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There are certain images that define the movies. John Wayne, with a horse’s bridle between his teeth and a gun in each hand, fearlessly blasting an army of bad guys; Charlie Chaplin, a walking stick in hand, making his forlorn way down a lonely road; Bogart and Bergman in each other’s arms; Boris Karloff casting his eyes skyward to get his first glimpse of sunlight as the Frankenstein monster.

And Audrey Hepburn, her eyes concealed by large sunglasses, eating a Danish, sipping coffee, and gazing into the window of a Manhattan department store in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

"I never think of myself as an icon," Audrey Hepburn said. "What is in other people’s minds is not in my mind. I just do my thing."

For the movie lovers who have made her an icon, Hepburn’s "thing" consisted of equal parts sophistication and innocence, elegance, charm, and compassion. Her filmography is rather skimpy compared to that other Hepburn, but she finished in third place, only two spots behind the great Katherine, in the American Film Institute’s ranking of the Greatest Female Film Legends, and her appeal never wanes. Even in 2006, fourteen years after her death, she was dancing across television screens in a commercial for the Gap. The fashionable retail store chose Hepburn, in a scene from 1957's Funny Face, to reintroduce the "skinny black pant." As Tony Laird, the store’s creative director says, "Who better to showcase them?"

Imperially slim with wide-eyes that seemed to look upon the world in innocent wonder, Audrey Hepburn was born an only child on May 4, 1929 in Brussels, Belgium to a banker father and his wife, a Dutch aristocrat. Her parents divorced when she was six, and her father disappeared from her life. His absence had a lifelong effect. She would later say that it made her "very insecure about affection, and very grateful for it." Moving with her mother to the Netherlands, she was bored with school except for one class: ballet.

In 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands and life in the country took a dramatic new turn. Remembering this real life nightmare years later, she said "Don’t discount anything you hear or read about the Nazis. We saw my relatives put against the wall and shot." She would come to identify with Anne Frank. "I read the diary of Anne Frank when it came out and it just destroyed me. I identified with this little girl who was exactly my age."

By the time the German army was defeated in 1945, Audrey and her mother had faced starvation and were now without a home. They moved into a clinic in Amsterdam where she helped nurse wounded veterans back to health. She resumed her interest in ballet with greater determination and won a scholarship to study dance in London under the tutelage of Marie Rambert who had previously taught Nijinsky. Despite her talent, she realized that her height (5'7") and the toll that malnutrition took on her body would prevent her from becoming a prima ballerina. Soon after, she turned her attention to acting.

Success came in a whirlwind. Colette, the author of Gigi, spotted her and felt she was perfect for the title role in the Broadway production of her novel. Just as soon as she was signed to make her debut on the Great White Way, she came to the attention of Hollywood.

Roman Holiday was a Dalton Trumbo scripted romantic comedy that had been shelved years earlier when Frank Capra could not find an actress he considered appropriate for the female lead, a princess who takes a vacation from her royal obligations and is romanced by a newspaper reporter in Rome. With William Wyler now on tap to direct, the project was revived, but again the question arose: who can believably play a princess? After seeing Hepburn’s small role in the British film The Secret People, Paramount gave her a screen test. They had found their princess, and were willing to postpone the film until Hepburn fulfilled her obligations on Broadway.

Gigi opened on November 24, 1951 and earned rapturous notices for its star. "Her quality is so winning and so right that she is the success of the evening," said The New York Times. The play ran for 217 performances. Shortly after the curtain came down on the final performance, Hepburn was on location in the Eternal City to begin production on Roman Holiday. When the film opened in August 1953, the media was at her feet. In addition to earning critical raves for her performance, an illustration of the new star adorned the cover of Time magazine’s September 7, 1953 issue.

For Roman Holiday, Gregory Peck was originally slated to have sole billing above the title, but the actor, predicting that Hepburn would win the Oscar for her first major film role, insisted that her name be given equal prominence. Peck was right. When the 26th annual Academy Awards were presented on the evening of March 25, 1954, Hepburn won the Oscar as best actress. One month earlier, she had returned to Broadway, and shortly after winning filmdom’s highest honor, her name was called again, this time at the Tony Awards where she was named best stage actress for Ondine.

All these accolades might have gone to another star’s head, but "All I feel is a responsibility to live up to success," she said.

 
Under contract to Paramount, she was cast in the title role of Sabrina, the chauffeur’s daughter romanced by a pair of competitive and wealthy brothers played by Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. It was on the set of this film that Hepburn began a lifelong friendship with the designer Givenchy who would design her wardrobe for several more films, and play a role in making her as much an icon of fashion as she was a star on film. It was one of the few bright spots of a production marked by bickering and acrimony.

"I was terrified of Humphrey Bogart," Hepburn said. Bogart lived up to his cantankerous image by battling with director Billy Wilder, sniping at his co-stars to the press, and dismissing the film as unworthy of his talent. Of Hepburn, Bogart said, "She’s okay if you don’t mind 20 takes."

Whatever Bogart’s opinion, the rest of the world thought Hepburn was more than merely okay. In 1954, Vogue called her "the world’s darling." She earned a second Oscar nomination for Sabrina, and later that year she would marry actor Mel Ferrer, her co-star in Ondine. A son, Sean, would be born in 1960.

"Audrey is Natasha," director King Vidor declared. "She is fresh out of the book." The book, of course, was Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. With Henry Fonda as Pierre, and her husband Mel Ferrer cast as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Hepburn was seen to good advantage in a more serious role than she had ever attempted, but the overall result was generally regarded as a disappointment. Like most epics, the sets dwarfed the characterizations, and Hepburn returned to more familiar turf in her next film, Funny Face.

In a smoky nightclub, Hepburn, dressed in black slacks and a matching top, teaches none other than the great Fred Astaire that "dancing's nothing more than a form of expression, of release," by slinking, shaking, and high-stepping through the film's most memorable sequence. The New York Times hailed the stylish Stanley Donen directed musical as a "delightfully balmy romance," and Hepburn was thrilled to work with the legendary Astaire. Built around the songs of George and Ira Gershwin, the story cast Astaire as a photographer patterned on the illustrious Richard Avedon (who is credited as the film's "special visual consultant") who turns Hepburn's Greenwich Village beatnik into a modeling sensation in Paris. Funny Face is highlighted by several musical numbers in which Hepburn not only dances but sings, and very well at that.  

Some observers felt that Beauty and the Beast would have been a more appropriate title for 1957's Love in the Afternoon due to the significant age difference between the leading lady, then 27, and the male star, 55-year-old screen legend Gary Cooper. In director  Billy Wilder's homage to his idol Ernst Lubitsch, various tricks were employed in an attempt to conceal Cooper's true age, but somehow he still looked uncomfortably "mature" to be Hepburn's pursuer. Looking back on the film 33 years later in the pages of American Film, Frank Thompson observed that "Cooper's face is often in silhouette, making it appear that Hepburn has fallen in love with a shadow. Which, in essence, she has."

Her private life was beginning to resemble the plot of A Star Is Born. As Hepburn’s star continued to rise, her husband’s was starting to dim, so Ferrer branched out as a director with1959's Green Mansions. With his wife cast as Rima, the "bird girl" with whom Anthony Perkins' political fugitive falls in love, Ferrer was the auteur of the only genuine fiasco of his wife's career, but its memory did not linger long enough to cause any lasting damage. Only three months after Green Mansions opened to scathing reviews and tepid box-office, Hepburn was back in her most ambitious film to date.

The Nun’s Story was anything but a female take on Going My Way. Based on a novel by Kathryn Hulme, Hepburn played Sister Luke, a nun whose dedication is strong, but who is nonetheless plagued by doubts concerning her calling. It was, in the words of director Fred Zinnemann, not about a "crisis of faith, but a crisis of worthiness."  

Warner Bros. expected the 149 minute drama to flop. Instead it became, at the time of its 1959 release, the biggest hit in the studio's history. The Nun's Story was a towering achievement that earned eight Oscar nominations, including Hepburn's third as best actress. Although Simone Signoret took the prize that year for Room at the Top, Hepburn won the BAFTA, the British equivalent of the Oscar, as well as the New York Film Critics Circle award for her performance.

"Some of my pictures I don’t care for," director John Huston said, "but The Unforgiven is the only one I actually dislike." Hepburn had reason to dislike the 1960 western, too. Playing opposite Burt Lancaster with a screenplay that gave her little to work with, she was miscast as a girl who learns she is a Kiowa Indian. Far more serious than the film’s lack of artistic merit, however, was the on-set incident in which Hepburn was thrown from a horse. She broke her back and spent six weeks recovering in the hospital. When she returned to the set, she wore a back brace for the remainder of the production.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s followed.

Based on Truman Capote’s 1958 novella, Hepburn starred as Holly Golightly, the naive, eccentric call girl, a role that Capote envisioned for Marilyn Monroe, and which Hepburn herself described as "the hardest thing I ever did."

In Capote’s story, Tiffany, the world renowned New York jewelry store, represents a cure for the "mean reds," Holly’s term for a depression more severe than the blues. "It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it, nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets."

"I was nothing like her," Hepburn said, "but I felt I could ‘act’ Holly. I knew the part would be a challenge, but I wanted it anyway...And I’m still not sure about Holly and me."

In Capote’s book, Holly is always traveling, searching for but never finding a place to belong. In typical Hollywood fashion, screenwriter George Axelrod and director Blake Edwards give us a happy ending with Hepburn and George Peppard happily in each other’s arms.

Capote was dismissive of the film, saying Paramount betrayed him after he sold the rights, and today Breakfast at Tiffany’s has its cringe worthy moments. Director Edwards now laments the casting of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, Holly’s Japanese neighbor. With his buck teeth and exaggerated mannerisms, Rooney’s performance is an offensive racial stereotype, an embarrassment in these more politically correct times. But Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a classic thanks to Hepburn’s Oscar nominated performance, and the Henry Mancini score highlighted by "Moon River," the Oscar winning song with those famous Johnny Mercer lyrics ("My huckleberry friend").

"Audrey’s big eyes gave me the push to get a little more sentimental than I usually do." Mancini said, adding that the song could not have been written without her. Hepburn performs the song while sitting on a balcony strumming a guitar, a scene meant to show that Holly is a simple country girl at heart. Even though Andy Williams made the most famous hit recording of the song, Hepburn’s version is a standout.

"She sang that song with an honesty and such a dedication to the words," Mancini recalled. 

In The New York Times, critic A.H. Weiler called Hepburn the film’s "overpowering attribute." The film's impact was still being felt decades later. In 2006, a panel of leading designers and fashion editors named Breakfast at Tiffany’s the film with the greatest impact on fashion, and Natalie Portman posed for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar wearing the same Givenchy dress that Hepburn made famous in the film. "I mean, you can’t possibly measure up to Audrey Hepburn," Portman told the Associated Press. "But the elegance she exuded was transmitted to the dress, you know, the feeling, the emotion of it."

The Children’s Hour was a considerably more dramatic affair. Lillian Hellman’s controversial play about two female school teachers and the scandal that results when rumors circulate that they are lovers, had been filmed before as These Three, but that version replaced the lesbian theme with a heterosexual love triangle. Now, William Wyler, who directed that white-washed soaper, revisited Hellman’s play, but this time with a determination to do it right. The Children’s Hour took advantage of the more permissive climate of the early ‘60s but the result left much to be desired.

 
"Willy got cold feet about the lesbian subject," Shirley MacLaine said. The story, as much about the devastating impact that a rumor can have on people’s lives as it was about homophobia, was poorly received with only Hepburn emerging unscathed. "It is not too well acted," said The New York Times, "except by Audrey Hepburn in the role of the younger of the school teachers. She gives the impression of being sensitive and pure."

Much worthier of her talents and the viewer’s time, 1963's Charade teamed her with Cary Grant. Grace and suave met in a clever tongue-in-cheek thriller penned by Peter Stone and directed by Stanley Donen. The 59 year-old Grant originally balked at a script that had him pursuing a much younger leading lady. To the gratitude of movie lovers everywhere, Stone revised his script, made Hepburn the pursuer and Grant her romantic prey, and the dream team was in place. As Regina Lampert, who learns that people, including her recently murdered husband, are not what they appear to be, Hepburn excels in a role that calls on her talents for both drama and comedy.

Shot on location in Paris, France, the comedy-thriller was superbly cast with Grant and Hepburn receiving able support from Walter Matthau and, as the trio of thugs, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Ned Glass. Henry Mancini provided the score whose throbbing title theme brought to mind his legendary "Peter Gunn Theme." Even after repeated viewings, when the twists and turns of the plot are no longer surprising, Charade is irresistible entertainment, a high point in the careers of everyone involved.

If everything went right with Charade, everything went wrong with Paris When It Sizzles, a disastrous comedy that reunited Hepburn with her Sabrina co-star William Holden. Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and Tony Curtis also appeared in the fiasco that was filmed two years earlier, but shelved with good reason. Most critics thought there was more fizzle than sizzle in the result, and audiences apparently agreed.

One of Hepburn’s greatest roles also generated an embarrassing controversy. Despite having played Eliza Doolittle to perfection opposite Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady, Julie Andrews was never considered for the 1964 film version. Jack L. Warner, who was personally producing the lavish musical for the studio he founded, had paid a record amount for the film rights and wanted to protect his investment by casting an actress with a proven track record at the box-office.

Hepburn had misgivings about taking a role that many believed belonged to Andrews, but she craved the part. Aware that if she turned down the role, it would go to Elizabeth Taylor, Hepburn signed on, fully expecting to sing the famous songs of Lerner and Loewe herself. But Warner, insisting on covering his bets, hired Marnie Nixon to dub Hepburn’s vocals.

It was standard practice in musicals of the day for stars to be dubbed by more experienced professional singers, but whereas few complained when Nixon’s voice emerged from Natalie Wood’s lips in West Side Story, as well as from the lovely throat of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, there was a loud backlash against Hepburn. When Oscar nominations were announced, My Fair Lady led all comers with 12 nods, but the film’s female lead was conspicuously absent. It looked like an almost deliberate slap in the face when Julie Andrews, nominated for her film debut in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, claimed the prize. But time was on her side. When revisiting the film 42 years later, critic Roger Ebert made the following observation: "That Hepburn did not do her own singing obscures her triumph, which is that she did her own acting."

Once more working under the direction of William Wyler, she starred opposite Peter O’ Toole in How to Steal a Million, then reunited with Stanley Donen for Two for the Road with Albert Finney before returning to the thriller genre for the first time since Charade in Wait Until Dark. Husband Mel Ferrer snapped up the film rights to Frederick Knotts’ play even before it opened on February 2, 1966 for a 374 performance run on Broadway with Lee Remick in the lead.

Hepburn was cast as Suzy Hendrix, who mockingly describes herself as the "World’s Champion Blind Lady." After her photographer husband unwittingly takes possession of a doll stuffed with heroin, she is terrorized in her apartment by three cutthroats led by an eccentric, snake-like Alan Arkin. Despite the claustrophobic setting, the film never feels stagy or monotonous. Directer Terence Young, who guided Sean

Connery’s James Bond through the more expansive settings of Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball, established an anxious, creepy mood, augmented by the performances and composer Henry Mancini’s eerie theme. But it’s Hepburn’s performance that keeps the viewer riveted to the screen.

Wait Until Dark was an immediate hit from the moment it opened at New York’s fabled Radio City Music Hall in time for Halloween 1967. Writing in The Chicago Sun-Times, critic Roger Ebert chastised the thriller for having a plot that "depends on one or more people being idiots," but also acknowledged that it was a "superior film...with some nice, juicy passages of terror." The film was notorious in its day for a startling climax that Warner Bros. hyped with a disclaimer in the advertising: "During the last eight minutes of this picture the theatre will be darkened to the legal limit to heighten the terror of the breath-taking climax, which takes place in nearly total darkness on the screen."

Reminiscing about the film years later, Arkin said "I hated terrorizing Audrey Hepburn" whom he described as "witty, an enormously hard worker and incredibly game...I felt like I was working with real royalty, but in the most beautiful possible way."

 
Hepburn earned her fifth Oscar nomination for Wait Until Dark, but despite the success of the film, it would be her last for eight years. "I had been completely miserable while making Wait Until Dark because I had been separated from my son, Sean, for the first time," she said. But life was not too happy on the home front, and she divorced Ferrer in 1968. She married Dr. Andrea Dotti the next year and they would give birth to a son, Luca, in 1970.

When she returned to the screen in 1975, it was in Robin and Marian, director Richard Lester’s rather melancholy look at Robin Hood and Maid Marian, now middle-aged, in love, and aware that time is catching up to them.

Of Hepburn and her co-star, Sean Connery, Roger Ebert said, "They glow. They really do seem in love." The success of the film notwithstanding, Hepburn did not make another movie until 1979.

Bloodline reunited her with director Terence Young, but it was not a worthy follow-up to Wait Until Dark. Based on a novel by Sidney Sheldon, it was one of those international productions made less for the entertainment of the audience than as a tax shelter for its producers. By then, Hepburn’s second marriage ended in divorce and she had met Robert Wolders, a handsome actor best known to American audiences as the stylish Texas Ranger named Eric Hunter on the final season of the 1965-1966 TV western "Laredo." Though they would not legally tie the knot, Wolders would remain her faithful companion for the rest of her life.

Hepburn enjoyed working with her Bloodline co-star Ben Gazzara, and the two would lead the cast of her next film, Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed. Hepburn, said Variety, "emerges winningly as the most mature and discreet character in the group." The showbiz bible also praised the light-hearted romp as one of the director's best films. Sadly, the film’s merits would be overshadowed by the murder of co-star Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy model with whom Bogdanovich was romantically involved and hoped to guide to stardom.

Only two more roles remained for the star. Love Among Thieves, a 1987 made for TV movie with Robert Wagner, and a brief appearance as an angel in Steven Spielberg’s 1990 film Always. The latter film, a sentimental remake of A Guy Named Joe, landed in theaters with a resounding thud, but Hepburn was singled out for praise. In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers called her "incandescent...her movie-star magic demonstrates precisely what the rest of the film is missing."

 
She would no longer appear on screen, but Hepburn did not fade away. Instead, she took on a real life role more challenging than any she essayed on screen. As an ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund, she traveled extensively around the globe, motivated by her own experiences as a child during World War II.

"Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics," she said. "I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics."

On a visit to Bangladesh, Hepburn impressed U.N. photographer John Isaac who recalled that "the kids would have flies all over them, but she would just go hug them. I had never seen that. Other people had a certain amount of hesitation, but she would just grab them."

Her compassion for others took precedence over her own health, and by December 1992, when she appeared in Washington D.C.to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her humanitarian efforts, she had been diagnosed with cancer.

She died quietly at her home in Switzerland on January 20, 1993, forever young at 63.

Two months later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that had welcomed her to stardom with its Oscar for best actress thirty-nine years earlier, said farewell to the silver screen’s fairest of all ladies by posthumously honoring her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

"God kissed her on the cheek," Billy Wilder once said, "and there she was."

And there she remains. On film, Hepburn as Holly Golightly, continues to gaze, wistfully, into the window of Tiffany’s, the very embodiment of true class, but with a warmth and humanity that one doesn’t always associate with the word. How many young women visiting New York today gaze through the same window, less interested in Tiffany’s than in imagining that they are, at least for a moment, Audrey Hepburn?

 



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