalities and wisdom after long, peppery careers.

Serious movie buffs ought to watch their films and get to know their legacy. Classic film bloggers or lovers of Turner Classic Movies already know them like they were their sisters. They know that Katharine Hepburn is rated #1 by AFI followed by Bette Davis at #2 spot. Rotten Tomatoes rates Bette’s best performance, All About Eve, #6 all-time best film, higher than any Katharine Hepburn film. Katharine Hepburn acted for over 60 years and won four Oscars and twelve nominations. Bette Davis won two Best Actress awards and claimed eleven nominations and her career ranged almost seventy years. One could spend all day analyzing their merits, but it’s the question that matters when comparing the two: “Who is the better actress?” Bette Davis. “Who’s the more iconic movie star?” Katharine Hepburn.


The other night I watched Bette Davis in the 1940 film version of the play, The Letter. She was nominated for this role as Best Actress, and it still holds up today as an entertaining thriller utilizing clever shadow shots and great acting by the cast. Other favorite films of hers include her affiliation with Humphrey Bogart in Petrified Forest, Marked Woman, and Kid Galahad.

As Bette Davis’s career continued, the apex of her acting came from top-notch performances from 1938-1945 where she won critical acclaim and awards almost every year. Jezebel, Dark Victory, Now, Voyager, Little Foxes, Mr. Skeffington. Her best role for me is All About Eve and every lover of macabre films and horror films should see her in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s still creepy fifty years later.

The media and fans loved Katharine Hepburn’s relationships with the starring men of her day like Cary Grant with whom she made four films, and her partner, Spencer Tracey, with whom she made nine films. Katharine Hepburn’s endearing performances in 1951 with Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, in 1975 with John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn, and in 1980 with Henry Ford in On Golden Pond illustrates for me that Katharine did her best work when she bounced off a strong male costar.

Want to learn more about these legends? Check out these two sites:

These two ladies trailblazed the way for future actresses. They demanded to be taken seriously as artists with their uncompromising, tough, self-sufficient personalities.  Can you guess these famous maxims by them?

1. “Dressing up is a bore. At a certain age, you decorate yourself to attract the opposite sex, and at a certain age, I did that. But I’m past that age.”

2. “Until you’re known in my profession as a monster, you’re not a star.”

3. “I would advise any woman against having an affair with a married man believing he will ever leave his wife, no matter how often he says his wife does not understand him. Love is not as necessary to a man’s happiness as it is to a woman’s. If her marriage is satisfactory, a woman will seldom stray. A man can be totally contented and still be out howling at the moon.”

4. “Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting. And you don’t do that by sitting around.”

5. “Today everyone is a star – they’re all billed as ‘starring’ or ‘also starring’. In my day, we earned that recognition.”

6. “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.”

7. “I have been uncompromising, peppery, intractable, monomaniacal, tactless, volatile, and oftentimes disagreeable… I suppose I’m larger than life.”

8. “I never did pal around with actresses. Their talk usually bored me to tears.”

9. “It’s life isn’t it? You plow ahead and made a hit. And you plow on and someone passes you. Then someone passes them. Time levels.”


Hail to the two Queens of Hollywood. While Ingrid Bergman is my favorite classic film star, there’s no denying Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn are moons in the star system that is Hollywood. Which performances do you like most?

May I invite you to Margaret Perry’s classic film blog:


105 thoughts on “Bette Davis vs. Katharine Hepburn

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  1. I’ve loved them both for many years! And just as an aside, I find that Kate Outgrew (another actress I like) reminds me of K. Hepburn. Thank you for the informative and interesting post! 🙂

      1. Heehee. I first saw her as the captain on tv’s Star Trek: Voyage. I’m a big fan. She’s been mostly in theatres before that. I found her official website. It stated that she is currently in a Netflix only show, the new black is orange … or something like that. I also learned she did a one person show AS Katherine Hepburn. I’ve ordered the CD’s. In an interview a few years ago she said that her voice was described as a mix between Hepburn and a chipmunk. Find her on YouTube and you’ll see.

    1. Hi, Tom. Tsk, tsk. 😉 You are a strong commentator about today’s stars–try ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’ for a great Hitchcock-esque vibe and try ‘Philadelphia Story’ for Katharine when she’s young and honestly, ‘On Golden Pond’ is a wonderful film of her later years. Cheers, Thomas

  2. Philadelphia story and, of course, all about Eve!! Ingrid Bergman was simply divine.

    Thanks for the guessing game, I love these kinds of games!

    1. Thanks, GP. Any favorites by them? I must say I liked Katharine when she got older. I loved ‘Rooster Cogburn’ and ‘On Golden Pond’ and ‘African Queen’. Bette was a harder pill to swallow but she could play bitchy like no other.

      1. It goes without saying – Davis is the role model for bitches everywhere! She was great at it. Katherine was a symbol for strength, but I like to think Barbara Stanwyck was on a par with her – about the only 2 women I can think of that could hold a lead role by themselves (not co-star with a man) [ Fonda I refuse to discuss the traitorous fool. I DON’T forget]

        1. LOL. You know, decades later, Jane apologized for her actions; but I doubt she needs your forgiveness 😉 but I understand your perspective and I thought she was overrated as an actress. AS far as acting goes, my favorite was Ingrid Bergman–there you go again, she looked great next to a man and was always dewy eyed and fragile in most her films. For strength I’d go for Shirley MacClaine and Barbara, for sure!

          1. Oh, I forgot about Shirley – my bad! (as far as Jane goes – TOO little – TOO late. She may not need my forgiveness, but I’m not alone She would have become a star no matter what, her father had a lot of pull in Hollywood)

  3. Nice compare and contrast. I haven’t seen that many Bette Davis films, but a load of Katharine Hepburn. Love Katharine Hepburn and her bold image.
    Orange and Lime is a good contrast to describe the two.
    I couldn’t guess who said who, when it came to the quotes.
    By the way, I love Ingrid Bergman too, but my all time favourite actress is another Hepburn, i.e. Audrey of course.

    1. Hi Nuwan Sen. Yes, I remember your affections for Audrey and you have great taste, there. I find that Bette Davis films have more meat to chew on and I like her expressive eyes and her body language. She’s a tough broad, an emasculator, and not squishy soft like other others.

  4. Your debate has given me plenty of food for thought and I particularly enjoyed your fruit analogy. Katharine Hepburn gets my vote; mainly because of her films with Spencer Tracy (especially Adam’s Rib) and also because she’s Michelle Pfeiffer’s favourite actress. During the publicity for One Fine Day Michelle was quoted as saying:
    “I just LOVE Katharine Hepburn. I think she’s just about the perfect actress. I would watch her old films on TV — I never got to see them in the movies — and would just marvel at how good she was. Of course, the parts she played were attractive too — strong but feminine, independent but not competitive. She played women who were comfortable with themselves, and she seemed to attract men who were comfortable with that. I miss those films, and that’s why I wanted to do this one.“

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for your thoughts! I find it ironic that Katharine’s strength and independence came from pairing herself with me. Bette always seemed do be the individual on the screen and men were toys to play with. I have read about how degrading and nothing short of servitude would suffice for female actors in the old days. Sleeping their way to the top seems to be a Hollywood phenomenon. Studio executives “owned” their stars. I think that’s why I like Bette so much; she broke free and stood her ground and still came out of it all decades later highly respected, if not easily likable or soft and sweet like other classic movie actresses.

  5. Nice post, I personally prefer Hepburn on talent, whilst Davis has more fire in her. my faves of their’s are Lion in Winter and All About Eve.Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great quotes here from screen legends! I’ve only seen one film from each but I definitely respect both as being strong female presence in Hollywood.

      1. Oh I have seen All About Eve and I LOVED it! Need to see more from Bette Davis. As for Hepburn, I’ve only seen Bringing Up Baby which was just ok, not great.

  7. They were both quite remarkable dames, to say the least! I think if one were to watch every film in both stars’ canon, one would have a good impression of the Hollywood star system in regards to women. We don’t seem to have this calibre of female performer today – not with that pepper. Thanks so much for posting – if you put one of the Great KH blogathon banners up with a link to my site, I’ll enter you in the blogathon prize-drawing!

    1. Thanks, Malcolm. Naturally, I am curious about your favorite films….’Philadelphia Story’? ‘The Letter’? ‘Little Foxes’? ‘Rooster Cogburn’? OR maybe one of their less known films?

  8. Terrific post!!! I don’t know that I can choose just one from each of these spectacular careers. If I was forced to at gunpoint I’d choose THE LETTER and ALL ABOUT EVE for Davis and ….wowZA, not sure I can choose even just two for Kate. Um…AFRICAN QUEEN and ADAM”S RIB. DUNNO!


  9. I’m always astounded by the acting talents of these ladies. I’m a massive fan of Hepburn in particular.
    Incredibly – which should tell you a lot about the film industry – both were discarded at points in their career. Hepburn just refused to let that happen and had the chops to throw it back in their face. And How!
    Sadly Davis didn’t fare so well – and those – like myself – who came along late – never knew what all the fuss was about.
    Much of Hepburns work is incredibly rewatchable: ‘The Lion In Winter’ – Hepburn and O’Toole together – two of the greatest actors who ever lived – amazing! And the ‘Rainmaker’ with Lancaster – I watch it over and over.
    Who today can fill these shoes? Blanchett … maybe.

    1. I think the only people today who can be in any way compared to Hepburn, as far as career diversity and longevity goes, are the brits – Judy Dench and Maggie Smith in particular. Another oddly comparable actor would be Johnny Depp.

    2. I agree with all you say. I need to rewatch ‘The Lion in Winter’ and ‘Rainmaker’. Haven’t seen them in ages. I think Blanchett is as good as those two. Thanks for your comments!

  10. Katherine Hpeburn was a solid actress, not the best by any means, but dependable, and with several memorable roles to her credit. Bette Davis, on the other hand, was a freak, and the stories almost surrealistic in their straightfaced absurdities. Mr. Skeffington has to be seen to be believed. But both actresses were stars, and stardom obliterates the ups and downs of mere acting. Like Marilyn Monroe, possibly the most inept actress to ever achieve top billing fame, no amount of practical assessment willl dislodge their reputations. Recently I watched a dozen or so Bette Davis movies in a row and it was like a Marx Brothers marathon. What a hilarious pandemonium of freakishness. Hepburn had her freak moments too, Suddenly Last Summer ranking high on the Rick James meter. But then there was Summertime, The African Queen, the Lion in Winter, State of the Union, Bringing Up Baby, and The Philadelphia Story. There is no doubt in my mind that she was nearly always in full control of her performances. I could never say that about Davis.

    1. Thanks, Bill, for your comments as usual. My favorite classic star is neither one although I respect them. Bette was certainly not one I’d have babysit my children, but I did like her hard spunkiness. Katharine had that control you speak of, and I agree with you. I enjoy Ingrid Bergman, Shirley MacClaine, and Barbara Stanwyck. They are just as talented as BD and KH.

      1. MacClaine is my favorite. I often dream of how much better a picture some Like it Hot would have been had it starred maclaine instead of monroe. I also like ingrid bergman, mostly for her films with rossellini,and stanwyck. primarily i esteem the performer for how well they become part of the total cinematic design. for this reason my favorites are liv ulman, monica vitti, gena rowlands, janet gaynor, natalya bondarchuk and setsuko hara.

        1. Awesome favorites you have! There are some I’ve never seen a film in such as Gaynor, Bonodarchuk and Hara. I need to add them to my list. thanks for the enlightenment, Bill.

  11. Bette Davis was outstanding in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.” Her off-screen rivalry with Joan Crawford only added to the suspense. I liked Davis in “Of Human Bondage,” but I thought Kim Novak’s performance in the remake was even better. I’ve never been a big Katharine Hepburn fan, but I LOVED her in “Lion in Winter.” Her one-liners were priceless. I found the on-screen chemistry between Hepburn and Peter O’Toole mesmerizing.

    1. Hi Sheryl, thanks for your comments! I agree about KH. Something cold and wanting for me to get soppy about. That doesn’t take away the fact that I respect her immensely. Ingrid Bergman is my favorite classic queen. With regards to Lion in Winter, I agree wholeheartedly. I think it showcases her talents well, and validates my claim that she was only as good as her leading man. She needed someone to bounce off of. 🙂

      1. I never thought of that, but you’re right about KH and her leading men. The Ingrid Bergman films I remember most are “Gaslight,” “Jekyll and Hyde” (my favorites), a comedy she made with Goldie Hawn, and a film with Tony Perkins. I can’t say that I’m crazy about “Casablanco” because I’m not a Bogart fan. I don’t think I’ve seen “Notorious” or “Spellbound,” but I really would like to because I love most Hitchcock films.

  12. I have loved both actresses since childhood, and can do a mean (as in fairly good!) imitation of both – after a couple of margaritas. 🙂 I’ve always gravitated toward the Bette camp. She is without a doubt my favorite actress, and I’ve seen every movie she’s made. And who can forget her memorable performance as the slatternly Mildred in ‘Of Human Bondage’ – when she tells Leslie Howard that she hated it every time she had to kiss him, and then wipes her mouth viciously while giving him those Bette Davis eyes – well, what can one say but ‘Bravo, Bette!’

    Great post.

  13. the movements,the voice, the eyes that were bette davis always overwhelm the mediocre talent that was katharine hepburn. there’s no comparaison. bette all the way!

    1. Hi! Glad you stopped by JFWK:
      I know she was difficult, but I appreciate her spunk and devotion to her craft. I think as actresses mature, they gain freedom from the beauty constraints placed on them when they are young and physically perfect. I think Bette enjoyed playing “ugly” characters — love her in ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?’

  14. Bette Davis rules! Katharine Hepburn is a hideously PC caricature of what a women is supposed to be, whereas Bette Davis is the real deal, warts and all.

  15. Ha ha ha Hepburn’s voice grating after that hour…
    Don’t know if you’re familiar with Bryn Mawr College, one of the 7 sister schools in the Wellesley network. It’s KH’s alma mater and I went there freshman year (in PA) before transfering to Univ of PA. I enjoyed this fun post, Cin.

    5. “Today everyone is a star – they’re all billed as ‘starring’ or ‘also starring’. In my day, we earned that recognition.”

    Gee, she’d have a cow if she saw this truism taken over the top in the digital age of self-publishing…and blogging!

    1. I remember growing up thinking a profession as a writer was a doable option. That is, go out, get an agent, and let your career begin. Ha! I still had dreams of obtaining an agent in the 2000s when self publishing took off. Now it seems obvious it’s virtually impossible to “make it” as a published author from a publishing house. I think K. might approve of the blogging stuff. She would approve of women expressing themselves and community building. I think how cool it is that you, Diana, live on the East coast, I’m in the SW, virtual friends are in the UK, and we all talk like we lived in the same village. It is a valuable, very human way to be positive and receive postive thoughts from others. It’s gratifying. I feel like a star when I blog. My little “magazine” contribution with lovely followers and commenters, etc. Do I make sense?

      1. Absolute sense. =) I’m in CA, btw. I share in my About how I started out in the East and transplanted. I’m glad you feel that way on your blog, and you should for the dedicated, informative writing you put out. A recent guest writer said she felt like a celebrity on my board, amazed at the response. You know, w/ readers sending me TED vids they thought I’d like, and given how I do in fact tune in whenever I can in the car, it took me a good one-and-a-half years to realize my platform was my own TED stage. Blew my mind. I share this bc you’re right: I think K wOuld be pleased. =)

        Hey, where do you get a hold of the old films?


          1. I will be so forward as to ask that if you mention me by name, you use my username Holistic Wayfarer. Site name is fine, too. Gee, I sound…like Katharine, not keeping mouth shut in humble appreciation. (But I appreciate!)

  16. hepburn was refined,yet dull, except when playing comedy, and not good enough for the major dramatic roles she attempted in later life (sudddenly last summer) (long days journey into night.) davis was a mediocre actress who compensated for her lack of technique with a fascinating freakiness that gave her melodramas a surreal touch. ill take shirley maclaine over both of them any day. i think she is the the finest actess in both comedy and drama, to come out of hollywood. if you dont believe me, check out some came running, the apartment, two for the seesaw, desperate characters, what a way to go, the children’s hour, and two mulesfor sister sara,

  17. Cindy, thank you. You do these comparisons so well and I learn so much. But am I naive in preferring Katherine because I find her more attractive, more intelligent looking and less hard than Bette? They were both such great actresses that I cannot find it in my heart to say one was better than the other.

    1. Hi Malcolm! My friend, most people surveyed prefer Katharine over Bette for the very reasons you mention. Although, I find Katharine hard as nails. My favorite is Ingrid Bergman. Still, I admire the heck out these leading ladies.

  18. Katharine Hepburn could only play upper class, intelligent, sophisticated characters. This served her well in sophisticated comedies, but my favorite performance of hers is in Suddenly, Last Summer- in which she showed her dark side and wasn’t trying to be liked by the audience, which was a big priority of hers. Bette Davis had unlimited range as a dramatic character actress, but unfortunately she peaked in All About Eve and then coasted on her persona and verged into camp, caricature and self-parody. Hepburn aged better than Davis and chose better scripts in her older years. Hepburn was limited by her voice. She always had the same distinctive Bryn Mawr voice in every film. Bette Davis modulated her voice and spoke with a variety of accents in her films from 1934-1950. She sounds completely different as Margo Channing (low, husky voice) as she does as Mrs. Skeffington (high-pitched, shrill voice) or Queen Elizabeth (British, clipped). She also changed her face & look a lot more than Hepburn did. If one looks at Bette Davis’ gallery, it is filled with different portraits: Queen Elizabeth, Jezebel, Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes, Margo Channing, Mildred in Of Human Bondage, Carlota in Juarez, Leslie Crosbie in The Letter, Rosa Moline in Beyond the Forest, Judith in Dark Victory, Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager, Mrs. Skeffington. In short, Bette Davis had a bigger talent, but wasted her talent after All About Eve. Katharine Hepburn had greater intelligence & taste, but a limited talent.

  19. Watched Katherine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey into Night a few days ago and am convinced it is the greatest film performance ever given by an American actress.

  20. Ingrid Bergman is my favorite too. Thank you for sharing – these two actresses earned their fame and made a history of cinematography. I have read “The lonely life” and “Kate remembered” – I just love to read about cinematography, especially the early days and the post-war period. I guess that spirit is long gone…

    1. Oh, no! There are a lot of great bloggers who devote their whole site to keeping the classics alive. I’m much obliged for that; I learn something new everyday. Thank you for commenting–I don’t there’s such a thing as a bad Ingrid B. film. She is intoxicating. 🙂

  21. I have to admit I enjoy both actresses but feel all eras have had great actresses. You pleaded great cases for both renowned and respected actresses. 🙂
    Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Diane Keaton are some of my current favorites.
    My Mom adored Ingrid Bergman and a few men said she had “Bette Davis eyes” before it became a song. Maureen O’Hara with John Wayne in the Irish boxing movie, ” The Quiet Man,” was also a favorite of both of ours. She and I watched, “Little Women” recently and enjoyed this Turner Classic movie.

    1. Welcome, Robin, movies–they do seem to connect the world, yes? Your choices and your mother’s are same for me, too! Ingrid is my favorite classic actress. I like to write posts about the films and the actors from the past to the present. I like to travel and take pictures, too, so glad you visited and hope you come back soon! 🙂

  22. I’m pretty sure that the “Kate Outgrew” someone referred to is actress Kate Mulgrew. And the reference to “On Waldon Pond” is meant to be “On Golden Pond”. While both Hepburn and Davis were excellent actresses, I always found Bette Davis to be the more interesting of the two.

    1. Welcome, Michael. When I wrote this back in 2015, I had just finished watching a bunch of Bette Davis films. Since then, I’ve watched a bunch of Kate Hepburn films. As of today, I am leaning these days toward Kate simply because she had great comedic timing and I loved her performance so much in ‘The Lion in Winter’ and the bio I read of her warmed me to her personality. Thank you for stopping by to comment!

  23. I loved your comparison using fruits… how true. I adored Katharine Hepburn in a Philadelphia Story and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Interesting read!

    1. Welcome, Kat! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’ve noticed modern day actresses are hot for about a decade then they fade or bow to the next wave. Very few endure for decades like Bette and Kathyrn.

  24. I can’t stand Hepburn. I have no idea why she won so many academy awards. I adore Davis. That’s an actress. I can’t stand Hepburn’s voice,,Her arrogance, and frankly, don’t find her a credible actress. I see nothing in her. I adore Barbara Stanwyck, Greer Garson fabulous, Deborah Kerr, Vivian Leigh…there were so many, but Hepburn to me is a Zero! I find her as weird on camera as off.

    1. Well, to each their own. I have heard the same comments about Davis. They both are strong headed, demanding an extreme personalities. I admire them. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  25. There is a clear distinction between the two of these fine actresses, and the distinction is obvious. When you get Kate — you get Kate; she is the role and the character, and defines it. When you talk about Bette — she melts into the character – and you see the character as opposed to the personality. Between the two – when you talk about straight acting chops — there is no comparison. To put this in perspective – think about a defining role – probably the most prestigious of them all, Scarlett O’Hara. Which of these two would you believe in that turn? Of course – it is defined by VL – but point being – who pulls it off it not for her? It is such a fine line – to further this point – think about James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Nicholson. They are themselves – and you are attracted to their personalities and persona. Jimmy is Jimmy, HB is HB and Jack is Jack. Same thing with John Wayne. Now — Henry Fonda, James Stewart (to a lesser degree) and Claude Raines to Anthony Hopkins as examples – are actors…. I can go on and on. But in my humble opinion — there is no comparison here – Bette Davis is the single greatest of all time. There are those that come closer – modern day – Emma Thompson, Kate Blanchett, Meryl Streep etc etc ….. But for my coin, Bette is the best there ever was. Everyone else is a copy. BTW — Whatever Happened to Baby Jane on TMC now. But of you want to see chops…. Just watch “Jezebel” … and move on from there.

    1. I apologize! If you read my latest post, you would see I’ve been in the hospital and down and out for the last 6 weeks. What a thought-provoking response, Tom. If pushed, I would say I loved Bette more. Did you watch the Feudseries featuring Bette and Joan Crawford and starring Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange? It’s marvelous.

  26. Back in the late 60’s or 1970’s I would actually stay home to watch a Bette Davis or Joan Crawford film. Both actresses had enormous screen persona and films scripts so entertaining. I would not stay home for Katherine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck. Bette and Joan did not age well and left the door open for the the other longevity actresses to move ahead. Watch Bette and Joan to say 1954 and it all makes sense. Bette said in an interview Katherine had the beautiful face that she lacked. Crawford had the acting experience from early New York and later silent films way before the rest.

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