Hollywood Innocent

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

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

She was fey Princess Anne of Roman Holiday, blithe of spirit and weary of crown, momentarily escaping her royal office for a delightfully mad fling with Gregory Peck; and Sister Luke, the capable, compassionate nurse in The Nun's Story, torn between her heavenly vows and her worldly concern for the victims of war-ravaged Europe; and, of course, Holly Golightly, the chic, wistful party waif in Breakfast at Tiffany's, clutching her no-name cat to her breast and smiling beatifically at George Peppard through the silver cascade of rain and teardrops flowing down her fabulous cheeks.

The camera loved Audrey Hepburn as it loved no other. She had a face heaven-sent from the silent-film era, full of intriguing irregularities—nose a trifle large, teeth a bit crooked, ears of a sprite. But they composed themselves into an exquisite picture of serenity, playfulness and ever-so-polite passion, set to music by an English boarding-school voice rich with surprise. There was something else about her, though, a pervasive air of sadness, a sense that life's treasures, though properly hers, would somehow elude her in the end. This measure of melancholy—born perhaps of the childhood tragedy of her parents' divorce and the horrific experience of living her early teens in Nazi-occupied Holland—distinguished young Audrey from Grace Kelly, the reigning Hollywood princess of the early '50s. Grace let you know right off that the wonders of the world were hers for the taking. Audrey, on the other hand, could play the princess on the balcony or the flower girl on the cobblestones with equal facility. (Try to imagine Grace as Eliza Doolittle My Fair Lady.)

Still, Audrey's central role was that of the gamine eternal, however many variations she came to play upon it. She emerged trim and lovely in Roman Holiday in 1953 and carved a splendid career that effectively lasted for 15 years, later topped off by a few modest encores in the likes of Robin and Marian (1976) and Bloodline (1979). How many other actresses this side of Ingrid Bergman played romantic leads for so long? Who else could claim a string of leading men that included Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Rex Harrison and Cary Grant? Not many. Hepburn had a special magic that lingered with movie audiences long after the theater lights went back on. Said Stanley Donen, who directed her in three films (Funny Face, Charade, Two for the Road): "The first time I saw Audrey Hepburn was in Roman Holiday. There have been only a few firsts in my life which have rattled me so much—the first time I saw Fred Astaire, the first time I saw Marlon Brando. It was obvious to me that she was going to join a group into which only a few artists are admitted: Chaplin, Astaire, Brando, Garland.... "

That list, alas, also includes some very unhappy people. Indeed, many actors and actresses spend their lives in a state of dread or a drama of self-destruction because they can't believe their good fortune. Hepburn was herself prey to such fears. As she once said, "My career is a complete mystery to me. It's been a total surprise since the first day. I never thought I was going to be an actress, I never thought I was going to be in movies, I never thought it would all happen the way it did."

The wonder is that it happened at all. Hepburn had snared bit parts in a few English films, notably 1951's The Lavender Hill Mob, and been handpicked by Colette to play Gigi on Broadway; but these weren't gaudy enough credentials to win her the lead in William Wyler's Roman Holiday. Wyler at first had wanted Jean Simmons for the part, but the director ultimately decided to cast an unknown to play opposite Peck. Hepburn was sent around, and Wyler found her "self-conscious" in the screen test—but "absolutely delicious" when she quizzed an assistant about her performance after (so she thought) the cameras had stopped. She got the part.

Hepburn proceeded to win an Oscar for Roman Holiday. She was nominated again the following year for Sabrina (with Bogart and Holden), and was nominated again in 1959 for her heartfelt portrayal of the troubled nurse in The Nun's Story. Then, two years later, her sleek comic vehicle finally arrived. Breakfast at Tiffany's, with Holly Golightly hustling her rich "super rat" dates for $50 bills for powder-room tips and strumming her guitar on a Manhattan fire escape, was Hepburn's defining role. Holly was the wanton gadfly of the Kennedy generation, with "Moon River" its love song. Young men fell hopelessly in love with Hepburn when she and George Peppard dropped their cat and dog masks and kissed in front of their elevator; young women descended on America's major cities wearing beehive hairdos and extravagant dark glasses. Daring to be different, defying the world with her wistful exuberance, Holly in 1961 was the pre-dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

Hepburn gained her third Oscar nomination for Tiffany's. By then she was an acknowledged queen of film in America and abroad. She had also earned the admiration of her peers as a consummate pro who always showed up on the set on time, well-versed and thoroughly prepared. Walter Matthau, a product of the Actors Studio who at first found himself floundering on the soundstage, said after costarring with Hepburn and Cary Grant in 1963's Charade that she more than anyone else taught him how to deal with the camera. She was a perfectionist, to be sure; before playing Jo Stockton in 1957's Funny Face, she stretched and strained for months at the ballet barre. On location for The Nun's Story, she refused to look in a mirror or listen to phonograph records because, she said, "my character would never do these things." For her 1967 film Wait Until Dark, in which she played a blind woman terrorized by an intruder, she spent weeks at the Institute for the Blind in New York City learning firsthand what it was like to move about in a black void.

That earned Hepburn her fourth and final Oscar nomination. Still, perfectionism is hard to be around, and she could be exasperating on a film set. Humphrey Bogart, who called her "a delightful elf," nonetheless said of working with Hepburn, "It's great—if you don't mind 36 takes." Stanley Donen, who once confessed, "My passion for her hasn't changed; it has lasted through four marriages—two of hers and two of mine," still told this story of working with her in Funny Face. In one scene, he recalled, "Audrey and I agreed she would wear black tight-fitting pants, a black sweater and black shoes. I wanted her to wear white socks with it, and she was stunned. 'Absolutely not!' she said. 'It will spoil the whole black silhouette and cut the line at my feet!' I said, 'If you don't wear the white socks you will fade into the background, there will be no definition to your movement, and the dance sequence will be bland and dull.' She burst into tears and ran into her dressing room. After a little while she regained her composure, put on the white socks, returned to the set and went ahead without a whimper.

"Later," Donen added, "when she saw the sequence, she sent me a note saying, 'You were right about the socks. Love, Audrey."

After appearing in Two for the Road and Wait Until Dark in 1967, Hepburn for all career purposes said goodbye to Hollywood. Home and family were her announced reasons—in 1969 she moved to Italy with her new husband, psychiatrist Andrea Dotti—but there was likely a cool professional appraisal included in that decision. At 39, she had stretched the gamine motif to its farthest reach and Audrey, if she had invited comparisons to the other Hepburn, Katharine, and Ingrid Bergman, frankly lacked Kate's resonance or Ingrid's range. Besides, The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge were the social and pop-psych orders of the new Hollywood day; time for Holly Golightly to fold up her breakfast table.

Still, Audrey Hepburn also left, indelibly, a light kiss and a velvet glove print upon the world of film. And so, just two years ago, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City saluted her with a gala tribute. Radiant as ever, she sat in the audience next to Gregory Peck as director Billy Wilder remembered her from 1957's Love in the Afternoon: "You looked around, and suddenly there was this dazzling creature looking like a wild-eyed doe prancing in the forest. Everybody on the set was in love with her in five minutes." Then Hepburn herself got up to ringing applause and, with purest Golightly insouciance, lent her perspective to her career. "I think it was quite wonderful," she said when the audience allowed her to speak, "that this skinny broad could be turned into a marketable commodity."

From Our Partners