When Audrey Hepburn starred in Roman Holiday in 1953, she was 23 years old. She had arrived in America from Europe a couple of years earlier, at a time when the very idea of a movie star was in flux. Marlon Brando and his Method-acting mob were charging out of New York’s Actors Studio and into Hollywood, deemphasizing glamour and introducing a rough, almost vulgar naturalism to screen acting. The model for femininity on film was changing too, as sultry foreign bombshells and Marilyn Monroe brought a voluptuous sexuality to cinema. And here was Hepburn: slim, prim, and sprightly. She’d been classically trained as a dancer, but had merely above-average moves. Her singing voice was sweet but slight, and her range as an actress was limited. But Hepburn had “star quality” in the classic sense, in that she was beautiful, fashionable, and easy to like. So what remained of the Hollywood PR and studio machines in the 1950s worked overtime to get the most out of one of the last old-fashioned starlets they had.
Audrey Hepburn’s movie-career story is about an actress who was often miscast, and even more often was misappropriated by Hollywood as a symbol of something the culture at large was losing. Over and over, Hepburn was made to play the innocent or the princess—or the willful young lady in need of a wizened older man to save her from herself. She played opposite nearly every aging actor showbiz could throw at her: Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison, William Holden, Burt Lancaster, and Cary Grant. Meanwhile, the movie magazines and gossip columns of the 1950s and 1960s were full of quotes from Hepburn about how she’d rather be at home cooking for her husband Mel Ferrer and raising their son Sean. But behind the scenes, Hepburn had her own ideas: about what kind of career she should have, how she should dress, and what it meant to be classy.
Hepburn also had enough control over her choices that she was able to follow the advice of one of the first leading ladies she ever met, Valentina Cortese, who warned her that the public gets tired of seeing the same celebrities over and over, and that the best way to stay desirable was to make herself scarce. (In Barry Paris’ biography Audrey Hepburn, Cortese is also quoted as telling Hepburn, “Think hard before you sign a long-term contract. Liberty is the most wonderful thing of all.”) Hepburn talked about wanting to be a happy housewife, but when she disappeared from the business for months or even years at a time, there was an element of calculation to her absences beyond just her trying (and ultimately failing) to keep her marriage to Ferrer alive. When Hepburn went into semi-retirement at the height of her career, in 1967, she only boosted her mystique. She was a gracious but guarded woman, friendly to everyone, but close to few.
In the end, Hepburn helped ease the transition between old-Hollywood conservatism and the freer era that began right when she stepped away. And she left behind a string of movies—good and bad—that say something about what popular culture thought of women in the mid-20th century, and reveal how Hepburn was able to exploit those feelings to her own ends. For all the misfires in her filmography, every few years Hepburn found exactly the right part, and starred in a classic.
|2||Monte Carlo Baby/Nous Irons À Monte Carlo||1952|
|3||War And Peace||1956|
|3.5||Love In The Afternoon||1957|
Like most overnight sensations, Hepburn toiled for years in relative obscurity before catching her big break. Hepburn and her mother settled in London after World War II, and had to adjust to having food again after spending much of the war barely scraping by in the Netherlands. Shortly before the move, Hepburn made her motion-picture debut, as a stewardess in a 1948 travelogue called Dutch In Seven Lessons. But her career in showbiz really began in earnest in the U.K., where her dance skills got her work in musical theater. The connections she made there led to a movie contract, and a short string of bit parts in which she appeared for a scene or two and a few lines, usually playing a sexpot or a clerk. (The best-known of these films is The Lavender Hill Mob, an excellent Ealing comedy that Hepburn is in for about 30 seconds, nuzzling Alec Guinness’ character in a Rio restaurant.)
It 1952, Hepburn had her first two roles big enough for the films to be called “Audrey Hepburn movies.” The better of the two films is Secret People, a sophisticated spy thriller starring Hepburn as an eager teenage ballerina whose sister (Valentina Cortese) gets her involved in an assassination plot. Director Thorold Dickinson is no Alfred Hitchcock—the suspense in Secret People never really builds—but in the 20 minutes or so of the film that Hepburn is in, she lights up the screen, twirling around giddily in practice spaces and nightclubs, representing the innocence her hard-bitten sister has already lost. Hepburn is even brighter in Monte Carlo Baby, playing a petulant actress whose musician pals take in a missing infant. The movie is utterly forgettable, but Hepburn is a spitfire in her few scenes, flashing her big smile to her character’s fans one second, then sniping angrily at her peers the next. (She does this in English and French… Monte Carlo Baby was shot in two versions, for both markets.)
After a few years of theater and films in the U.K., Hepburn was firmly established in the business, and a few of the people she’d worked with were sure she was a future superstar. They just didn’t know the future would arrive so soon. Monte Carlo Baby led to Hepburn getting a job playing the lead in the musical Gigi on Broadway, and from the moment she landed in New York, the media and the entertainment industry were abuzz, wanting to know more about this slim, short-haired beauty with the big eyes and beaming smile. Before she even opened in Gigi, Hepburn was cast in her first leading role in a Hollywood movie, which was scheduled to shoot when her Broadway contract ended. That movie, 1953’s Roman Holiday, changed the course of Hepburn’s career, and established how she’d spend much of the rest of the 1950s.
Audrey Hepburn made a number of very good films, but she never made a better one than Roman Holiday. She plays Princess Ann, a young aristocrat who’s so overwhelmed by her rigorous diplomatic schedule and its long list of protocols that she flees her country’s embassy in Rome, with no money and no real idea of how the world works. Gregory Peck plays Joe Bradley, a cynical American reporter who stumbles onto the biggest story of the year when he meets a woozy Ann on the street. Joe coerces his bohemian photographer friend Irving (Eddie Albert) to follow him and Ann around as she experiences the life of a regular person. Joe initially intends to turn his day with the princess into a big paycheck, but—mirroring the audience’s reaction—he feels an almost overpowering affection and compassion for Ann, charmed by her awkwardness and her general delight at experiences most people take for granted. Director William Wyler, working from a script by a blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, lets much of the film play out without dialogue, just watching Ann, Joe, and Irving react. This pays off dramatically in a closing scene where Ann decides to return to being a princess, but on her own terms. While maintaining her poise and propriety, she defies her handlers a little as she talks to the press; then she, Joe, and Irving send coded messages to each other, indicating that they’re all intending to keep the secret of their time together in Rome. There’s an agonizing moment at the end when Ann exchanges cordialities with the various members of the media, then walks back to her chambers, leaving Joe (and the viewers) with a palpable feeling of longing.
Hepburn won the Best Actress Oscar for Roman Holiday, which cemented her position as America’s favorite new star, and raised expectations for whatever she did next. That next film wound up being 1954’s Sabrina, a romantic comedy that’s like Roman Holiday in reverse. Here, Hepburn plays a chauffeur’s daughter who returns from a European trip looking like a stylish sophisticate, which wins the attention of two rich brothers she’s known all her life: irresponsible playboy David (William Holden) and his stuffy older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart). As Sabrina, Hepburn shows just as much genuine enjoyment at living the high life as she did when she was slumming as Princess Ann. Director Billy Wilder and co-screenwriter Ernest Lehman don’t bring their adaptation of Samuel Taylor’s play Sabrina Fair to a satisfying enough conclusion—in large part because Bogart and Holden are unable to play “smitten” as convincingly as Peck and Albert—but the film has plenty of the Wilder wit, and more importantly for Hepburn’s career, it proved Roman Holiday was no fluke. A lot of the beats Hepburn plays in the two movies are the same: She ranges from despondent to flirty, she lets older men woo and tutor her, and she even undergoes a similar transformation in both films when she gets her hair cut. But Sabrina showed Hepburn could handle Wilder’s particular combination of smart and broad, without losing the unforced quality that made her such a discovery in Roman Holiday. She earned another Best Actress nomination for Sabrina, but lost to Grace Kelly, for The Country Girl.
After Sabrina, Hepburn hit a creative lull, brought on in part by her deciding to dedicate much of her attention to her new husband, Mel Ferrer, and in part by some evident uncertainty in Hollywood over how best to use such a singular personality. Hepburn signed on to King Vidor’s bloated 1956 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace—which let her play opposite Ferrer—and she turned out to be the best thing about a mostly mediocre movie. Early in the story, Hepburn’s cheery young Russian countess Natasha chases men and muses about what it must be like to be in power; later, she wanders the ruins of her family’s estate and thinks back on happier times. Her character has a real arc, in other words, and Hepburn’s by-then-familiar mix of mischief and melancholy fits into Tolstoy’s sprawling story far better than her static co-stars Ferrer or Henry Fonda do. But Hepburn’s spark is ultimately smothered by all the elegant costumes, grand sets, somber overtones, and wooden acting. The same can be said of 1957’s Mayerling, a live NBC TV special Hepburn did with Ferrer. (Kinescopes of the telecast were released theatrically in Europe.) Reenacting the story of the forbidden love and mysterious deaths of an Austrian count and his mistress, Mayerling is opulent and inert, only coming to life when Hepburn brings a touch of well-meaning wickedness to her character, as when she suggestively teases the count about his tiny bed.
Mayerling arrived at the start of a busy year for Hepburn, which included the release of two feature films that reminded her fans of what they first loved about her—and left some critics wondering whether she was ever going to be allowed to grow up onscreen. In the 1957 musical Funny Face, Hepburn again plays an innocent young girl (an intellectual Greenwich Village bookstore clerk), plucked from obscurity by an older man (Fred Astaire, playing a fashion photographer based on Richard Avedon), whisked into another world (the life of a model, shooting in Paris), and given a pixie haircut. Director Stanley Donen brings color and energy to the film, and Hepburn has one of her most memorable movie moments when she dons a skintight black outfit and dances freely in a beatnik coffeehouse. The “fashion icon” side of Hepburn flowered more fully in the 1960s, but it began to gain momentum in Funny Face, which continued a relationship with designer Hubert de Givenchy, begun on Sabrina. (“Audrey was always more about fashion than movies or acting,” Donen later insisted, and not as an insult.) But the traces of sexism in Hepburn’s earlier films become much more unpalatable in Funny Face, which sees Astaire’s bossy character ordering Hepburn’s character around and forcing himself on her sexually—which, troublingly, only seems to make her more moony-eyed.
The infantilization of Hepburn continues in Love In The Afternoon, which has the nearly 28-year-old actress playing a virginal Parisian music student named Ariane. Her father is a private detective, and she takes an interest in his investigation into an incorrigible womanizer named Frank Flanagan, played by Gary Cooper. Ariana is yet another wide-eyed naïf who needs to be schooled in the ways of love—by a Hollywood star who’s nearly twice her age, naturally. But the character is a little easier to take in Love In The Afternoon, because the movie was directed by Billy Wilder, with a script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond (in the first of their 11 collaborations). Though Hepburn displays little to no chemistry with Cooper—similar to what happened with her and Bogart in Wilder’s Sabrina—and though Hollywood’s continued insistence on typing Hepburn as both sexually inexperienced and man-hungry was starting to become almost fetishistic by 1957, Hepburn had perfected that type, and she plays it well in Love In The Afternoon. The movie is full of funny and moving moments, such as when Ariane has trouble maintaining the illusion of being glibly promiscuous when she thinks Frank is about to leave her.
|4||The Nun’s Story||1959|
|3||Breakfast At Tiffany’s||1961|
|2.5||The Children’s Hour||1961|
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, Audrey Hepburn was still popular, but there were already rumblings among critics that she was in a rut, perpetually playing the delicate flower who blooms under the tutelage of an older man, inevitably played by an aging Hollywood star. She was the anti-Marilyn Monroe onscreen: smart, but subordinate. So offscreen, over a five-year stretch under Ferrer’s guidance, Hepburn set about changing her image, taking on different kinds of roles—some of which she probably shouldn’t have taken.
The next phase of Hepburn’s career began with one of her best performances, in Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s novel The Nun’s Story. Hepburn plays a Belgian doctor’s daughter who feels called to become a nun, and hopes to treat the impoverished natives of the Congo. When The Nun’s Story was released in 1959, it got a lot of attention for the way it reveals, in an almost docu-realistic fashion, what day-to-day life in a convent is like. But Zinnemann and screenwriter Robert Anderson are also sensitive to the contradictions and complications of the supplicant existence. To play Sister Luke, Hepburn studied with the nun the character is based on, to learn how to carry herself, and she sanded down some of the more giddy and girlish aspects of her performing style. She still brings a lot of nuance to a character who’s been taught that God’s will takes precedence over hers—even when her will is to save lives. Hepburn often called The Nun’s Story her personal favorite of all the movies she made. She received her third Oscar nomination, and the film became an unexpected hit. Sister Luke isn’t often spoken of as one of Hepburn’s “legacy” roles, but it should be. She’s wonderfully human in a part that could’ve come off as merely saintly.
Post-Nun’s Story, Hepburn embarked on a string of films for which she was miscast, in ways both subtle and glaring. First, Ferrer tried to transform her into an elfin jungle savage in his own stiff adaptation of William Henry Hudson’s novel Green Mansions. The movie looks beautiful, but the glamorous Hepburn comes off as out of place playing a young woman who grew up in the wild. Neither the character nor Hepburn know what to make of an explorer (played by Anthony Perkins) who shows up in her jungle seeking riches.
Hepburn is just as off-model in John Huston’s misbegotten Western The Unforgiven, which has her playing a Kiowa who’s been raised by a Texas family, and kept ignorant of her Native American origins. Once again, Hepburn was asked to project the image of a simple girl, raised far from civilization, and all that “g”-droppin’ dialect and earthiness didn’t come naturally to her. Huston set out to make a movie that tackled frontier racism and forbidden sexual desire, but his fights with his financial backers dulled The Unforgiven’s intent. The result is a muddled picture that mostly paints Native Americans as villains, and that sticks Hepburn with a character who has a crush on another older white knight: her adopted brother, played by Burt Lancaster. Critic Stanley Kaufmann nailed it when he said of The Unforgiven that John Huston had done the impossible by getting “a really bad performance out of the lovely Audrey Hepburn.”
From a personal standpoint, The Unforgiven was notable for Hepburn for a horseback riding accident she had on set, which caused the production to shut down for a while, and which led to the second of her five reported miscarriages. Determined to have a child, Hepburn stopped working for a while, and finally brought a pregnancy to term, giving birth to Ferrer’s son Sean. From then on, she became a lot more selective about her projects, picking based on her collaborators, or on whether the shoot was close to home.
Hepburn agreed to star in 1961’s The Children’s Hour because it reunited her with her Roman Holiday director William Wyler, who’d directed an earlier movie version of Lillian Hellman’s play (renamed These Three) in 1936. As with Huston and The Unforgiven, Wyler took on Hellman’s play in hopes of making something hard-hitting, meaning to restore the gay theme he had to omit from These Three. In the 1961 version, Hepburn plays Karen Wright, a teacher who runs a small private school with her best friend Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine). When the two discipline a bratty student named Mary, Mary retaliates by spreading a lie that Karen and Martha are lovers. The accusation ruins their business and their lives, and forces Martha to confess to the romantic attachment she’s had to Karen since they were kids. Oddly, The Children’s Hour’s openness about Martha’s repressed sexuality doesn’t make the film feel any more honest than These Three. If anything, the older version works better as a melodrama, thanks to a masterfully hiss-worthy performance by Bonita Granville as Mary. By contrast, Wyler’s second crack at this material becomes a long wallow in shame and misery, forcing Hepburn into a mode where she sobs and yells a lot. Even though she was back to playing a character who spoke proper English, Hepburn seems lost in The Children’s Hour.
Two months before The Children’s Hour was released, though, Hepburn starred in a film that audiences worldwide fell for—in a part that some would again question whether she should’ve taken. In Blake Edwards and George Axelrod’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a New York party girl who bewitches a struggling young writer played by George Peppard, and schools him on how poor folks like them can live swankly in Manhattan. Capote hated the way the movie defanged, desexualized, and generally sweetened his story, and he was sure Marilyn Monroe would’ve made a better Holly. He wasn’t entirely wrong. Breakfast At Tiffany’s plays very much like the Hollywood version of Capote: It’s tasteful when it should be sexy, and vulgar when it should be subtle. (And Mickey Rooney’s “yellowface” performance as Holly’s upstairs neighbor is inexcusable in any context.) But while Monroe may be Capote’s Holly, Hepburn does make the role her own, and gives one of her strongest performances—notching her fourth Oscar nomination. Holly comes across as so casually cool, whether she’s sleeping in a tuxedo shirt or smoking from an arm-length cigarette-holder, and her la-di-da attitude and strong opinions became a guide for how the young, bruised, and fashion-forward should behave. Yet Hepburn plays Holly’s vulnerability with as much truth as she brings to Holly’s winding philosophical speeches. To paraphrase the movie: Hepburn’s Holly is a phony, but she’s a real phony.
|2||Paris When It Sizzles||1964|
|3.5||My Fair Lady||1964|
|3||How To Steal A Million||1966|
|4.5||Two For The Road||1967|
|4||Wait Until Dark||1967|
In the 1950s, Hepburn was an exotic aberration in Hollywood. In the 1960s, everything about her was suddenly hipper. Her slender frame, her outfits, and even her classy British accent were all in the mainstream in the era of Beatlemania and Carnaby Street. She’d even snuck past the Method-acting crowd. Hepburn’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s co-star George Peppard was an Actors Studio die-hard, and was reportedly insufferable on the set of the film because he thought it was going to be his Marlon Brando/James Dean breakout role. Instead, it was Hepburn’s movie from start to finish. If Breakfast At Tiffany’s proved anything, it was that audiences had come to love Hepburn as an onscreen model for fashionable clothes and attitudes, almost as much as they cared for her as an actress—and perhaps more than they cared about the characters she played.
Director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone took full advantage of the idea of Audrey Hepburn in 1963’s Charade, a comedy-thriller that got out ahead of a decade of spoofs and capers. Hepburn was again paired with an older Hollywood legend in Cary Grant, who’d been a frequently rumored Hepburn co-star since Sabrina, when his role went to Humphrey Bogart. But this time, the movie openly acknowledges the age difference, and makes Hepburn just as savvy as her male lead. Charade doesn’t mean for its convoluted plot to be taken too seriously. The movie is more about getting the kicks of a star-driven international adventure without any of the usual constrictions of narrative or tone. And for Hepburn fans, Charade is one of the two most Audrey-riffic movies ever made. (The other one is coming up shortly.) As a widow on the run from men looking for her late husband’s missing fortune, Hepburn is adorably offhanded and fully human, lusting after Grant’s mysterious hero while also mocking him for his gray hair, his failing eyesight, his famous chin-cleft (“How do you shave in there?”), and his untrustworthiness. (“You won’t be able to lie on your back for a while,” she says. “But then you can lie from any position, can’t you?”) Even when Charade’s crazy twists and breeziness start to seem forced, Hepburn is at her most winningly natural since Roman Holiday.
Charade wasn’t just a huge hit for Hepburn; it was a defining hit, much like Roman Holiday and Breakfast At Tiffany’s. It established Hepburn as the ideal heroine for these kinds of high-spirited, Hitchcock-lite pictures, and producers got busy trying to plop her into more of them. The first one to come out was one she’d actually made before Charade. The 1964 release Paris When It Sizzles was originally shot in 1962 and shelved because the studio hated it, and then dumped onto the marketplace after Charade did well. Hepburn plays a typist named Gabrielle, employed by a drunken, washed-up screenwriter named Richard (played by a drunken, close-to-washed-up William Holden) to help him knock out an overdue script over a long weekend. As Richard dictates the script, the goofy adventure-romance he’s describing—with its “twist on a twist on a twist”—plays out on the screen, with Hepburn and Holden in the leading roles, sometimes supplemented by Tony Curtis, who was called in when Holden had to go away and dry out. Hepburn gets to play a lot of different notes in Paris When It Sizzles, but she too often defaults to the kind of excitable, easily seduced young woman she played in the 1950s. The movie overall is chaotic and smug, pushing Charade’s “this is all fake” attitude so far that the whole enterprise feels pointless.
The 1966 heist film How To Steal A Million is more entertaining, though it’s also overly trifling. Playing the daughter of an art-forger, Hepburn gets to match wits with the ever-dashing Peter O’Toole, who plays an art expert masquerading as a burglar. The story takes forever to get going, the two-hour run time is padded out with dumb slapstick, and Hepburn plays yet another character whose head gets all turned around whenever a man spontaneously kisses her. (Once again, she’s the daughter of a prominent person, not someone who’s accomplished much of anything herself.) Still, when she and O’Toole are wearing costumes and skulking around museums, both of them seem to be having so much fun that it almost excuses the film’s overall irrelevance.
Between the caper-comedies, Hepburn made one of her most popular and controversial films—one that, like Breakfast At Tiffany’s, helped make her an icon, even though again some would argue she was miscast. In 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady opened on Broadway and became an immediate sensation, making a star of Julie Andrews, who played a Cockney flower girl named Eliza Doolittle who gets a full makeover from snobby linguist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hepburn occasionally said Eliza would be her dream role, and when Warner Bros. decided to pour massive amounts of money into one of the last big movie musicals of its era, the studio determined that it needed a star of Hepburn’s magnitude. Fans of the show felt Andrews had been unfairly overlooked, and the reports that Hepburn’s singing voice would be overdubbed didn’t win over any skeptics. At times, My Fair Lady feels like a movie more suited to the 1950s Hepburn, during the scenes where Eliza is howling and being led around by Professor Higgins. (It doesn’t help that Hepburn’s mock-Cockney accent is way worse than her singing would’ve been.) But the musical’s George Bernard Shaw-derived plot remains sturdy, Harrison is a hoot as Higgins, Lerner and Loewe’s songs are tremendous, and Hepburn brings an strong sense of personal feeling to the latter half of Eliza’s transformation. When Higgins is taking credit for how beautiful, well-spoken, and independent Eliza has become, Hepburn comes across as stung, but not surprised—and too tired to fight back. That’s a mood she shifted into frequently for the rest of her career.
Hepburn was more than a little bruised by the criticism levied at her for My Fair Lady, although the movie was a sizable hit, and remains another magnificent Hepburn fashion show. With her marriage to Ferrer on the rocks, she was even harder to coax into working. After How To Steal A Million, she only made two more movies in the 1960s, both released in fall 1967—and both excellent.
Hepburn’s official final film before entering semi-retirement was Wait Until Dark, Terence Young’s lean, nerve-racking adaptation of Frederick Knott’s popular stage play about a newly blind woman, Susy, trying to outwit a trio of drug-dealing thugs (played in the film by Alan Arkin, Richard Crenna, and Jack Weston). Young keeps the action fairly stage-bound, setting almost the entire movie in Susy’s small basement apartment. But Hepburn does remarkable work in that tight, cluttered space—so remarkable that she earned her fifth and final Best Actress Oscar nomination. She plays Susy with a sympathetic mix of pluckiness and self-pity, and she lets the audience experience both Susy’s intelligence and her anxiety, as she figures out why and how her three dangerous visitors are lying to her. If Hepburn had a 1960s type, it was characters who’d already experienced a deep hurt, and had become skilled at sniffing out the garbage that men tried to foist on her.
She played that type to perfection in 1967’s Two For The Road, her second-best film (after Roman Holiday) and her fullest personal showcase (just edging out Charade). Two For The Road stars Hepburn as Joanna Wallace, seen throughout the movie at different points in her relationship with her architect husband Mark (Albert Finney). Re-teaming with her Funny Face/Charade director Stanley Donen, Hepburn embraces every challenge in Frederic Raphael’s clever, sophisticated script, which asks her to play a carefree youth, a giddy newlywed, and a snippy middle-aged wife and mother. Given that Mark’s character doesn’t change much from start to finish—he’s nearly always an insensitive but well-intentioned clod—Hepburn is the one who has to help make the audience aware of where they are in this time-jumping story. What’s so great about Hepburn’s approach is that there are always glimmers of the young Joanna when she’s bickering with Mark in the later scenes, and indications even early in the romance that these two aren’t going to be blissfully happy forever. Billy Wilder’s wife Audrey—a longtime friend of Hepburn’s—was a fan of Two For The Road, and of how Hepburn was willing to let herself be seen in a bad light. (“She really let her defenses down in it,” Audrey Wilder said. “That was a real person.”) Donen, Raphael, Finney, and Hepburn don’t skimp on the ironies of how the older Joanna and Mark seem to have forgotten the promises and pleasures they once shared, but Two For The Road outpaces its gimmick by staying refreshingly matter-of-fact. People change, the movie says, but they never fully lose who they used to be.
|3.5||Robin And Marian||1976|
|4||They All Laughed||1981|
|2.5||Love Among Thieves||1987|
Audrey Hepburn stopped making movies right around the time the “New Hollywood” started gearing up, though not because she didn’t have any interest in the more daring kinds of films being made, and not because the younger generation of producers and directors didn’t want her. The dissolution of Hepburn’s marriage to Ferrer, and her subsequent re-marriage to Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti—with whom she had a second child, Luca—occupied her time at the end of the 1960s. She weighed every offer against whether she’d rather make that movie or be with her family, and each time, family won out. Her Wait Until Dark director Terence Young was quoted as saying of Hepburn’s decision-making process:
“First of all you spend a year or so convincing her to accept even the principle that she might make another movie in her life. Then you have to persuade her to read a script. Then you have to make her understand that it is a good script. Then you have to persuade her that she will not be totally destroying her son’s life by spending six or eight weeks on a film set. After that, if you are really lucky, she might start talking about the costumes. More probably she’ll just say she has to get back to her family and cooking the pasta for dinner, but thank you for thinking of her.”
Hepburn finally agreed to step back in front of a movie camera for Richard Lester’s 1976 historical romance Robin And Marian, playing opposite Sean Connery. A film about aging and almost-forgotten legends, Robin And Marian has Connery as Robin Hood, returning from the Crusades to find the poor still suffering in Nottingham, the Merry Men dispersed, and Maid Marian (Hepburn) having become a nun. Typical of Lester, there’s a lightness to Robin And Marian, even though it features heroes who are past their prime, and facing certain death. (The combat scenes in this movie are bloody and ugly, but also a little Monty Python-esque, with darkly comic overtones.) But the main attraction is Hepburn, who picked just the right part for a comeback, playing an independent woman who’d given up on love and adventure, but finds her taste for the former—if not the latter—revived by Robin. As she gazes adoringly at him, in her handmade habit, wondering aloud if she’s too “old and ugly” to be wanted, Marian’s premonitions of doom fight with her glee at being reunited with her sweetheart. Hepburn’s subtly shifting moods give this movie its soul.
Hepburn didn’t choose her next film as wisely. The 1979 mystery-thriller Bloodline, based on a lurid Sidney Sheldon bestseller, was directed by Wait Until Dark’s Terence Young, which is what drew her to the project. The movie itself isn’t terrible. It plays like an R-rated version of a 1970s/1980s TV movie or primetime soap, with Hepburn as an heiress who takes over her dead father’s pharmaceutical empire, then becomes the target of the same sicko who may have murdered her dad. Young tries to bring a little European, giallo-like style to the picture (aided greatly by Ennio Morricone’s synth-driven score), and Ben Gazzara is cool as always as one of the company’s old guard, and the movie’s romantic interest. But at a time when Hepburn had made herself a rare commodity, there just isn’t enough special about her character or her performance. She could just as easily be Joan Collins or Stefanie Powers.
Hepburn was much better-deployed in the actual 1987 TV movie Love Among Thieves, playing a concert pianist embroiled in a international adventure that involves kidnapping, a jewel heist, Mexican bandits, hired goons, and a scruffy wild card played by Robert Wagner. The tone and plot of Love Among Thieves are meant to recall Hepburn’s 1960s caper pictures, and Hepburn is more than game, as she scrambles out windows and gets into cat-and-mouse chases. But the movie lacks wit, and feels too leaden. It’s enjoyable more for the idea of Hepburn revising past glories than for anything in the actual film. Unlike Bloodline, this is a movie that wouldn’t work with anyone other than Hepburn in the lead.
The best project Hepburn was involved with in the latter years of her career was Peter Bogdanovich’s 1981 screwball comedy They All Laughed, although Hepburn doesn’t have a lot to do in the film. Bogdanovich evolved into a new style with They All Laughed, combining the naturalism of his excellent 1979 film Saint Jack with the fast-talking loopiness of What’s Up, Doc? Bogdanovich was inspired by conversations with his Saint Jack star Ben Gazzara to come up with They All Laughed’s story of private detectives who fall in love with the women they’re hired to trail. Hepburn was attracted to the project because of how much she enjoyed Gazzara’s company during the shooting of Bloodline, but was reportedly disappointed to find out that Gazzara was no longer romantically available when they reunited in New York City for this shoot. If so, that tension doesn’t show in the few scenes they have together, where Hepburn’s character gradually opens up to the man who’s been following her. This isn’t really Hepburn’s movie; she’s just one of a handful of dizzy New Yorkers who dance around each other in a finely shaded version of the city at the start of the 1980s. The movie is most notable for letting Hepburn play someone a lot like herself: an aging, anxious wife and mother denying herself some happiness in order to keep her family intact.
Hepburn made one last big-screen appearance late in her life, playing a bit part in Always, Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1943 fantasy/melodrama A Guy Named Joe. Hepburn praised Spielberg’s E.T. in interviews, and Spielberg was enamored of anything that smacked of Old Hollywood, so the collaboration made sense. And while Always is one of Spielberg’s weakest films—an attempt at making a “mature” romance that instead comes off as cartoonish and phony—the handful of scenes with Hepburn are legitimately magical. As an angel who guides a recently deceased aerial firefighter (played by Richard Dreyfuss), Hepburn looks and acts like everyone’s favorite still-active grandma. She’s dressed casually and her face is lined with wrinkles, but as soon as she greets Dreyfuss’ character with a cheery, “Hi, Pete!” she’s the same Hepburn who brightened up Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Always didn’t end Hepburn’s time in the spotlight. Before her death in 1993, she became a public spokesperson for UNICEF, and did the occasional talk-show appearance, as well as the TV documentary series Gardens Of The World. But because she preferred not to act so much after 1967, Hepburn had already become a figure of mystery and legend even when she was still alive. Around the time Hepburn made Robin And Marian, she said in an interview that she was drawn to the project because so many movies being made at the time “frightened” people, and she wanted to give them something they might’ve missed. “People associate me with a time when women wore pretty dresses in films and you heard beautiful music,” Hepburn said. By limiting the supply of Audrey Hepburn movies, she made sure those associations would remain fixed forever.