The Incomparable Audrey Hepburn

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

When it comes to the leading ladies of the big screen, there are two categories: Audrey Hepburn and everyone else. Elegance, warmth, sly intelligence, patrician manners, and larkish approachability she combined like no other. She was the original People’s Princess.

Many actors cite unhappy childhoods, but few triumphed over such dire privation as Audrey Hepburn. As we learn in the lovely documentary Audrey, which is streaming on Netflix, both her diplomat father and her aristocrat mother, who split up when she was six, were Fascists. Daddy left the family in Belgium and returned to his native England to become a Blackshirt; Mummy wrote op-eds praising Herr Hitler. Audrey was ten, in school in England, in 1939 when her father disastrously miscalculated how the war would play out and sent her back to the Continent. He wouldn’t see her again for 25 years, when as a world-famous celebrity she tracked him down in Ireland. He received her visit coldly and unapologetically, but she posed with him smiling radiantly as ever. She is smiling in nearly all of her photographs; to please was her way.

Hepburn grew up with her stern mother in Holland, where she spent the war years, from age ten to age 15, in a state of hunger. Two uncles were executed for their part in the Resistance. “We had to live in the cellar because parts of our house were being shot away,” she recalled later. Audrey did cabaret work to entertain the Dutch, and carried Resistance messages in her shoes. All she wanted was to be a dancer, and after the war she won a scholarship to study ballet back in England. She was too far behind the other girls, though, and so could never catch up. She segued into acting, taking bit parts in English movies.

She was playing an unimportant role in an unimportant film in Paris when Colette, the author of the novel Gigi, spotted her at a hotel. Would Audrey like to go to Broadway to play the title part in the stage version of the story? She would. (This was a straight play; the musical of the same name had not yet been written.) Just six years after she had barely survived a wartime winter eating tulip bulbs, she was a star. After the play closed, William Wyler hired her to star in Roman Holiday, which won her an Oscar at 24, and the screen test that convinced him, as shown in the documentary, is absolutely enchanting. Her “movie debut” was actually her eighth appearance on screen.

Movie stars at mid century were very different from actors today: Instead of obsessively trying new looks, new accents, and new personalities in each role, they stuck to what they did best, working diligently to make their off-screen personas live up to the magic they created on-screen. As she was about to start filming Sabrina in 1953, Hepburn made an appointment with Hubert de Givenchy, herself choosing the designer whose dresses would come to be central to her singular appeal. The couturier was annoyed: He had thought he was meeting Katharine Hepburn.

The Hepburn-Givenchy partnership across seven films was, like Audrey herself, beyond compare, carrying on through Love in the Afternoon, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, and How to Steal a Million. No other combination of lady and dresses was ever as beguiling. “There’s a purity about his clothes, but always with a sense of humor,” Hepburn is heard saying in Audrey, which was directed by Helena Coan. “Hubert would do something terribly simple but there’ll be just that one little bow or little rose, something that will give it . . . a little fun.” As a family friend remarks in the film, “When an artist meets another artist, the best things come out.” Givenchy even designed Hepburn’s low-key 1969 wedding dress, a piece so unassuming it could have been sold at the Gap.

Recalling how she fought a studio chief who, absurdly, thought her performance of “Moon River” should be cut from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sean Hepburn Ferrer describes his mother as “a lioness.” In Hollywood, he notes correctly, “You have to fight for everything you believe in,” and the toughness she developed as a child served her well in maturity. So did her humility. “She was this really nice lady who came to our house,” recalls Andrew Wald, the son of one of her friends. After 1967’s Wait Until Dark, she decided she missed her son so much that she quit movies, and wasn’t seen on screen again for a decade. “I don’t want to be made to sound virtuous,” she said later, after her second son, Luca, was born. “What made me happier was to stay home with my children. It was not a sacrifice.” Her last important role, in Robin and Marian (1976), in which she appeared middle-aged for the first time, was a heartbreaker about flown youth, and in her very last appearance, in Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989), she was an angel in white.

What we all saw is not what she noticed in the mirror, though. In one of the disarmingly frank interviews used as narration in the film (which is occasionally interrupted by unspeakably awful docudrama footage), Hepburn explains: “I’d like to have had smaller feet. I’d have liked to have more figure. I’d have liked to have a smaller nose. I’d like to have been blonde. Oh well. I’d like to have changed everything.” It’s fair to ask (though the film avoids the topic) whether Hepburn’s blade of a build created so much envy in her fans that many fell prey to anorexia and other disorders trying to look the way Holly Golightly looked in Givenchy’s simple, beautiful black shift.

On-screen graceful, Hepburn off-screen was fretful, not that she often let it show. She was a heavy smoker who was greatly upset by two divorces and a miscarriage. Her granddaughter reflects, “My dad said about my grandmother that the best kept secret about Audrey was that she was sad. . . . For the woman who was the most loved in the whole world to have such a lack of love was so sad.” In later years she finally found happiness with Dutch actor Robert Wolders, with whom she settled down in a quiet town in Switzerland, though the pair did not marry. She had only two children of her own, so she set out to be a mother to the world, becoming the face of UNICEF and a prodigious fundraiser for it. Some of her last days she spent comforting starving Somalian children in 1992.

As with many of her co-stars — notably the lower-class striver Cary Grant and the Park Avenue preppy Humphrey Bogart — her screen image was much the opposite of her biography, which was plagued by loss and suffering and near-starvation. Still, beneath the surface her pictures again and again charted a story that reflected her own dual nature. Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon, The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, Wait Until Dark: Each is a tale of a woman who transforms as dramatically as Audrey herself. There is a through line here of steely feminine will, the haute-couture necessary battle gear when fighting to create one’s ideal self. Dazzling as she appeared, it was grit that made her. “Perhaps the most important thing which I carried through life,” she is heard saying at the end of the film, “is that whatever I’ve suffered has helped me later on.”

More from National Review

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting