hElTeR-sHeLtEr: Pandemic Pastimes #4: Hoaxy Haute

reimagine the partnership of Hubert and Audrey in a time of plague

Audrey, never tawdry, in Corona Givenchy.

IT’S NOT THAT AUDREY HEPBURN wasn’t talented. It’s just that her talents, at least, the talents that we first think of when we think of her at all, had nothing very much to do with acting.

With the right script and direction Audrey could without question rise to way-better-than-average. Her range was limited, which is kind of like saying that diamonds are just diamonds, and not rubies or a pair of Adidas, and within that range she could sparkle. She was a fizzy drink that refreshed, intoxicating but leaving no hangover, and just foreign enough to signal sophistication without any philosophical baggage, like thinking.

But, like many Hollywood icons, and despite an Oscar for her very first film and several other nominations throughout her career, she was not thought of as a serious actor. She was a product, a concept: innocent gamine, vulnerable woman-child—as an example, refer to her casting as the eponymous heroine in “Gigi,” Anita Loo’s stage adaptation of Colette’s delightful, because so very much not innocent, story of burgeoning young womanhood.

(Transformed into a Lerner and Lowe musical, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time, Gigi received its obligatory Hollywood mangling with Leslie Caron in the title role instead of Hepburn and Maurice Chevalier as “the old roué,” a.k.a. the leering, dirty uncle that everyone avoids at your family reunion in the trailer park.

“Sank ‘evven—for leetle garls!” croaks Chevalier in the musical theatre repertoire’s most regrettable song, as pedophiles around the globe call up their chemical castration supervisor for an emergency double dose. Only the cardboard-brained and lead-soul’d executives of MGM, and the sensibilities of North Americans, could make Colette’s worldly-wise tale, a nostalgic, light-hearted romp washed in mauve and garnished with violets, into something like state-sponsored sleaze.)

From Sabrina to Funny Face, the young Hepburn, often paired with wrinkly-as-a-sharpei aging male leads like Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart, is all wide eyes and petulant pouts; feisty, for sure, yet don’t believe for one second she won’t succumb to the next Cary Grant-looking diamond thief or other generic, dashing international playboy (or age-inappropriate perv) whom fate parachutes onto her path.

And all garnished with that suave, strangely artificial British-accented voice, like one of E.T.A Hoffman’s mechanical dolls trying to speak while stifling a yawn.

Hepburn had studied seriously to be a dancer, which explains why I press my palms to my face and curl up my toes while crying with embarrassment during the “Beatnik” dance sequence in “Funny Face.” That actually rather charming movie musical is also where she demonstrates that she was as close to utterly tone deaf as you can get without having been tipped out of a Jaguar E-Series while cruising the Autobahn.

In this movie, Hepburn plays a mousy bookstore employee who is “discovered” by fashion photographer Fred Astaire and whisked away to Paris by him to be a fashion model (and, presumably, to empty his male bedpan and remind him who he is). And I promise you that her tentative, breathy, just-under-the-correct-note singing is nothing at all like torture, for I am aware of at least one international covenant making torture an offense against humanity.

The most famous aberration, of course, was her casting as Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of “My Fair Lady,” the classy and classic Lerner and Lowe musical which had been Julie Andrew’s ticket to deserved super-stardom on the Broadway stage.

Julie could out-act Audrey while wearing a strait-jacket and ball-gag, and to compare their singing abilities would be akin to weighing the relative merits of Joan Sutherland and a kazoo, yet Audrey-the-gamine, at the time an established star to Julie’s newcomer and therefore the bigger box-office draw, was thrust forward like a hostage, decked out in the finest camp Cecil Beaton could perpetrate.

All this so that Audrey’s singing voice could be dubbed by the ubiquitous Marnie Nixon, invisible lifesaver to the vocally challenged.

Did I say, “decked out”? Yes, indeed, Murgatroyd McGraw, because the basic Audrey Hepburn package would not be complete without my mentioning that, with her exquisite beauty and stick-thin figure, Audrey excelled at—modeling does not express how completely she understood and became what she wore, most notably the altogether new simplicity of the couturier Hubert de Givenchy’s uncompromising style.

He met Audrey in 1953, shortly after he’d presented his first collection in his own fashion house, when the actress borrowed several looks for her film “Sabrina.” This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and even collaboration between the two, a perfect encounter where each was teacher and student, a magical symbiotic feedback loop of designer and muse.

Hepburn’s effortless perfection in understated yet modernist Givenchy tailoring gives her signature performance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” its lingering, mysterious air of malaise. The hat! The sunglasses! The tantrum! It’s as though Hepburn’s emotions, following the laws of physics, boil faster at cooler temperatures under the sustained pressure of severe lines and hats the size of a bathroom sink.

This gives her breakdown scene a shocking effect which is verging on distasteful: like seeing a well-behaved little girl suddenly vomit all over her white pinafore, then jump face-first into the mud. Holly Golightly, I beg you: please regain your icy composure, or I’ll have to cancel our reservations at “La Coupole.”

I must also give a couple of stars for “Two For the Road,” an interesting late-career flic in which she and screen husband Albert Finney reminisce about their failed marriage in a series of flashbacks. Yet the one and only scene that I remember vividly is a party scene in mid-nineteen-sixties swingin’ London where Hepburn—no longer the gamine and at her absolute peak of beauty—stuns in a Sassoon asymmetric haircut and what I swear must be a metallic Paco Rabanne mini-dress. In her instinctive contest between acting and style, style always pins acting to the mat.

“Wait Until Dark” I include here as one of those gimmick movies, obviously the result of a bunch of film execs sitting stony-faced while a writer pitches them, “You see, there’s this blind chick alone in an apartment while some thugs try and find a bunch of heroin! It’s— Miracle Worker meets White Heat!”

How could you not be salivating at the thought of watching a beautiful, defenceless style icon being tormented by a bunch of thugs? The only way this could get better is if the audience members were blind, too.

In her later years, Hepburn became an advocate for children as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, traveling worldwide to help and raise awareness for the plight of children living in dire poverty. And though I probably should, I can’t suppress the thought of an imaginary encounter in which dozens of Ethiopian children press around her, worriedly asking why she’s so thin.

Hepburn died of cancer in 1993. Her adoring son described her in his memoir as “an angel on earth,” and for once I believe the hype.


The Innocence of Pink

the decadence of aubergine


To the women of America…

No, wait: to the women everywhere:

Banish the black! burn the blue ! and bury the beige! From now on ….

Think Pink!
Think Pink when you shop for summer clothes!

Think Pink!
Think Pink when you want that "quelque chose"!

The redoubtable Kay Thompson, who ought to be inducted into the Homo Hall of Fame as an honorary gay man, was Judy Garland’s vocal coach, which tells you a lot, and, when not flailing her arms about while talking and calling it “cabaret singing”, also wrote a series of children’s books called “Eloïse”, about a little girl who lives at the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Yep, the Plaza Hotel. From these humble beginnings, Eloïse sallies forth to have Pirate Adventures, among others, though we must forever regret that Thompson shuffled off this mortal coil before updating us with “Eloïse Gets Shtupped While Unconscious At Studio 54”.

The opening musical number of Funny Face, “Think Pink”, features Ms Thompson, plus her swirly-skirted minions—who for reasons never explained speak in unison, like borg—and a virtual steam room’s worth of  butch-dancin’, Bronx-talkin’ “we’re not gay, no way!!” male dancers dressed in overalls.

Please, I beg you, before watching, turn out the lights, put down your Bayeux tapestry restoration work and resolve to give this gem your full attention.

For this is not just another musical number, oh no.

This is one of the supreme camp moments in cinema. It is the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it is the Cellini “Perseus Holding the Severed Head of Medusa” of camp.  

Often imitated, usually by me around 3 AM when I think everyone’s left, but never equaled——except by the crack-addled ad whores of the late Eaton’s department store who, in their desperation for another ball of hard, not to mention their jobs, churned out an eye-popping parody, “Aubergine” (see below), a paean to the deep purple Pantone© spot color used in the soon-to-be-dead-as-a-beaver-tail Eaton’s branding.

And look at what they came up with: A spectacular invitation to absolutely nothing that covers just about every frame of the original, including the then-hi-tech process photography mixing action and freeze-frame, and even going one better with nods to Salvador Dalí and a fully-fledged Ziegfeld Follies finale, featuring a dancing chorus of Freds and Gingers and a curvaceous stairway to the stars.

What must this have cost, in hours of filming, in budget, in planning and script writing, set-building and costume sewing, in editing and orchestrating with original music, lyrics and choreography! (One point three million, as a matter of fact.) The color aubergine is indeed seductive here, both nostalgic and spiritual, earthy and celestial; it bathes its ravishing models and their swirling ball gowns in a decadent, sickly glow.

But what are they selling in this commercial? Vague promises that ladies will find whatever their hearts might desire, but where, and what if a designer-label gown or a gymnastics leotard aren’t on the shopping list? The whole concept is so abstract, the joke so esoteric except to Hollywood historians and gay males, and in its execution straying into overstaying its welcome at nearly five minutes, that I wonder if any of the millions of perplexed TV watchers of the millennium figured out what they were watching and why.

And I wonder if most of the perplexed viewers who weren’t Hollywood historians or gay males simply switched the channel when the singing started. You’re either into movie musicals or you’re not; there’s rarely a neutral opinion.

I have the oversized white soup plates to prove I was there at the deathbed of an iconic brand, a Canadian institution that began as a tiny storefront on Yonge Street just two years after Canadian Confederation, an astonishing success story whose strategies were copied by aspiring shopkeepers all over North America.

On the underside of each plate is a single, bold lower-case “e,” in rich deep purple, the stillborn wordmark of the short-lived Eaton’s rebrand. This now reads like a desperate message found in a time capsule, a caution-overboard, go-out-with-a-bang cry for help from the immensely loyal but ill-fated crew of a swiftly sinking ship.

The stillborn word mark of a short-lived rebrand.

The T. Eaton Company, Limited, 1869—2000