Actress Christine Baranski earns Katharine Hepburn award

Old Saybrook — When she was honored with the Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award on Saturday, “The Good Fight” actress Christine Baranski praised Hepburn in her acceptance speech — and wondered if, were the legendary actress alive today, she would be on Twitter or Instagram.

Baranski, whose many credits include “Mamma Mia!” on the big screen and “The Good Wife” on TV, was the featured guest at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center’s 10th anniversary gala held at the center on Main Street.

For the past four years, the center has bestowed its Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award on an individual who embodies the spirit, independence, and character of Hepburn, who had a home in Old Saybrook. Previous winners include Glenn Close.

Baranski thanked everyone for inviting her to this 10th anniversary celebrating the legacy of Hepburn.

“I must tell you, to have my name in any way associated with the great Miss Hepburn is a very great honor indeed. I’m thrilled to receive this award,” Baranski said.

This is one of many accolades that Baranski has earned over the years, including winning an Emmy and two Tonys. In November, she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

Baranski said that it was wonderful to reflect on Hepburn’s life and career in anticipation of this evening.

“I had to wonder what she would think about our present moment in history. Would she have made her tart opinions known on her Twitter account?” Baranski said, prompting laughter from the crowd. “Would she have a Facebook page? Cultivate a million followers on Instagram, where she would show a lot of pictures of herself? Would Miss Hepburn pose on the red carpet in designer duds and talk about her borrowed jewelry, or would you see her face on a cosmetics or perfume ad in the duty-free section of an airport? Would she have turned her beauty and her class and her innate sense of style into a commodity and turned her name into a brand?

“I frankly can’t imagine any of those things. Miss Hepburn was indeed beautiful, classy and stylish, but what I love about her and admire most about her was that she was famous chiefly because of her intelligence and her refreshing, at times scathing honesty, her authenticity, her independence and integrity of character. And it is this quality of her character that made her captivating to watch for well over six decades.

“So, in this dark and rather degraded moment in our present culture, it is especially poignant to remember Miss Hepburn’s life and career and to keep her extraordinary spirit and sensibility alive.”

Looking back on her own career, Baranski noted that she started her acting career, just out of Juilliard, by getting an apprenticeship at what was then the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. She remembered frequenting the cottage that Hepburn had lived in back when she was playing Rosalind in “As You Like It” there. The sculpture that is the main element of the Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award is inspired by a photograph of Hepburn in front of that theater, Baranski noted. (The sculpture was created by Lyme artist Kimberly Monson.)

“So, from an early, early time in my career, Kate Hepburn’s spirit was, I think, the wind behind my sails,” Baranski said. 

Duby McDowell, of McDowell Jewett Communications, introduced Baranski at the gala and pointed out the similarities between Baranski and Hepburn.

“Like Katharine Hepburn, Christine Baranski has been a sought-after actress for decades. Like Katharine Hepburn, she has made Connecticut her home. Like Katharine Hepburn, she has made innumerable contributions to our culture, some bold, some subtle. And like Katharine Hepburn, her work has been a prize for all of us, and we are grateful,” McDowell said.

McDowell detailed Baranski’s many successes on stage and screen. She mentioned the role that introduced Baranski to TV watchers, that of the “charismatic, hard-drinking friend Maryann” on the 1990s sitcom “Cybill.” Most recently, Baranski has played attorney Diane Lockhart on two series, “The Good Wife” on CBS and now “The Good Fight” on CBS All Access.

Photographs of Baranski’s past performances flashed on the screen behind McDowell, as she ran through movies from “The Birdcage” to “Chicago” to “Cruel Intentions.”

In discussing Baranski’s stage work, McDowell pointed to a picture of Baranski co-starring on Broadway in 1984’s “The Real Thing,” alongside previous Spirit of Katharine Hepburn Award winner Glenn Close.

McDowell also told a couple of stories from Baranski’s daughter, Lily. Baranski is mother to two grown daughters, Lily and Isabel, and has three grandsons.

“According to one of Christine’s daughters, Lily, her mother never missed a performance in all her years of theatrical roles. She starred as Mame in a production at the Kennedy Center in 2006. Six weeks before opening night, she broke her kneecap but still ended up carrying the show,” McDowell said.

McDowell also passed along a story about Baranski and her husband, actor Matthew Cowles, who died in 2014 of congestive heart failure.

“Christine had a partner in life who supported this incredible career, her late husband Matthew Cowles,” McDowell said. “He was the great love of her life. They met doing a play together in Princeton, New Jersey, this according to Lily. And, as Lily also told me, he drove her home every night on his motorcycle.”

When she got up to accept the award, Baranski said, “I’m a little choked up because I didn’t expect such a personal and beautiful tribute, and mention of my family always makes me very emotional."

k.dorsey@theday.com

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