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The Secret Bloodline of Audrey Hepburn

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The Secret <em>Bloodline</em> of Audrey Hepburn

In the mid-nineties, you couldn’t escape Audrey Hepburn; her image was everywhere. She was ceaselessly written about as a fashion icon, a major movie star, and also as an icon of benevolence. Before her death in 1993, when she journeyed into the devastation in Somalia for UNICEF, we took her seriously because of who she was and who she had been to us; we’re more skeptical now of such celebrity activism and its underlying motives, but even those who overdosed on Audrey worship can’t possibly doubt her sincerity and the strength of her outrage, for it had its roots in her own childhood deprivation under the Nazis during World War II. During the worst days of the war, she survived on grass, turnips and tulip bulbs. For a month, she had to hide in a cellar with her mother, in the dark. Just imagine that for a moment and what it must have been like, then remember how sensitive she was on screen, and consider her capacity for expressing and creating outsized joy. Garbo could do joy like that, but with her it was slightly mannered, more abstract. With Audrey Hepburn, in her best work, her feelings were as pure as cold, clean water.

I never thought I would write about Audrey Hepburn. What more, I used to think, can be said that hasn’t been said? That was before I watched the last two Audrey features I hadn’t seen, obscure bookends to her short but satisfying career, both of which illuminated aspects of her that I hadn’t considered before. First came Bloodline (1979), an all-star Sidney Sheldon adaptation that I’d always heard was Hepburn’s worst movie. It was made during the dispiriting close of her second marriage to the Italian playboy doctor Andrea Dotti, and she turned to it in some desperation, not realizing until halfway through shooting that there was going to be an interpolated snuff film subplot! She wanted to walk, understandably, but she honored her contract, to the dismay of her fans and admirers.

There are a lot of other victims of Bloodline: James Mason, Romy Schneider, Ben Gazzara, Maurice Ronet, but they’d been in films like this before and would be again, whereas Hepburn had never come close to a movie this sleazy and wretched. As a pharmaceutical heiress involved in some sort of skulduggery that puts her life at risk, Hepburn wears an unflattering short hairdo and not enough make-up to bring out those big Audrey fawn eyes. Even her most devoted collaborator, the clothes designer Givenchy, lets her down; there isn’t a single dress that sets her off to advantage. She exhibits low energy throughout, and at the end, when she has to express fear, Hepburn is very mechanical, going through the motions of a climax that shamelessly rips off both Charade (1963) and Wait Until Dark (1967). “It’s a cruel world, isn’t it?” she asks, resonantly, when she looks at dogs her company tests their pills on. Cruel indeed, to animals, children and aging actresses.

I suppose I’d known that Hepburn lost her touch in the last few films of her later years. In Love Among Thieves (1987), a slapdash television movie she made on a lark with Robert Wagner, she has several moments when she seems to be caught by the camera signaling, “Oh, I’m so sorry…I was good at this once, but I’ve simply forgotten how to act!” That had its own charm. Bloodline, however, is something of a negative revelation, the bottom of the barrel for the Audrey cultist, and it put doubts into my mind about her innate talent, or at least where she ended up. In grammar school, Charade was my favorite movie. In high school, Two for the Road (1967) was my favorite. I’ve seen both of them more times than I could count, under the most arduous, unexpected and sometimes romantic of circumstances. My allegiance to Audrey Hepburn was rock-solid for years, until the umpteenth loud girl at a mid-nineties party claimed to idolize her, until seeing the desecration of Bloodline.

Just where does she stand? To me, her key films are the three she made with Stanley Donen, Funny Face (1957), Charade and Two for the Road. On his commentary track for the DVD of Two for the Road, Donen has several sighing moments when he admits that he loved her and wishes he could have gotten closer to her, and his love infuses the whole movie. After years of an unsatisfactory, father/daughter-ish first marriage to Mel Ferrer, Hepburn fell hard for her Two for the Road co-star, Albert Finney, and they should have been like oil and water together on screen, but her charm and his anti-charm make as convincing a love match as any I’ve ever seen, in the movies or in life. Let’s put it this way: if I was forced to spend a month in the dark in a cellar, I would probably have recourse to playing all of Two for the Road in its entirety in my head, over and over again, and I’d always come back to the scenes where Hepburn is looking deeply into Finney’s eyes with a love so pure it’s almost embarrassing to watch. When it got really bad, I’d see in my mind’s eye the image of Hepburn and Finney collapsing on the beach, with Henry Mancini’s career-best score slowly swelling. “Too late, they cried…too late,” Finney says, as he kisses Hepburn in front of the setting sun, and Mancini shamelessly goes all orchestral with his main theme.

Hepburn’s Donen Three aren’t perfect movies. I could do without the anti-intellectualism at the root of the Funny Face plot, the too-grisly scene where James Coburn drops lit matches on a trapped Hepburn’s lap in Charade, and the amusing but caricatured American couple in Two for the Road. Nor is her fourth biggie, Breakfast at Tiffany’s ever going to win any prizes for consistency of tone, but who cares when you have that long knock-out party sequence toward the beginning and the overall tribute to a kind of New York of the mind, a heartfelt fantasy worth re-visiting anytime the movie is on television or in repertory theaters, all spearheaded by Hepburn’s game, funny, high-style performance. Truman Capote kept endlessly repeating that he wanted Marilyn Monroe to play his Holly Golightly. Monroe could have done Holly’s vulnerability, and she could have highlighted a sexuality that Hepburn is too chaste to try, but could she really have played the brittle, would-be hip bohemian without it seeming like some kind of joke on herself?

Hepburn had a distinctive way of talking; she was Dutch, but lived some years in England, too, and she always fell into fey, breathy cadences. To be honest, she usually did what sounded like practiced line readings, a strict acting no-no, but it’s easy to forgive that calculation just for the way her Holly says, “Do you think she’s handsomely paid?” while looking at a stripper bump and grind in a bar. She socks “handsomely paid” over with a downward timbre but an upward inflection, quite a dandy trick (she might have learned that trick from purring Joan Greenwood when she had a bit in one of Greenwood’s films, Young Wives’ Tale {1951}). Before the rain-soaked romantic ending, a Hollywood concession, Holly is sprung from jail; in the backseat of a cab, Hepburn puts her little black dress and stockings on while George Peppard reads her a kiss-off letter from her Brazilian millionaire beau. She keeps her eyes down most of the time, so that only her tense, contained body movements let us know just how angry she is. Hepburn couldn’t really play anger if you gave her a big speech or an antagonist, as Ferrer did when he directed her as Rima in Green Mansions (1959); she seems too basically kind to tell off her own father (Lee J. Cobb). But as free spirit Holly, a woman who couldn’t be more unlike Hepburn, she falls back on her dance training and expresses everything we need to know about this girl’s stubborn self-denial in purely physical terms.

It’s as a dancer that Hepburn makes her biggest impression in Secret People (1952), the ultra-rare film I screened shortly after Bloodline. She’d had a series of bit parts as cigarette girls and receptionists in British movies; when she comes on with one line or two in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) or Laughter in Paradise (1951), I always smile with pleasure at seeing and hearing her so young, before Givenchy and Mancini, before her two very sour comedies with Billy Wilder, before her bouts of Serious Thesping with Fred Zinnemann (The Nun’s Story {1959}) and John Huston (The Unforgiven {1960}). And I smiled again when she came on as Valentina Cortese’s little sister in Secret People. Like Hepburn, the girl she plays nearly starved during World War II. Also like Hepburn at that time, she’s pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer. Filmed in harsh sunlight, with little make-up, Hepburn looks sweetly awkward and anxious, even plain, dashing to auditions, filled with adolescent excitement. Can Audrey Hepburn act? Watching her dart her way through Secret People, an earnest but dull film with a hard-to-follow terrorism plot, that thought can’t possibly come up. Her essential energy is thrilling every moment she’s on screen, leaping out at us, especially when she dances. I was surprised at how capable Hepburn was in the three extended ballet sequences; only in the third dance with a male partner does she have moments when she seems slightly out of her element, but, as usual with her, that has its own charm.

Hepburn was one of those rare movie people you can enjoy but can’t really explain in terms of acting technique; she had an otherworldly charisma that reached its peak in 1967 and declined slowly thereafter. And she had it before her official Oscar-winning launch in the staid Roman Holiday (1953): I can’t stop thinking about a moment she has at the end of her first dance in Secret People, which serves as an important audition for her character. There’s a quick close-up of her eager, youthful, beseeching face, so desperate to please that you could nearly die for her. A ballet impresario says he’s heard she’s danced in Paris, which is a lie; we cut back to her face and she winces at the lie, but keeps on smiling hard at him and at us. It’s sheer “please love me!” presence, these two close-ups, pre-star wattage if you like, but also very moving and revealing because she’s so un-glamorized here, so raw. It’s as moving and revealing as an image of Hepburn at the end of her life, in Somalia, holding a starving child in her arms, her drawn face stern with contempt. Roland Barthes wrote that the face of Garbo was an idea, the face of Audrey Hepburn an event. That’s all well and good, but it cannot explain the impact of the actress who said “I love you,” to Albert Finney with all the passion of a mature woman and all the hopes of a teenaged girl, ready to burst out of the dark of a cellar into the light of day.

House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.