By Scott Ross
In an especially charming scene in Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s delightfully bittersweet 1957 romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon, an aging Gary Cooper murmurs to Audrey Hepburn that “everything about [her] is perfect.” Her response is immediate, and utterly characteristic:
Hepburn: I’m too thin! And my ears stick out, and my teeth are crooked, and my neck’s much too long.
Cooper: Maybe so, but I love the way it all hangs together.
So did Wilder. So did we all.
That exchange, of course, was written, but the voice is absolutely Hepburn’s. She did not see herself as (to employ a now overly utilized word) iconic, although she most certainly was. Neither did she regard herself as beautiful; those elements Wilder and Diamond explicate as comprising her beauty are likely the very ones Audrey herself would have cited as proofs against her own loveliness. And, since Wilder was noted for using, and elaborating upon, the on-and off-set behavior and utterances of his actors to spice his deliberately incomplete screenplays (think of Shirley MacLaine’s plaintive query, “Why do people have to love people anyway?” and how Wilder and Diamond placed it in The Apartment, creating one of that excoriating comedy-drama’s most plangent moments) she may well have put it, to him, precisely that way. Actors are often almost shockingly unaware of their own unique gifts: Astonishingly, neither Steve Martin nor Dick Van Dyke considers himself a great physical clown. And Hepburn was sensitive about her appearance.
Above her remarkable looks, and her status as a fashion maven — and, indeed, her very real range as an actor — what Audrey Hepburn had, to an exceptional degree, was charm. Bags of charm, as the British say. It emanated from her as obviously, and as beguilingly, as scent from a rose. Philippe Halsman made a shrewd practice of photographing the famous in the act of jumping, the results creating an instant psychological profile. The most constricted, indeed constipated, were Richard Nixon’s; arguably, the most exuberant, and natural, were Hepburn’s.
These observations, I hope, go some way toward explaining why Hepburn was so uniquely accomplished, in spite of her considerable histrionic gifts, in romantic comedy: From her adorable and, ultimately heartbreaking, princess in that most fairytale-like of Continental romances, Roman Holiday and the slightly sour Cinderella caprice Sabrina, to the lightly satirical Ugly Duckling musical Funny Face, and on through that perfect mixture of badinage and menace, Charade, the soufflé airiness of How to Steal a Million and the unerring emotional temperature of Frederick Raphael and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road. Even when rather stunningly mis-cast, and in a movie (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) whose nearly inviolate wrong-headedness (Mickey Rooney, anyone?) is offset only by its fabled, soigné sophistication and distinctive Mancini score, the two meeting to spectacular effect in the famous opening image, Hepburn triumphs. She is no more the original author’s Lulamae Barnes than that other Hepburn is a creditable hillbilly in the notorious Spitfire.* She is, however, very much Capote’s self-invented Holly Golightly in all her manufactured urbanity and mercurial emotionalism, seldom more heart-rending than when she learns of her beloved brother’s death. Speaking of “the other” Hepburn, I have long felt that if Katharine was, as I believe, the finest American movie actress, Audrey was the greatest of female movie stars. That does not, however, mean that I don’t believe in her gifts as a performer; Cary Grant was likely the greatest of male movie stars, and although I judge his contemporary, James Stewart, as the finest of all masculine movie actors, that opinion takes nothing away from Grant, who (from Sylvia Scarlet on, anyway) was seldom less than splendid in whatever he did.
Hepburn’s way with a throwaway line was non-pariel. Take, for instance, another delicious moment in Love in the Afternoon. Maurice Chevalier is a widowed private detective specializing in marital infidelity, Hepburn his beloved daughter. His case files, unknown to him, are his young progeny’s obsession, despite every effort on his part to shield her from “the sordid stuff” which is his stock-in-trade. She ripostes, “I bet when Mama was alive you told her what you were doing.”
Chevalier: Your Mama was a married woman!
Hepburn (Smiling ingenuously): I’m so glad!
High among Hepburn’s idiosyncratic attributes was that indefinable, but wholly captivating, accent, a legacy of her bifurcated heritage (Scottish father, Dutch mother.) The enunciation is perfect, yet never studied, the impulses almost uncannily apt — think of the way she utters, in answer to Albert Finney’s troubled declaration of love near the end of Two for the Road, the simple statement “Well, then!”— and is nowhere more charming than when, as in the exchange above, she is delivering a comic line.
Our concepts of beauty, as much as our notions about it, are of course ineluctably subjective. Quentin Crisp, for one, rejected the need for it. “The Greeks were mad about the human form,” he once noted. “So much so that during its heyday Athens must have looked like a dressmaker’s window during a weaver’s strike. But it was no help. Not one of the great classical statues has the least individuality that would make it desirable, or even interesting.” As with most of us, when Hepburn looked in a mirror she saw only her flaws. For her, beauty was, always, internal: “The beauty of a woman must be seen from in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides.” Her love was such that, even in her final months, when she must have been in agony from the colon cancer that eventually killed her, in her capacity as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF Hepburn’s primary concern was for the children of the world, and she devotedly lent her presence, and her passion, to what she called the “nightmare” of 1992 Somalia. John O’Hara famously (or infamously) deplored Hepburn’s thinness, not knowing that, despite her lordly pedigree, Hepburn had been starved as a youth in Holland during the Second World War, and was simply incapable, in adulthood, of gaining weight. It was this, as much as her love for her own progeny, which gave her such a passionate drive to alleviate the horror of starving children.
Her mother, the Baroness Heemstra, imparted in young Audrey an essential dictum: “Manners, as she would say, don’t forget, are kindnesses.” Was it perhaps this that permitted her to accept public humiliations from her one-time husband Mel Ferrer without a murmur of protest or censure? After the very few recorded instances on a movie set in which Hepburn behaved, as she would term it, badly, her apologies were real, immediate, and charming. That sort of grace, as much as innate or even acquired poise, has never been in surplus; now, it seems barely to exist. Today we are far more likely to get a Christian Bale, screaming abuse and obscenities at some technician making a tiny fraction of his salary. We need Audrey Hepburn’s manners now as much as, if not more than, we did when she was with us.
Hepburn was famously snubbed at the Academy Awards® in 1964, when residual anger at her “usurping” of what was felt to be a role in the sole possession of Julie Andrews in the movie of My Fair Lady mixed with resentment at her singing voice being melded with (and, unfortunately, overshadowed by) that of Marni Nixon insured her not being granted a nomination that year.† But those who have seen, and — there is no other word for it — adored Audrey in Funny Face, and who cherish her (admittedly heavily edited) rendition of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” regret that there was not a greater reliance on her own, limited but utterly charming, vocalese on the MFL soundtrack. (Nixon’s voice simply doesn’t match.) That she was photographed with Andrews after the Oscars® ceremony wearing what seems to be a smile of genuine pleasure, is testament to those kindnesses so prized by her mother. It certainly made her look far more gracious than her critics.
Today’s Google Doodle reminds us that 4 April would, and should, have been Hepburn’s 85th birthday, and it seems as impossible now as it did in 1993 that this most vital of movie presences is no longer with us. Yet, of course, she is. Audrey Hepburn can never really leave us, so long as an appreciation of charm and kindness retain some sort of toehold, however tenuous, in the larger culture.
*Capote said later he would like to see Jodie Foster as Holly, in a more faithful adaptation. That, alas, never happened.
†Andrews herself later said she had very little chance, as a movie novice known primarily for her Broadway roles, of netting the role and that, while she hoped for it, she didn’t expect it. It should also be remembered that Jack Warner paid a then-record price for the rights to film the show; that Rex Harrison, while respected, was not at the time a box-office figure (Warner offered it first to Cary Grant, who wisely turned it down); and that a top-line popular actress to stat opposite Harrison was essential.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross