Lighting Up Broadway

updated 01/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

Contrary to common belief, 1953's Roman Holiday was not Hepburn's first movie, but rather her introduction to Hollywood. It was in the not exactly immortal Nederlands in Sieben Lessen (Dutch in Seven Lessons) that Audrey made her screen debut. She was 18 when that obscure feature was shot in Holland in 1948, an aspiring ballet dancer who auditioned only because her stagestruck mother had insisted. But Hepburn's initial film role consisted of just two words, which also summed up her self-confidence at the time: "Who, me?"

Looking back on her early years in show business, Hepburn saw herself as always inadequate, constantly struggling. "Nothing came easily," she said. As usual, Audrey was being sincere but overly modest. While not a polished professional, she was deliciously different, and that led to a meteoric rise.

Certainly, Holland could not hold her. By the end of '48, Audrey was in London with her mother, studying ballet and again trying out for a job she wasn't sure she wanted. The role this time was that of a chorus girl in the West End production of the musical High Button Shoes. According to theater legend, producer Jack Hylton had spent months searching for dancers; he'd seen more than 3,000 and, at 3 that afternoon, was shutting down auditions when he glimpsed Hepburn. "Who are you?" he bellowed. Then, without waiting for an answer, he signed her up. A few weeks into the run of the show, another producer, Cecil Landau, attended a performance and was captivated. "I saw a girl come running across the stage." he would say. "I remember two black eyes and a fringe. I got very excited."

Landau cast her in his 1949 revue Sauce Tartare and, the following year, in Sauce Piquante, where she became the immediate audience favorite. "I've got the best tits onstage," complained one fellow chorine, "but everyone's staring at a girl who hasn't got any!" Fortunately for Hepburn, some were staring for professional reasons, and she was cast in several small roles in British films, including The Lavender Hill Mob.

It was in the spring of 1951, while shooting the forgettable comedy Monte Carlo Baby in the South of France, that Hepburn caught the eye of the wheelchair-bound woman who would turn her into an international star. Hepburn, the story goes, was walking through the lobby of the Hôtel de Paris when the doors swung open and in rolled the famed French writer Colette, whose novella Gigi, about a young girl trained to be a courtesan who went on to win the heart of a seasoned rake, had just been adapted for the Broadway stage. Colette, upon seeing Hepburn, halted her wheelchair, turned to her husband and said, "Voila! There's our Gigi!"

Hepburn, being Hepburn, had to be convinced. "I wasn't ready to do a lead," she later explained. In some ways she was right. "Audrey didn't have much idea of phrasing," recalled the late Cathleen Nesbitt, who played her aunt in Gigi. "She had no idea how to project, and she'd bound onstage like a gazelle. But she had that rare thing—audience authority—that makes everybody look at you."

The show opened in November 1951, and Hepburn was given star billing. (On leaving Holland, she had changed her name to Audrey.) "Oh, dear," she said, the first time she saw her name in lights. "And I've still got to learn how to act."

Hepburn would make only one return to Broadway, three years later, in Ondine, playing a water sprite opposite her future husband Mel Ferrer. Her performance earned her a Tony Award. By then, she had already won an Oscar for Roman Holiday and was coming to grips with her destiny as a celebrity of the first rank. "If I blow my nose," she said after making it big on Broadway, "it gets written about all over the world." But the pleasures—and perils—of fame were just beginning.

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