Casting Call: Audrey Hepburn

Welcome to Casting Call. In this series I’ll be taking a look at the people who, arguably, most profoundly and most visibly effect our response to cinema; the actors. Each week I’ll profile and look at the career of an actor from one of the week’s cinema, blu ray or dvd releases, and discuss several of their films and performances.

On September 12th, Breakfast at Tiffany’s makes its Blu Ray debut, and what better reason to talk about its beloved star? She was not the best not the most diverse, nor certainly the most prolific, actress in Hollywood, but Audrey Hepburn was surely one of the great movie stars of all time, and she still has fans around the world, 18 years after her sad early death.

Name: Audrey Hepburn
Born: May 4th, 1929
Died: January 20th, 1993
Family: Survived by first husband Mel Ferrer (1917 – 2008), second husband Andrea Dotti, partner Robert Wolders and children Sean Hepburn Ferrer and Luca Dotti
First Film: Nederlands in 7 Lessen [Dutch in 7 Lessons] (1948)
Last Film: Always (1989)

I discovered Audrey Hepburn unaccountably late. One day, about five years ago, short something to watch, I grabbed the Breakfast at Tiffany’s DVD from my Mother’s collection. 110 minutes later, I was smitten, one of millions bowled over by this beautiful, graceful, classy woman. I was repeating the same pattern that much of the rest of the world had established in 1953, when they got their first real sight of her, opposite Gregory Peck, in Roman Holiday.

Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born in Belgium in 1929, to an aristocratic Dutch Mother and an English banker, but she spent most of her childhood in Holland. In the early to mid 1930’s her parents were both admirers of Oswald Mosely, and members of the British Union of Fascists, but all the young Audrey knew was that her parents divorced, and her Father left, when she was six years old. The family moved to Arnhem when Audrey was ten, because her Mother believed that there she and her children would be safe from German attack. Unfortunately she was wrong; war, and subsequently occupation, came to Holland in 1940. Things became less and less comfortable for the family as the war went on, and while Audrey was able to train in ballet, and become very proficient by 1944 (so much so that she risked danger by giving performances to benefit the resistance, for whom she also passed messages from time to time). However, after D Day Arnhem was devastated, in the winter that followed the Hepburns were caught up in the famine, Audrey very nearly died, and the experience changed her body for good; her rail thin figure formed by that terrible winter.

After moving to Amsterdam in 1945 to continue studying ballet, Hepburn made her first film appearance, in a promotional film for KLM when she was 19. Shortly after, she moved to London, and worked as a chorus girl and in several small parts in films after deciding to become an actress, having been told that, being tall, and having weakened bones from her malnutrition as a teenager, she would not be a prima ballerina. The breakthrough came on the set of Monte Carlo Baby, when the author Colette, who was visiting, saw Audrey and immediately decided that she had found the girl who would play her character Gigi on Broadway.

Two stints in Gigi had to fit around the shooting of Hepburn’s first American film; Roman Holiday. In brief parts in films like The Ladykillers it was clear that Hepburn was a strikingly beautiful young woman, but Roman Holiday introduced her to an instantly smitten world. It was the part that laid the groundwork for everything that followed. She played a bored Princess, desperate to escape and experience the real world while in Rome, and as she tries to escape she is recognised by a reporter (Gregory Peck), and the two fall in (ultimately unrequited) love. You can’t help but be charmed by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday – something that Gregory Peck noticed to such a degree that he insisted that they share equal billing above the title – her crisp voice; English accent inflected with the barest traits of her Dutch heritage, wide eyes, and beautiful face made her an instant star, and won her an Oscar at just 24.

In the years following Roman Holiday Hepburn was perhaps typecast as the ingénue, usually pursued by an older man, in several romantic comedies that made her a huge box office attraction. Sabrina, Funny Face (a musical, in which she got to dance with Fred Astaire) and Love in the Afternoon were all successful and within her comfort zone, but even early on she showed a desire to stretch as an actress, taking roles in the epic 1958 version of War and Peace (opposite her husband Mel Ferrer), and the unusual – and unsuccessful – Green Mansions (directed by Mel). The big challenge, however, came in Fred Zinneman’s The Nun’s Story in 1959. More on that below.

In the 1960’s Audrey Hepburn was one of the biggest stars in the world and, after a year off to have her son, she took two contrasting projects in 1961. In the beloved Breakfast At Tiffany’s she played Truman Capote’s high society call girl Holly Golightly. The realities of Holly’s prostitution were softened, no doubt for both the Hays Code and Hepburn, and the film became a romantic comedy about Holly and her downstairs neighbour, and a classic of its kind, iconic for Hepburn’s performance and especially her rendition of Moon River. Hepburn’s other film of 1961 was a more daring and left field choice; The Children’s Hour, a drama reuniting her with Sabrina director William Wyler in which she and Shirley MacLaine play teachers at a private school who are rumoured to be having an affair.

Hepburn’s fast work rate continued throughout the 1960’s, as she continued to bring class to fluffy rom-coms like How to Steal a Million and Paris When it Sizzles and stretch herself in more atypical fare like divorce drama Two For the Road (with Albert Finney) and thriller Wait Until Dark. She also made some of her most loved films in the period, notably the musical My Fair Lady (in which, much to her disappointment, her vocals were dubbed) and the genre bending Charade, which combined screwball comedy, thriller and romance, along with a beautifully cast Hepburn and Cary Grant to wonderful effect.

After Wait Until Dark Hepburn effectively retired, preferring to concentrate on her second marriage and raising her beloved sons, but she did make a handful of films in her (relatively) later years. She was perhaps best used in Robin and Marian; a clever revisionist Robin Hood in which she played Marian to Sean Connery’s Robin and in her final film, Steven Spielberg’s Always. It’s not a great film, but in casting Hepburn as an angel, Spielberg gave this wonderful actress and wonderful human being (who devoted her last years to charity work for Unicef, and is one of the few Hollywood stars no one seems to have a bad word for) the perfect send off.

BEST FILM: Charade (1963)

There are many worthy choices here. I could have picked Breakfast at Tiffany’s for being the quintessential Hepburn film, of the film discussed in the next section for containing unquestionably her finest performance, or the charming Funny Face for the astonishingly fun and sexy Basal Metabolism sequence. I’ve gone for Charade because for me it perhaps best represents the range of what Hepburn could do, it’s really a film that has everything.

She shows off wonderful chemistry with Cary Grant, whose note that, since he was so much older, he didn’t want to pursue Hepburn, leads to the much funnier and sexier take of making Hepburn do the chasing. She’s also very funny here, playing both verbal and physical comedy with great timing and dexterity (aided by the brilliant Grant). And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that she was seldom, if ever, more beautiful than she is as Reggie Lampert.

Stanley Donen balances comedy, romance, mystery and a genuinely surprising (if very simple) twist with great dexterity, and keeps the film feeling loose without ever letting it sag. It also looks great; bright and crisp, but with a few thriller sequences that use shadow well, and has one of the best title sequences Saul Bass ever made. Charade is a smart, stylish, hugely entertaining, genre bender.

BEST PERFORMANCE: The Nun’s Story (1959)

Hepburn clearly recognised that Fred Zinneman’s film, which charts the gradual disenchantment of a nun with her vocation over about twenty years, would be her biggest acting challenge, and she embraced it as such, throwing herself into research, which consisted of speaking to the woman her character was based on and spending quite a lot of time in churches and convents, researching the life of a nun.

The hard work paid off, as Hepburn is magnificent in the film (which got her a third Oscar nomination in six years, and won her the Best Actress BAFTA). She plays ‘Sister Luke’ as a young woman always in search of both God and serenity, fighting her urge to resist the rules she is meant to live by, and struggling to understand how her choices serve God. It’s a moving performance, especially as it becomes clearer and clearer that she can’t reconcile cutting herself off from the world with the service of God. In many ways Audrey Hepburn often seemed untouchable on screen; she was so perfect, so otherworldly beautiful, so impossibly sweet and charming that she seemed to be from some other dimension. Here, stripped of make up, dressed in a habit rather than her usual Givenchy, she is at her most human, her most relateable.

Many people will tell you that Audrey Hepburn was sweet and beautiful, but that she wasn’t much of an actress. This film should change their tune.

ONE TO MISS: The Unforgiven (1960)

The Unforgiven was a sad film for Hepburn. During a riding scene she fell from her horse, and lost a much longed for pregnancy (her second miscarriage). It’s also, quite simply, not a very good film. Hepburn is utterly miscast as a Native American woman adopted by a white family, and she struggles to make anything of the part (her voice, among many other things, just doesn’t fit here).

The Unforgiven is also an unpleasant film; violent, and at times flat out racist (I know it reflects the times of the film, but still). The tense second half is better than the very loose and uneventful first, but for Hepburn fans this is one to skip unless morbid curiosity forces you to see how she was at her most miscast.

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