Sign up for the Film Comment Letter today to get original film writing delivered to your inbox every week! >>

Our Fair Lady: Audrey Hepburn

The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Comment salute the exquisite but by no means ephemeral Audrey Hepburn

To celebrate the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Comment will be making some classic pieces from our archive available online. This week, read Molly Haskell’s personal appreciation of the great actress, FSLC’s 1991 Chaplin Award Gala honoree.

From bit parts in British films of the early ’50s, to her great ’50s and ’60s roles in Roman Holiday, Sabrina, War and Peace, Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon, The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, My Fair Lady, Two for the Road, Wait Until Dark, and finally (after nine years of inactivity) the glorious twilight Robin and Marian, Audrey Hepburn had a career that was unusually long and substantial for her era—a time when actresses’ careers were growing drastically shorter, terminated either by studio mishandling or by themselves. Yet why is it that when we think of her it is less in terms of a career than as an apparition, a chimera? It’s as if she dropped out of the sky into the ’50s, half wood-nymph, half princess, and then disappeared in her golden coach, wearing her glass slippers and leaving no footprints.

How often her heroines are foundlings who bridge the gap between fairy tale and reality, between the sordid and the sublime: the daughter of a chauffeur (in Sabrina where she actually does fall from a tree) who becomes the lady of the realm. In Roman Holiday, she is princess of an unnamed country (daughter of an unseen king) who gives live press conferences. In Love in the Afternoon, the daughter of a private investigator who magically purges both his sleazy trade and his most depraved quarry. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a poor Southern girl with unsavory connections who turns herself into a stylish gamine about town. In My Fair Lady, a Cockney who, through a linguistic Pygmalion, ascends to the top of the English social ladder. Noble fathers disguised as the humblest of earthlings; a changeling of mysterious but unknown parentage, unidentifiable as to nationality or class; a woman who resolves her hybrid self through magical transformations. With all these variations of the family romance fantasy, it is no surprise to learn that she was born the daughter of an English banker and a Dutch baroness. Or that Colette, that incomparable celebrant of the worldly ingenue, played the role of fairy godmother/discoverer in her career when, in 1952, the gamine-like writer purportedly met Hepburn shooting a film on the Riviera, and insisted that she play Gigi in the forthcoming Broadway production.

Having faced the star’s difficult crucible of aging before the public, she has resorted to neither of the usual extremes, i.e., those of craving publicity or completely withdrawing from the world. She has made only a handful of films—most notably They All Laughed—in the past two decades. Primarily, she devotes herself to worthy causes, and descends among us, a lesson in self-possession. Not one to bare her soul or serve as fodder for the tabloids, she has managed to keep her life private. After Mel Ferrer, there were rumors of marriage to a psychiatrist, of living quietly in Rome. A divorce. But we don’t pry and there’s a sort of gentle conspiracy of silence surrounding her, as if we can’t quite, or don’t want to, imagine her as having a biological flesh-and-blood life, spawning children (either off screen or on), surrendering to the ties that bind.

Her impact, though, is scarcely ephemeral. If anything, her movies look even better today. No contemporary star walks across a floor as she did, barely touching the ground, or seduces, half-mockingly, in diction and vocal rhythms that are as whimsically choreographed and as distinctively hers as her physical movements. She was one of the last stars to be nourished by the studio system at its best, a cynosure for the collaborative talents of gifted directors (William Wyler, Billy Wilder, George Cukor, John Huston, King Vidor, Blake Edwards, Stanley Donen), costume designers, cinematographers, screenwriters, lighting technicians who created the proper setting and distance for her mystique. Where once she might have seemed impossibly chic, her style and elegance are a welcome relief after two decades of anti-fashion chaos, a period in which women’s styles, or “looks,” ranged from punk and executive to dreary unconcern as a badge of authenticity. Hepburn wasn’t perfect—or so she insists to Gary Cooper, after one of their afternoon teas, while crawling on the floor of his hotel room, searching for a shoe. “I’m too thin,” she says in that inimitable voice, “and my ears stick out and my teeth are crooked and my neck’s mu-u-u-uch too long.” Yet she was glamorous at a time before glamour became a dirty word, and was perfectly at ease in her stardom. Unlike so many of her successors, who either play against their beauty to prove their seriousness and change personae from film to film, or give such supercharged performances that they threaten to burn out overnight, Hepburn maintains a steady voltage. We can now look at her style with a fresh eye, see her costumes, her grace and speech as one of a piece with a persona in which surface does not usurp soul, but profoundly conceals its torments until passion breaks forth with an almost frightening intensity.

Sabrina (Billy Wilder, 1954)

It was her pride, perhaps, and the mixture of ethereality and passion, independence and lovingness, that appealed to me in my adolescence, when this incandescent girl-woman glided across the screen playing swan to my ugly duckling, and implying the resolution of painful conflicts.

Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), and Love in the Afternoon (1957), appearing when I was 13, 14, and 17, respectively, were the cinematic landmarks of my teenage years. She was chic, sophisticated, exotic, her background not girl-next-door Midwest but cities like Paris and Rome, and best of all, she was, well, tiny-breasted. She was a triumphantly tomboyish figure in a rising tide of sex symbols. The cultural ambivalence that produces these two extremes is itself the mark of a society riddled with anxiety and without the standardized norms and tribal rites with which older nationalities and tribes ease the passage into womanhood. Such tastes change from year to year and group to group, but in the gang of giggling virgins to which I belonged, large breasts and menstruation were anathema, bras something to be postponed as long as possible. To an embryonic feminist, Audrey Hepburn was at the opposite pole from the bosomy stars then in vogue; she was alert, full of the ardor of an explorer, with nothing of the lassitude or languor of such voluptuous and earthbound sex goddesses as Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, or the pantingly, neurotically sexual Jennifer Jones, the too vulnerable and overeager Monroe. The qualities that made her more desirable to us were precisely those that made her less desirable to masses of red-blooded American men. A friend tells the hilarious story of seeing Sabrina on the Army post where his fellow servicemen much preferred the more curvaceous Martha Hyer. Hyer, William Holden’s rich corporate-merger fiancée, makes a brief appearance dancing with Holden at the very moment when Hepburn, having returned from a year in Paris, is emerging in all her splendor, wearing the swanlike dress that Edith Head created for her debut among the Long Island swains.

Having no special clothes memory, I’m surprised at how vividly I recall the design and detail of this dress; the only other so etched in my mind is Grace Kelly’s in Rear Window, and the way Hitchcock captured, as no other director did, that startling mix of refinement and lubricity. As with Kelly’s dress, Hepburn’s, a strapless organdy sheath with a buoyant overskirt, captures the star’s dual essence, the straight, slim boyish figure with the airborne femininity. The double skirt, attached at the waist, suggests the coexistence (both separate and joined) of girl and woman—the tree-climbing child encased in the flowing gown of a socialized woman. It’s not unlike the image in the beginning of Roman Holiday, in which the camera sneaks under the princess’s long skirt to catch her removing one shoe, a rebellious child.

This ability to bridge two worlds, to suggest that it is possible for a woman to live a life of the mind and also one directed toward making herself desirable, is at the heart of her appeal in a movie like Funny Face, where she is a bookworm who becomes a fashion model without losing her intellectual credentials—at least, this was the way I chose to read it at the time. Actually, the only scene in which the bibliophile and the beauty are one is in the Village bookstore where Audrey Hepburn (in tights and a tunic that are right in style today) has just met Fred Astaire as the Avedon-like photographer, and sings “How Long Has This Been Going On?” In fact, Stanley Donen’s characteristically muscular musical, with its philistinish portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre and “Empathicalism,” was a glorification of the fashion world it pretended to satirize. Years later, writing film reviews for a glossy magazine not unlike the “think pink” publication of Funny Face, I was to see just how precarious and mutually suspicious was the alliance between style and substance.

But Hepburn, however briefly, represented the marriage of two worlds. Unlike the born victims and objects that the more obviously (and vulgarly) sexual stars seemed to be, she got what she wanted, and offered an alternative to the female biological and cultural imperatives of the ’50s. If there is one image that stays in my mind above all the rest, it is Audrey Hepburn with her arms around Gregory Peck, flying through Rome on the back of his motor scooter. On an impulse, she has just had her hair cut, the long tresses that weighed her down ceremonially (and, in the process, created a look that sent women round the world rushing into their beauty parlors). The haircut is a rite of passage—a liberation from the childhood of being told what to do, but at the same time a break from traditional femininity.

We are given notice that for all her decorum and delicacy, this is no passive beauty waiting to play a part assigned her. In Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (adapted, with a touch that seems surer today than it did at the time, from an operetta-ish play by Samuel Taylor), we are given one of the loveliest expressions of a woman’s seizing hold of her life. At the end of her stay in Paris, she muses to herself that she has changed, and writes in her diary, “I have learned how to live, how to be in the world and of the world, and not just stand aside and watch.”

Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1956)

Earlier in the film, spying upon the fancy guests at a Larrabee ball, she opposes her straightforwardness to a more wily femininity. “I can’t stand women who giggle all the time,” she says, watching “betters,” soon to be her vanquished rivals. She was a counterpart to James Dean, a quieter but no less uncompromising rebel who flares up against the coyness and hypocrisy of adult life. In her person more than what she does, she represents a defiant subversion of the suburban family ideal of nesting and proliferating, even of the natural blossoming, fertility, and withering of women.

Even as the “mature” lifelong love of the roving Robin in Robin and Marian (“Am I old and ugly?” she asks Sean Connery, with poignant seriousness), she is as youthfully wide-eyed as the chauffeur’s daughter in Sabrina, and as ethereal and virginal as a nun—and no wonder, for in Robin’s absence she has become an abbess, thus arresting the march of worldly time and, in effect, preserving herself for her wandering lover. In the end, rather than lose her aging warrior on the battlefield or permit either of them to endure the spectacle of a bedridden hero, she kills them both: Robin Hood, like Audrey Hepburn, is a legend that cannot grow old.

She comes at a historical moment, just before feminism, easy divorce, and the sexual revolution drove out a code of love based on delayed gratification and repression. Converging in her persona, the intensity of her passion and the types of relationships in which she engages, are many strains of high romanticism: the tradition of courtly love; of renunciation and self-sacrifice; of the idealizing sensibility of the troubadour poets; and Hollywood’s general etherealizing of love consonant with American puritanism as institutionalized in the Production Code. It is no wonder that she seems as much at home in Richard Lester’s medieval fable, in which sex has been sublimated into the Crusades, on the one hand, and the Convent on the other; or in the “look but don’t touch” world of high fashion. She is both the Lady of the troubadour love poems and the poet, for she is the one who sings and idealizes, with a love that is itself almost a religious obsession, it redeems and makes whole.

Watch her run down the station platform alongside Gary Cooper on the stairs of the train at the end of Love in the Afternoon, crying and shouting that she won’t be lonely, that she will have the Alpine guide on Wednesday and the Spanish matador on Friday, and the… until finally the old roué, transformed by her love, lifts her from the platform onto the train, and into his life. Or the scene of out-of-control hysteria in Breakfast at Tiffany’s when Holly Golightly, having been informed that her brother Fred has died, reverts to Lula Mae from Arkansas, grieving for the loss of the great love of her life. Or the scene in the boat with Humphrey Bogart, more delicate but no less obsessional, as she insists on reseeing this hardened bachelor as something better and finer than what he is. She is determined to believe that this bachelor businessman, cynically trying to woo her with his “boola boola” nautical attire and Victrola playing “Yes, We Have No Bananas” is a man who, like her, has tried to die for love.

So powerful is her romantic fantasy, so fierce her belief in the underlying goodness of these men and their worthiness as objects of her love, that she ends by bringing them round, making them good. This was the romantic heroine’s traditional vocation—to melt the man’s inhibitions, urge him on to a discovery of the forgotten parts of himself, including an awakening to love. But Hepburn’s compulsion to idealize involves an identification with the man bordering on the morbid.

Robin and Marian (Richard Lester, 1976 )

Even the lithe figure hints at a romanticized anorexia, that soon-to-be epidemic form of resistance to growing up in a culture where womanhood is so fraught with conflict. Both she and James Dean, in defying the hypocrisy of adult life, defy adult life itself and its inalterable facts: a measure of self-betrayal, aging and death. In fact, the desire for death is itself a shadow that intrudes in many of the films, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively: in the attempted suicide that begins Sabrina, and her insistence that Bogart has behaved “nobly” and almost killed himself for love; in the disturbing match of her innocence and Gary Cooper’s decadence in Love in the Afternoon; the ferocity of her love for the brother who dies in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the act of murder-suicide that concludes Robin and Marian.

The desire to merge, to vibrate in unison “like two instruments,” is the dark, overwrought side of the American sensibility that D.H. Lawrence railed against in that magnificent tirade Studies in Classical American Literature. The yearning for “purely nervous contact” in the lovers of Poe and Hawthorne was the opposite of Lawrence’s notion of the sensual and profane love that recognizes the isolation of each person. This longing for identification with another can lead into a form of intellectual vampirism that masks incest wishes.

In Hepburn’s films, a romantically overlaid incest theme, injecting a note of melancholy and unease, crops up over and over in the feverishly heightened love of father—and brother—surrogates. In John Huston’s interesting The Unforgiven, she and Burt Lancaster are raised as brother and sister only to discover that she is actually an Indian, brought up as white, so they are now free to love and marry, thus sealing an attraction that has been felt subliminally throughout the film. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she gives her (never-seen) brother’s name to George Peppard—her male counterpart whose sexual identity is as fragile as hers. Her frequent pairing with older men was a pattern that journalists at the time noted, and were baffled by. She was fated, as Richard Corliss wittily put it, “to be courted by most of Hollywood’s durable but no-less-fragile senior citizens (Bogart, Grant, Astaire, Fonda, Harrison).” The matching vulnerability was the point: where these stars might have looked ridiculous with lustier females, Hepburn rescued them romantically, both within the film and as stars on the decline. (Only the Astaire-Hepburn relationship fails to ignite.)

For the public and reviewers, the most disturbing, of course, was Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon. This sublimely wistful and beautifully acted movie was dismissed for all sorts of reasons—its slowness (in fact, the unusual leisure with which Wilder allows its intricate tones and moods to develop is its great charm), its “dreariness.” But what obviously troubled audiences was the portrait of Gary Cooper, all-American hero, as an aging Lothario, his eyes hauntingly empty, the beautiful face lined with age and depravity. It is as if America itself, exhausted by its role as successful playboy of the Western world, had suddenly grown old and exposed its Dorian Gray underside. Wilder challenges the Cooper mystique, somehow gets under the skin of a man whose whole movie life has been bluster and swagger, and now he is on automatic pilot until he is brought back to life by a woman. A woman who in essence is older and wiser than he is.

Billy Wilder, Gary Cooper, and Audrey Hepburn shooting Love In The Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)

Billy Wilder is the director most sensitive to the delicate balance of the morbid and the romantic, to the rumbling of prohibited desires within the most decorous relationships, and to Hepburn’s unique vocal and gestural idiom—the way, by the mere raising of an eyebrow, or the injection of irony or pathos into a line of dialogue, she can disinfect an unsavory situation, can turn the forbidden into the desirable. Being a verbal as much as a visual director, he appreciates the way her voice can both calm and conceal as it curls around words sensually, as if they were delicious bonbons, stringing them rapidly together or drawing them out slyly and mellifluously.

In Sabrina, her chauffeur father (John Williams) is surrounded by the “downstairs” staff, reading them a letter she has written from Paris. In it, she tells of having been befriended and instructed in the ways of the world by an elderly baron she has met at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, and when the old man reads the words in which she describes her new friend as “a very sweet and very wise” old man, we feel we can actually hear her saying them. There’s a mystery here. (What form did the relationship take? In fact, what physical form does any Audrey Hepburn relationship take? Does she ever “do it”? In many ways, she’s the perfect Production Code heroine, ambiguous and discreet to the end. Stanley Kauffmann, reviewing Love in the Afternoon, suggested that the sign of her preparing to take the plunge was when she removes a glove.) But the description of the baron reassures her father and us. It also suggests a benign link between the two older men, and the identification with Hepburn who is herself “very sweet and very wise”—with both of them. Indeed, the relationships with the fathers (mothers are invariably dead or absent) are the emotional springboards in both Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon. In the latter, her bantering, loving, and mutually solicitous relationship with Maurice Chevalier is a river of deep affection that runs through the film. First, she identifies with her father the detective by spying on him, i.e., by invading and greedily reading his files; is seduced by the seduction stories of the notorious philanderer Cooper; then, identifying with Cooper, invents a dossier of her own, a tape recording on which she itemizes her own escapades by nationality and profession. As Cooper listens to the tape over and over, to the enchanting, shaming song of a female Don Juan, he is taunted by a gentle mirror reflection of his own promiscuity. (And how tactful she is in her treatment of Buddy Ebsen as the awkwardly doting ex-husband of his child-bride Lula Mae in Breakfast at Tiffany’s—a husband who, not incidentally, is first mistaken for her father.)

Hepburn is, finally, an inextricable mix of the childlike and the womanly, someone who speaks out, rushes into the emotional arena where men fear to tread. She acknowledges her love frankly and without fear of rejection, acts upon it, but with wisdom and tenderness. As with such great romantic stars as Irene Dunne and Margaret Sullavan, it is the lightness and humor, the gallantry, she brings to the most wrenching scenes, that makes them so powerful.

She is an artist of love in its many fine gradations, one of which is an often conflicting sense of dutythat disinterested moral sense of which Freud thought women incapable. In Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck has the reporter’s chance of a lifetime, a behind-the-scenes front-page story of the princess at play. But out of love and respect for her, and for the sentiments she has called forth in him, he refuses to follow through. (Another example of Hepburn’s real-life alchemy: Gregory Peck, gorgeous to look at but never much of an actor, gives what in retrospect may well be his best performance, his freest and easiest, in this film.) That love at its most passionate can at the moment of highest communion recognize other competing claims is one of the nobler and juicier themes of the great Hollywood romances. It is love at its most mystical, a voyage of self-discovery, incompatible with marriage. The ending of Roman Holiday, that heartbreaking moment of mutual recognition and renunciation, evokes in us those exquisitely mixed feelings of regret and admiration, a moment that, because it has no future, can contain all the contradictory desires of flesh and spirit in an image without words.

Peck stands in a row of reporters interviewing the princess; Hepburn descends the steps, ostensibly to shake all their hands, but really to retrieve the scandalous photographs (from Eddie Albert) and look one last time into the eyes of the lover in whose bed she will never again wake up and to whom she will never make love.

Is this a retreat into or from Oedipal entanglements? Is the princess the mistress of her life or its slave? The only answer is that Audrey Hepburn is mistress of the screen, creator and cradler of her own paradoxes. Her presence has only enough of real life in it to lure us into making such speculations. If we grapple with such a deity because she looms large in our fantasy life, as if her image could be broken down into words and made to yield sturdy insights, it must be in order to face and accept the gap between the glorious resolutions of the screen and the irresolutions of life; to let her go, finally, like a butterfly.

You want to rise and cheer her unspoken anthem: This is who I am.

Molly Haskell has written for many publications, including The Village Voice, The New York Times, Ms., Saturday Review, and Vogue. She is the author of Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films and From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.