Pretty In The Past: Audrey Hepburn

Some people look better than others in front of a camera, but that’s not enough to explain the effect Audrey still has on people today - most of whom weren’t even alive to see any of her films when they first came out.
Publish date:
November 28, 2012
audrey hepburn, funny face, pretty in the past, Roman Holiday, breakfast at Tiffany's

Okay, it’s time. Let’s do this.

Bloodline was probably the least successful film Audrey Hepburn made - both artistically and financially - but it’s responsible for an anecdote that explains her essential appeal better than any I’ve ever heard.

Making the 1979 film hadn’t been a happy experience for her, especially when she realized her co-star, Ben Gazzara, had no intention of continuing their affair once filming concluded. As is often the case in such matters, though, Gazzara was the only man on the set who didn’t fall in love with her - a fact that became clear at the film’s wrap party.

As soon as she arrived, Audrey was asked by a crewmember to join him on the dance floor. She agreed, and then proceeded to spend the entire night sharing a dance with every man who worked on the film. By the time the party ended and she finally escaped the dance floor, her feet were blistered and raw to the point of bleeding. She never complained once. She smiled the entire night.

Since her death at the age of 63 in 1993, Audrey Hepburn has gone from being a beloved actress to an iconic symbol - a figure whose images translates to something far greater than just a beautiful woman expertly photographed in glamorous clothes. She has transcended her mortality and become a cultural spirit, just like Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and James Dean.

But why? And what does her spirit represent? The three other examples listed above are easy - Marilyn is the spirit of sex, John is the spirit of American exceptionalism and traditional masculinity, and James is the spirit of youthful rebellion. Audrey isn’t as obvious, but I believe the answer is found in the smile she wore while her feet bled on the dance floor.

Audrey is largely unique in Hollywood’s glamour pantheon in that her appeal is almost entirely asexual. As beautiful as she is, her films and photos never seem to inspire anything in the way of lust. Audrey was the one you wanted to protect and hold - her innate vulnerability born from a childhood defined by war and deprivation.

As a child she faced starvation and traveled so much her voice lost all trace of any identifiable nationality. She survived through her passion for dance, where her work as a young chorine resulted in my second favourite Audrey anecdote in which one of her fellow dancers was overheard bitterly complaining, “I have the biggest tits on that stage and everyone is staring at that beanpole on the end!”

Right from the beginning, people couldn’t take their eyes off her.

It wasn’t long before she found herself in front of movie cameras, first with bit parts in small British films like the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob, but it wasn’t until she made her leading lady debut in 1953 that the world first understood how special she really was.

Audrey won the Oscar for Roman Holiday and she deserved it. As a sheltered princess who spends a wonderful few days slumming it like a commoner with handsome journalist, Gregory Peck, she brought humour, charm and a unique incandescence to the role - qualities that made the film’s bittersweet ending all the more touching.

She spent the next few years as the object of adoration for Humphrey Bogart and William Holden in Sabrina, Fred Astaire in Funny Face (where she got to dance), Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon and Anthony Perkins in Green Mansions. In The Nun’s Story she made a pact with God, only to find out that people mattered to her more - the result being her biggest financial hit and personal favourite film.

And then came Holly.

This will no doubt sound like blasphemy to some, but I personally regard Breakfast at Tiffany’s as one of those special films that has achieved greatness despite the fact that it isn’t very good (see also Gone With the Wind and Star Wars). It’s a movie with some pretty enormous flaws (director Blake Edwards’ strange fetish for mocking Asians reached its nadir with Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi) that has still managed to become more popular as decades pass, largely through iconography alone.

Audrey considered Holly one of her most difficult roles - very much the opposite of who she really was - and some considered her miscast when it first came out, but over the years viewers have latched onto her performance of a character who has literally willed herself into being from the lowest of possible origins.

The image of Audrey as Holly standing in her slinky Givenchy dress, cigarette holder at her lips, has become a popular symbol of defiance through reinvention and fashion. In it she declared that we - unlike the princess in Roman Holiday - are not beholden to the identities of our birth. She wasn’t Lula Mae Barnes, child bride from Texas - she was Holly, the life of the party, destined for wealth and fame (or - at the very least - an implausibly happy Hollywood ending).

But people forget the true reason for Holly’s reinvention - to earn money for when her beloved brother returned from the army. She was a façade created just as much out of love and devotion as escape. Despite the misgivings critics had at the time, it now seems like Audrey may have been the only performer from that period who could have made the movie work. The kindness and empathy she naturally exuded softened Holly’s edges and made her mistakes so much easier to forgive.

A devoted mother, Audrey worked sparingly, making only 26 features during her entire career. After Roman Holiday, my second favourite of her performances is found in Stanley Donen’s Two For the Road, where she and Albert Finny memorably played a married couple whose difficult relationship is shown in a series of different trips throughout the years.

As she paid less attention to her film career, Audrey began to focus more on her work as a humanitarian—which ultimately turned out to be her true calling. Even as she suffered from the cancer that eventually killed her, she travelled around the world as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

Some people look better than others in front of a camera, but that’s not enough to explain the effect Audrey still has on people today - most of whom weren’t even alive to see any of her films when they first came out. She wasn’t just one of the most beautiful women in the world - there are a lot of those - she was the most beautiful woman in the world who willingly shredded her feet rather than deny a single crewmember the dance she felt they deserved.

It is this warmth and generosity that we see in her films and photographs. It radiates even when covered by the chicest Givenchy. It is found in her most memorable and important roles. It’s why we want to hold and protect her.

Audrey Hepburn is the spirit of love.

Picture Credit: Rex Features