The Audrey Hepburn effect became pretty clear to me over the past month. In preparation for all of my monthly muses, in addition to reading everything I can about the individual in so brief a time, I like to watch as many of their available films as possible. A strange phenomenon: not only did I find that I already had the majority of Audrey's major Hollywood films in my possession, but I was also privileged with enduring the most enjoyable movie marathon in my recollection. Every movie made me feel good. Every movie left me in a better mood. Most importantly, I was excited to revisit each film, whereas sometimes I have to drag my feet (due to the impending, heavy subject matter, etc). Not this time. Thus, I give you the Audrey Hepburn effect: Joy!
Audrey seems so... pristine in cinematic history-- so beautiful, so charismatic, and so notoriously generous. Her sense of style via her BFFs Givenchy and Ralph Lauren makes even Grace Kelly in retrospect look like an amateur. Her films are almost all classics, and they continue to be lauded as some of the top fan favorites in film history. Imagining movies-- nay, the world!-- without Audrey, today seems unfathomable. She is an icon: a frail, delicate, untouchable goddess. It is easy to slip her into the Heavenly attic of Hollywood's stars and forget that she came up the hard way. Today, Audrey and "Beauty" are synonymous; yet, there was no place in the ever-short-sighted L.A. for a skinny, gawky, too tall girl with no real acting experience. The fact that Audrey Hepburn triumphed and won hearts simply by being herself is a testament both to her and to us. When this diamond emerged from the rough, we saw in her a beauty that existed outside of the general standard and was superior to all preconceived notions. Audrey was both authentic and ethereal. Our trust in her was quickly earned, and in a comparatively short career in film, she never let us down.
Yet, she had every reason to. Audrey's childhood was far from "lov-e-ly," despite the fact that she was born into nobility. Her mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a "baroness" with unfulilled dreams of the stage, and her father was the wayfaring "businessman" Joseph Hepburn-Ruston. The marriage was an affair of passion over propriety on the lady's part. Ella would pass on her daring nature to her third child. Audrey was the happy, youngest, and only daughter, born after two half-brothers, Alexander and Ian, from her mother's previous marriage to Hendrik Gustaaf Adolf Quarles van Ufford, (phew), which had ended in divorce. War was brewing, and Audrey's father was surprisingly on the side of the Nazis, a fact that caused Audrey much later chagrin. Even her mother showed an early, ignorant support of the fascist movement, one that she later revised after her husband abandoned her and she witnessed first-hand the evil of the Axis powers. Growing up primarily in the Dutch town of Arnhem during its German occupation, Audrey was confronted with hunger, depravity, and fear. Her father's absence and her mother's detached sense of affection, which revealed itself in discipline, only exacerbated Audrey's shyness and insecurity. Yet, her answer to these threats, always, was to remain brave-- to literally keep dancing while the world tried to break her.
Indeed, she dreamed of being a ballerina, and she would put on private shows for neighbors-- who out of fear of making noise, couldn't even applaud for her but merely smiled in reverence after she made her curtsy. Audrey also showed signs of the early rebel, daringly hiding soldiers with her mother and carrying messages for the resistance in her shoes-- a courageous act many of her young peers participated in. With her innocent face, she was the perfect secret agent, though she was almost accidentally rounded up once with a slew of other girls to work in the German military kitchen. She waited for the right moment and made a break for it. The other girls weren't as lucky, nor as bold. Finally, the end of the madness, and the liberation of Holland, came on her sixteenth birthday: May 4, 1945. Audrey celebrated by getting sick by gorging on chocolate, the first she'd tasted in some time. However, her bouts with illness during the war-- including anemia, severe edema, jaundice, and asthma-- would forever affect her metabolism, as well as her psyche. She would never forget the horrors and cruelties she saw. Her most brilliant act of defiance was in not letting the memories cripple her. Instead, she approached life with beauty, grace, and dignity, which served as her sword, helmet, and shield through all the trials she had yet to endure.
in Roman Holiday and a lifetime friend
How did this little, twirling violet find herself in Hollywood? The trek was unlikely and a bit unwanted when it came. As Audrey matured, it became unfortunately clearer and clearer to her that ballet was not her calling. She was a capable dancer, but what she possessed in poise and charisma-- two things she had in abundance-- she lacked in skill and control. Anyone who observed her dancing performances, her work in "High Button Shoes," or the cabaret show at Ciro's in London, was captivated by her-- particularly with her eyes. She had a "quality." She was "bound to be famous." Many over the years would take credit for discovering her, and perhaps it's true that many did. Audrey was the only one who seemed surprised by her public reception. Always a practical and hard-working woman, she eventually got work modeling and taking some minor roles in mostly British films. Word of mouth and just plain luck earned Audrey a chance at the leading role in Anita Loos's stage adaptation of "Gigi" and a screen test for William Wyler's Roman Holiday. She nabbed them both! Suddenly, Audrey was the toast of the entertainment world: an inexperienced actress with a practically non-existent resume was to star on Broadway and in a major motion picture!? With Gregory Peck?! It all made sense when the world caught a glimpse of her. In "Gigi," Audrey's acting was at best mildly praised and at worst dismissed, but her being was extolled. She was just... adorable! And lovable. And real. These qualities would carry over into her first screen performance, where Greg Peck even gentlemanly acquiesced to sharing top billing with her, because he was so impressed. Audrey's rule was simple: not to "act," but to "feel." She would repeatedly admit throughout her career that she had no technique; that she relied entirely on her directors and co-stars to guide her. Her humility only made her more enchanting, and the honesty with which she approached her work made her an immediate sensation.
The Hepburn quality is a mixture of innocence and maturity; girlishness and strength. Skinny as a rail, she may have been. Still, no one got the impression, with her defiant, square-line jaw, that Audrey could be pushed around. But then, with her vulnerable features and ultimate kindness, no one wanted to. The same enchantment that she used to capture the loyalty of her directors and co-stars (she had Billy Wilder and William Wyler transfixed and notorious scalawags like Peter O'Toole and William Holden eating out of her hand) was the same that endeared a universal audience to her. In Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, and Love in the Afternoon, we witness her in her ingenue supremacy. The little girl, a bit romantic but always intelligent, falls in love with an older male. Modern feminists could argue the issues all day, but in the end, it is never Audrey who is conquered. Her wit and depth, albeit in a younger, more seemingly impressionable package, always triumph over the uber-masculine, jaded, and philandering ways of Bogart, Astaire, and Cooper. As such, she is a girl who is allowed to fall in love, because she does so, not only genuinely, but with class. She may have given up the study of "empathicalism" to become a model in Funny Face, but the point is not that she looked beautiful doing it-- that she went through the Cinderella process at the cost of her brain-- but that she used both her beauty and brains to bring Fred Astaire through his own emotional Cinderella process, so that he would be man enough to meet her.
Always, Audrey was proactive in her career, choosing roles that spoke to her and that held some level of decorum that preached her belief that beauty gives birth to beauty. She had seen enough violence in her life and had endured enough trauma. In her projects, there was always the resounding mantra of "let there be light," even if her characters had to sometimes face the harder aspects of humanity to find it. Yet, as the girl became a woman, so too did she seek out more mature roles. With the help of her first husband, Mel Ferrer--whose instincts for her career were as keen as his instincts toward his own were askew-- she more often than not was able to choose projects that ended as box-office hits, but then that was, again, probably just the Audrey Hepburn effect. The studios were enthusiastically shocked when The Nun's Story was a smash success, and indeed this film was a milestone in Audrey's acting career as well. Here, not only do we watch her acting reach new heights, but we watch the little girl we knew enter into a life of servitude (with conviction and courage), and exit it as a mature, worldly woman. It was the perfect beginning to a new chapter in her film work. I personally find her later movies more compelling, although admittedly her earlier, ingenue films are the height of Hollywood romanticism. Once she outgrew the role of "the new girl," or the "hot young thing," Audrey was able to use her clout to take on more daring projects that pushed the envelope of human understanding-- such as The Children's Hour-- or our very sense of cultural comfort...
Oh, Breakfast at Tiffany's... Is there anyone alive who does not get misty when they hear the opening, melancholy notes of "Moon River?" (Heck, I'm tearing up right now)! Notoriously, Truman Capote would be aghast at the fact that Audrey was cast as his free-wheeling, little-girl-lost prostitute, "Holly Golightly." (He had hoped for Marilyn Monroe, see here). Many were inclined to agree with him. Audrey a call-girl??? Errr... As a result, Blake Edwards's take on the novella was not as gritty nor as realistic, though brimming with life and humor, as Capote's charmed tale, but in retrospect, the end may just have justified the means. In a nation undergoing an incredible cultural shift-- from old school, to new school; from boundaries and glamour to "swingers," desegregation, and Vietnam-- our transformation into a new world, a more open, yet for many, peculiar world, needed a trusting face to guide us there. So, the last link of Golden Era Hollywood would wear the slim black dress of a society girl, have premarital sex, throw drunken parties, and still find a way to make it appear palatable. And also: Tiffany's? There's only one woman that could carry that banner. Audrey and style are forever intertwined. Despite some critical disapproval, Audrey's ever-running, ever-searching Holly is authentic unto herself. There was so much of that Holly in Audrey, that the performance is actually quite breath-taking and far above commendation.
From this point on, Audrey would play Women and continue her position as an unexpected feminist role model. Another surprisingly controversial piece of work, My Fair Lady, was a grueling and emotionally draining experience to make, mostly because of the constant insults hurled Audrey's way for her lip-syncing. (Not her fault, by the way. She tried to sing her own songs, but Audrey's singing, much like her dancing, was never on par with her thespian abilities). Still, her "Eliza Doolittle," while funny in her cockney period, was most astonishing in her post-transformation. When her heart breaks over the uncertainty of her future, a woman in-between and without a home, the audience is with her and too cheers for her when she puts Rex Harrison's "Henry Higgins" in his place. Two for the Road introduced audiences to a more realistic, less-sugary portrait of marriage, and ironically helped to end Audrey's own, as she and co-star Albert Finney engaged in a passionate affair during filming. The entire blame was not on Audrey, mind you. Mel had been enjoying numerous, alleged dalliances prior to this for some time, and it was argued just how serviceable or controlling his interest in her career had become. He would produce Wait Until Dark-- a still undated, suspenseful masterpiece, thanks to Audrey's performance as a helpless, blind woman who uses her wits to escape disaster-- then the couple would divorce.
Audrey's career in film was all but over at this point, but then Hollywood was never truly her home. She admired the art but defied the pretension, finding solace in her home in Switzerland where she could enjoy more peace and privacy. After suffering numerous miscarriages, she would eventually have two sons, the first by Mel-- Sean Ferrer-- and the second by second husband, psychiatrist Andrea Dotti-- Luca Dotti. As she had been a career woman since her late teens, Audrey decided to devote the remainder of her life to being a wife and mother, making films only sporadically. Many hail Robin and Marian as her last, great classic, and I'm inclined to agree. (The chemistry between herself and the Scots' answer to masculinity, Sean Connery, is still mesmerizing). Sadly, while Audrey, guilty over the dissolution of her first union, was determined to make her second marriage work, she and Andrea Dotti were divorced after his very public liaisons became too much for her to endure. (You cheated on Audrey Hepburn? HONESTLY)!? Yet, she would find her soulmate after long last in the widower of Merle Oberon, the 7 years younger Robert Wolders. They would remain together for 12 years, most of which were encompassed by Audrey's dedicated work for UNICEF. Because of her own desperate struggles as a child, children in pain were always her weak-spot, and she charitably and exhaustingly gave herself to this cause, despite the emotional toll it took on her. Watching the deaths of innocents by the hundreds in places like Ethiopia, Turkey, and Somalia, was no easy feat.
Audrey Hepburn died at the age of 63, mere weeks after her rare and painful bout with cancer was even diagnosed-- the malignant tumor that had started in her appendix had already spread by the time Audrey had registered the discomfort, resulting in a hysterectomy and the partial removal of her colon. She opted not to undergo chemotherapy and left this earth as peaceably as she had lived within it. She was surrounded by loved ones as she took her last breath and was subsequently missed by all whose lives she had touched, many of whom knew her only from her presence on the silver screen. She would be held up over time as an angel-- an inhumanly beautiful woman inside and out. But Audrey was not an angel. She was, despite her slender figure, of hearty stock and a complicated, deeply emotional, acutely intelligent woman, whose generous contribution to society was her lightness of spirit. Have you ever laughed harder than at the dialogue she shares with Cary Grant in Charade? Have you ever watched Sabrina and not audibly sighed? War and Peace is one of her least known films-- and lesser praised as well (for good reason, I must say)-- but it eloquently ends with the words of Tolstoy: "The most difficult thing-- but an essential one-- is to love Life, even while one suffers, because Life is all." It may as well have been her epitaph. Few have come closer than she, perhaps, to living that very example.