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