Just last Friday, iconic star Audrey Hepburn would have turned 83.
We never got to see her in old age: she's been gone nearly twenty years now, struck down prematurely by cancer. For me and millions of other fans, she will remain eternally young and fresh.
At a time when I despair of younger viewers watching classic films, I hear more and more of them reference Audrey Hepburn.
A full sixty years after she came out of nowhere to win an Academy Award for her first major role, she still represents something important and aspirational to the young women of today.
What is the source of her enduring appeal?
Well -- may I use the word "class"? In the Kardashian age, it's striking to revisit an actress who not only dressed beautifully, but walked, talked, and acted like the aristocrat she was- importantly, without ever seeming snobbish, affected or full of herself.
To employ another term one rarely hears anymore, she had impeccable poise.
Humor, humility, even a touch of vulnerability always tempered Audrey's high-toned elegance and grace. That's what made her unique, and I think, what made us love her so much.
Audrey's kind, almost gentle demeanor belied an extremely intelligent woman who knew herself. She recognized the value and importance of building an image consistently.
When she met Hubert de Givenchy, she knew he should design all her clothes on film, and with rare exceptions, he did. (At first, the famous couturier thought he was being asked to do Katharine Hepburn's wardrobe!)
When Audrey first worked with composer Henry Mancini, she heard a jazzy sophistication in his score that she sensed fit with her persona. So, her beloved Hank was used again and again on her pictures.
She understood very well that she represented a striking alternative to the full-figured sirens of the day. Reed thin, with a long neck and impossibly narrow shoulders, she knew what to wear-and how to wear it -- so that people would hardly notice.
Then, too, there was that face... those immense, doe-like brown eyes, and that kind, joyous, infectious smile. It all added up to a heady dose of star quality.
Her early life story undoubtedly contributes to her ongoing mystique. Descended from highborn European parents (a Hollywood publicist's dream), her story also contained an element of tragedy in the privations she and her mother experienced when they were trapped in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War.
Decades later, with her movie career behind her, Audrey's experience of near-starvation would help inspire her to become perhaps UNICEF's most visible, if not influential, ambassador.
In life, one measure of character is how you enter and how you exit. Audrey had a knack for doing both just the right way.
In Roman Holiday, her breakout film, Gregory Peck went to director William Wyler and insisted Hepburn get star billing because he knew she'd win the Oscar. When you watch her, as young as she is, you almost feel she's always been a star. (Reportedly, she was much less self-assured than she seemed -- but who wouldn't be?)
Motherhood was always important to her, and she wasn't one of those stars who had to be dragged off the public stage with her dying breath. She did not live to act.
Approaching forty, she must have sensed the business was changing, that maybe she'd get fewer roles worthy of her talent. But foremost in her calculations was her desire to raise her two sons properly.
So -- as gracefully as she had arrived -- she bid adieu to Hollywood.
We will not see the like of her again.
Here then are my ten favorite Audrey Hepburn films. Like the lady herself, these titles never get old.
Roman Holiday (1953)- A gossamer young Hepburn plays the young Princess Anne, who is making an official visit to Rome. As royalty, she is programmed and scheduled to the hilt and becomes increasingly tired of being cooped up. So one night, she slips out to sample the wonders of the ancient city- incognito. Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) is the reporter who eventually takes her in for the world's biggest scoop, and then falls for her. Eddie Albert is his photographer friend, who shares Peck's explosive secret. Virtually an unknown before the picture was released, this often hilarious, extremely touching movie made Audrey an overnight star. Not only could she act, but the camera loved her as it has loved few actresses. Peck and Albert are both terrific, and Wyler's on-location shooting is flavorful and evocative. This timeless romance is also ideal for the whole family.
Sabrina (1954)- Shipped off to Paris for lessons in cooking and refinement, charming Sabrina (Hepburn)-the daughter of a chauffeur for the wealthy Long Island Larrabee clan-returns a sophisticated woman. Playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) is enthralled, but his responsible older brother Linus (Humphrey Bogart) has arranged for David to marry an heiress, and woos Sabrina himself to keep them apart. Hepburn blossoms as Sabrina, perhaps the world's most enchanting and cultivated chauffeur's daughter. Under Billy Wilder's capable wing (he both directed and wrote the screenplay), the young Oscar-nominated star smoothly makes the transition from a skinny awkward girl who fantasizes about life among the privileged classes to the stunning object of desire for both handsome Holden and the more mature Bogart (who reportedly stepped in for Cary Grant at the last minute). And even Bogie can't help himself. Sabrina is that all-too-rare thing: an intelligent, effervescent, and infectious comedy.
Funny Face (1957)- Celebrated fashion photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) discovers timid clerk Jo Stockton (Hepburn) in a Greenwich Village bookstore, and sees something magic behind the mousy exterior. Soon enough, he's transformed her into the newest modeling sensation, which incidentally involves a glamorous photo shoot in Paris. But will true love blossom in the City Of Lights? Combine the moves of Fred Astaire, the grace of Audrey Hepburn and the talents of Director Stanley Donen (in Technicolor yet); then add the city of Paris and a Gershwin soundtrack, and what have you got? Nothing short of movie musical paradise. Astaire's character was based on Richard Avedon, who actually served as advisor on the film, while Eloise creator Kay Thompson, who nearly steals the movie, plays a fashion editor modeled on Diana Vreeland. Oscar-nominated for Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction and Costumes, Funny Face is sure to leave a smile on yours. "S'wonderful! S'marvelous!"
Love In The Afternoon (1957)- Hired to trail wealthy American playboy Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper), private eye Claude Chavasse (Maurice Chevalier) finds ample evidence he's having an affair with a married woman, and reports back to his client. When Claude's daughter, starry-eyed waif Ariane (Hepburn), overhears the cuckolded husband tell Claude he's going to settle the matter with a pistol, she rushes off to warn the philandering Frank, only to wind up in his clutches. This is a delightful outing for Hepburn, who'd already been featured opposite an established, aging Hollywood star in another Wilder film (Sabrina, with Bogart). Love is a sophisticated romantic comedy with lots of Gallic joie de vivre that will brighten any rainy day. Chevalier, one of France's biggest stars, is marvelous as Hepburn's protective Dad. And Cooper, even at an advancing age, is charming in the extreme. Don't miss that famous ending at the train station -- it's one of Wilder's cutest closers.
The Nun's Story (1959)- Devout, kind-hearted Belgian girl Gabrielle (Hepburn) takes vows and becomes Sister Luke, a nun who achieves her dream of working in the Belgian Congo and ministering to the infirm, yet not without difficulties of conscience. Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), a gifted surgeon who senses Luke's inner struggle to meet her spiritual commitment, is a challenging presence. But the outbreak of war presents Sister Luke with an even bigger crisis of faith. Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story, showcasing the luminous Audrey in her prime, contemplates hardship, devotion, and a very special kind of self-realization. A literate, nuanced drama with size, scope and color, the film boasts superb location photography and uniformly fine performances, both from the young leads and two English Dames in support: namely, Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft, playing senior nuns who guide Sister Luke along her often thorny path. Based on Kathryn Hulme's autobiographical novel, Story is an affecting, heartfelt epic of inner struggle.
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)- Charming, bubbly Holly Golightly (Hepburn) leads a peripatetic life in Manhattan, attending swanky parties and living off the largesse of her gentleman acquaintances, who keep her attired in the very best designer outfits. Intrigued by Holly's coming and goings, as well as her bouts of wistful loneliness, upstairs neighbor Paul (George Peppard) falls for the neurotic socialite. But is there something hidden behind Holly's sophisticated facade? Adapted from Truman Capote's novella, Blake Edwards's fleet-footed romantic comedy would not be the cultural touchstone it is without the effervescent presence of Hepburn. As Holly Golightly, a small-town Texas girl with her feet planted firmly in the glitz of New York's party scene, Hepburn is irrepressibly charming, a vision of elflike beauty in Givenchy and pearls. But she is also a frail creature harboring secrets, and Hepburn plays both sides exquisitely. Peppard is solid and likable as writer Paul, Holly's admirer and confidante, while Patricia Neal chews on her steely role as Paul's wealthy older mistress. Don't miss this chic, touching romance, memorably set to the Oscar-winning strains of Henry Mancini's "Moon River."
Charade (1963)- Parisian Regina Lampert (Hepburn) knew she had marital problems, but when her errant husband gets mysteriously killed, she finds being a widow even more troublesome. It seems her husband was involved in hijacking some significant loot during the war, and now some of his past comrades -- including Tex (James Coburn), Herman (George Kennedy) and Leo (Ned Glass) -- want to know where the money went. H. Bartholemew (Walter Matthau) is the government agent also interested in the case, and suave Peter Joshua (Cary Grant) the gallant older man who serves as Regina's protector. But is Peter really on Regina's side? This Hitchcock homage provides a last glimpse of Cary as leading man. At sixty, the actor still brings off his trademark persona superbly. Hepburn is also in top form as the put upon damsel in distress. Deftly combining mystery, romance, and humor, director Stanley Donen creates a chic, sophisticated mood via gorgeous Paris locations and a smooth Mancini score. The villains are mean enough to be taken seriously, but exhibit enough idiosyncrasies to seem human (Coburn has particular fun as Tex). As top-drawer entertainment, Charade is the real thing.
My Fair Lady (1964)- Walking in London's Covent Garden one evening, linguist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) bets his colleague Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that in just six months, he can transform Cockney guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) into a lady whose highborn elocution will fool her betters. Higgins ends up winning the wager, but not without learning a few unexpected life lessons from his pupil. This delightful adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical -- a sing-song-y twist on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion -- was a big success for Jack Warner's production team, especially designer Cecil Beaton. Hepburn, in a role originated on-stage by Julie Andrews (who instead made Mary Poppins and snagged an Oscar), dirties up her pixie-girl persona playing Eliza, while Harrison exudes priggish Oxford airs as her class-conscious coach. Outfitted with such classic Lerner and Loewe numbers as "Get Me to the Church on Time" and "On the Street Where You Live," this Lady is not only fair but ever fabulous!
Two For The Road (1967)- The ups and downs of matrimony are deftly explored via vacations past and present in the lives of affluent couple Joanna (Hepburn) and Mark Wallace (Albert Finney). We see the bloom of early passion recede as over time the couple adjusts to new life priorities, struggling to maintain their intimacy and affection. This smart, knowing romance projects director Stanley Donen's signature style, with Hepburn the essence of sixties chic, and Finney (in his prime) the epitome of a salty, rugged leading man. European locales and a memorable Henry Mancini score add the requisite zing to this mature, nuanced love story. William Daniels and Eleanor Bron are also memorable as another married couple who cause Joanna and Mark to examine the state of their own union.
Wait Until Dark (1967)- As if being blinded in an accident wasn't enough, Manhattan housewife Susy Hendrix (Hepburn) now finds herself in real danger. She's being terrorized by a gang of drug traffickers searching for a large quantity of heroin stashed in a doll which her husband, Sam (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), unwittingly accepted from a woman on a plane trip. Led by Roat (Alan Arkin), the thugs will stop at nothing to recover the narcotics, but Susy's no pushover. Audrey ventures into edgy territory in Terence Young's Wait Until Dark, based on the stage play by Frederick Knott (writer of Dial M for Murder). The Oscar-nominated actress excels in the role of a sightless woman fighting for her life in a basement New York flat, and Richard Crenna is solid as her unlikely protector. Still, it's Arkin who really sets your teeth on edge playing one of the screen's creepiest villains. This nifty suspenser starts slowly but builds to a terrifying climax. Just wait!
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