The Gamine Goddess: Audrey Hepburn
The Gamine Goddess: Audrey Hepburn
She was once called ‘the gamine goddess’. Audrey Hepburn’s slim figure, beautiful and big brown eyes, exquisite beauty and sense of style and chic made her into a fashion icon of the twentieth century. But she was much more than that. She was also a very talented actress. This wasn’t noticeable in all of her films but in Two for the Road and The Nun’s Story, arguably her two best movies, she proved the critics who thought that she was just a beautiful young girl, wrong.
Born in 1929 Audrey Hepburn had a difficult childhood. Her father deserted her mother when she was very young and was actually jailed for taking part in the Fascist movement in England. Audrey’s mother was a daughter of Dutch nobility but had to struggle to support herself and her children as a single mother. She lived in England for a short time during Audrey’s childhood and sent her to boarding school there. However, war was looming and they returned to Holland in the mistaken belief that it would be safer. They lived just outside Arnhem which was only twelve miles from the German border.
After the invasion by the Germans the family had little food to eat and Audrey’s work for UNICEF later was probably due in large part to her difficult time during the war. The Germans practically starved the local population by using Dutch resources to support their soldiers. According to Barry Paris, in his book, Audrey Hepburn: “A partial list of the immense wealth stolen from the Netherlands and sent to Germany included virtually all Dutch tea, coffee, butter, vegetable oils, fruit and woolen goods. In 1940, the entire apple harvest was requisitioned by Germany, along with fourteen million of twenty-two million chickens and most of the cattle.”
The Dutch Resistance did what they could to sabotage the war effort. Audrey played her part by acting as a teenage messenger for them, sometimes hiding messages in her shoes.
If she had been discovered, there might have been terrible reprisals against her and her family. Her uncle was shot after a Dutch attempt to blow up a German train. He didn’t have any connection with the attempt but was shot merely because he came from a prominent Dutch family.
The beautiful actress originally aimed to become a ballerina and studied under Sonia Gaskell who was a leading name of Dutch ballet. She advised Audrey to go to England where there were greater opportunities and Audrey won a scholarship to the prestigious Marie Rambert ballet school. She postponed this because of financial difficulties but she was eventually able to go and subsidized her training with part-time modeling.
Audrey began her acting career with a part in the ballet in the musical, High Button Shoes. She was one of the ten who obtained jobs out of the one thousand who auditioned, and had one line in the show. Later she obtained minor parts in the movies, Laughter in paradise, and the Lavender Hill Mob. A bigger role was given to Audrey in the film, Secret People, in which she played an innocent ballerina with a revolutionary sister. Valentina Cortesa who played Audrey’s sister, Nora, insisted that Audrey be given the role.
Audrey’s big break came when she was discovered by the famous French author, Colette, whose book, Gigi, was being made into a play. Audrey Hepburn was dancing around in the foyer of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo where she was acting in the film of the same name. The red-haired, elderly Colette called out: “Viola! There is my Gigi,” and sent a letter to Anita Loos, the scriptwriter of the play. Audrey won rave reviews when she appeared in the Broadway play. One critic called her ‘nearly perfect as Gigi’.
The highlight of her career was, however, the charming movie, Roman Holiday, in which she plays a beautiful princess in love with a journalist. Gregory Peck was so impressed with his lovely young co-star that he generously got her billed on the same line. This was very unusual. Audrey Hepburn justly won the Oscar for the role. The journalist, Otis Guernsey, once remarked that: “Fairy tales are her natural element.”
The gamine actress married the much older actor, Mel Ferrar, in 1954 and had a son, Sean. Her fame continued to rise with such movies as Sabrina, Love in the Afternoon and War and Peace, in which she played the lovely heroine, Natasha. The role of her life, however, was in The Nun’s Story, based on a true story of a nun who worked in an insane asylum and in Africa. This powerful movie showed the nun’s struggle with her attraction to a handsome doctor (played by Peter Finch) and her changing attitudes towards the Church.
Two of Audrey Hepburn’s best loved films are My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
She was given a hard time by the media for her role in My Fair Lady because Julie Andrews had acted the part of Eliza on stage, and she was also disappointed that Marni Nixon did the singing, but her acting is certainly a good match for Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins! She is slightly unbelievable as an upper-class call girl in Breakfast at Tiffany’s but played the role with such whimsy and wore such beautiful clothes that she became an icon of the Sixties.
Audrey Hepburn eventually gave up acting for family life with her second husband, Andrea Dotti, with whom she had another son. She did come out of ‘retirement’ to play such roles as Marion, in Robin and Marian, and in Sydney Sheldon’s Bloodline, but her movies were panned by the critics.
This marriage also fell through and she began to work for UNICEF with her new partner, Robert Wolders. She became UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1987 and devoted her last years to working for children in countries ravaged by war, such as Somalia.
Audrey Hepburn died of colon cancer in 1993.