A Month With Audrey

7th January 2011

The British Film Institute’s re-release of the sophisticated 1960’s classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s this month – as part of a celebratory season – offers a welcome opportunity to admire the unique screen persona of Audrey Hepburn once more. Jack Watkins is more than impressed…

Billy Wilder once admitted that it had taken him five seconds to fall in love with Audrey Hepburn…

Five seconds! How come it took him so long? For most people, regardless of gender, infatuation happened within the blink of an eyelid… Hepburn was never, of course, a screen goddess in the distant, worshipful way of Greta Garbo, or a statuesque exotic like Sophia Loren, or a screeching siren like Marilyn Monroe. But this delicate little wisp of a thing had an allure all her own that has been just as enduring.

If you seek proof, it lies in the British Film Institute’s re-release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s this month, fifty years after the original premiere. Like most of Hepburn’s lighter-than air-confections, it’s no perfect classic, yet, almost entirely because of its star, its images cling to the memory far longer than those of many weightier movies.

It’s no surprise that a DVD collection of some her best films (including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face and My Fair Lady) is called Audrey: the Couture Muse Collection. Only one actress in living memory has come near to matching her ineffable style, and that was Grace Kelly. It’s scarcely a coincidence, either, that the heyday of both ladies was the 1950s and, in Hepburn’s case, the early 1960s: that period when the social tectonic plates were shifting, and yet elegance, white gloves and good manners still held sway.

To attribute Hepburn’s lasting appeal to her chicness alone, though, would be a total misjudgement. If she, like Kelly, sometimes resembled a walking clothes-hanger, she had none of the latter’s icy aloofness. You can talk about Hepburn and her Givenchy costumes all day, but what stays with you, surely, is her vitality, the ecstatic sparkle of her huge dark eyes, the wide, pearly radiance of her smile – and her generosity. For all that you can’t take your eyes off her on screen, she seems without major vanity, so that her co-stars are never diminished in her presence. The camera laps up the magic of her expressiveness, sure enough, but she does not seem knowingly to court its attention. She was graceful and ladylike, yet somehow ordinary and spontaneous, too – delightedly leaping onto a moped as the princess slipping out for some proletarian pleasure in Roman Holiday, for instance, or treating us to a fabulously improvised dance in a Paris nightclub in Funny Face.

All this meant that she reached out to her audiences, and drew them in. Men didn’t feel intimidated by her – as they might have done by Grace Kelly – and women, while enviously noting the way she had of making fine clothes look like they were designed for her alone, probably felt sisterly rather than jealous of her girlish buoyancy. Skinny women were relieved that thin was suddenly in. Interestingly, too, Hepburn was often partnered with leading men far senior to her, and this felt right, too. Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Rex Harrison and Cary Grant were between twenty and thirty years older than she , and no-one seemed uncomfortable about it. Even Gregory Peck, cast opposite her in Roman Holiday, was thirteen years her senior. Somehow, she brought out a gallantry in these men that was never condescending.

It’s worth remembering too that, although she became a Hollywood Great, she was, technically speaking, a British export. How ever did we let her get away?

She was born in 1929, to an Anglo-Irish banker and a Dutch baroness. If that sounds privileged, it wasn’t without hardship. Her parents divorced when she was six, and she lived with her father, who was a prominent member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. When the War broke out, her mother took her back to Holland, believing that it would remain neutral, but the family became trapped on the family estate at Arnhem – her brother was sent away to a concentration camp – forced to live on a diet of turnips and tulip bulbs. Audrey later ran messages for the Dutch underground, sustained by dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. She would carry the physical scars of this period for the rest of her life.

Back in peacetime London, she won a scholarship to the Ballet Rambert, but was too tall, and so joined the West End chorus line. She did have a few minor parts in British films, but myopic domestic movie moguls missed their chance as the French novelist Colette, bewitched by Audrey’s gamine beauty, whisked the terrified young creature off to Broadway to star in the stage adaptation of Gigi. “I’d only said a few lines in my whole acting career,” Hepburn later recalled – but her performance was a storming success, and Hollywood beckoned. William Wyler’s somewhat soporific Roman Holiday (1953) was her first leading film role, and brilliantly timed, coming the same year as Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Gregory Peck insisted she got top billing, since he was certain she’d outshine him and win an Oscar – and she did.

She was actually better in Sabrina (1954), opposite Humphrey Bogart. This predictable Cinderella story is somehow made special not just by Hepburn, but by its subdued, autumnal air and, seen now with hindsight, the knowledge that her co-star had only three years left to live. The musical Funny Face (1957) is the film that drew attention to her Givenchy glamour, yet her doe-eyed loveliness, her character, intelligence and spirit are arguably as potent in the early scenes of her as a ‘dowdy’ bookseller, as in her subsequent transformation into a Paris model. The soft-focus moment where she and Astaire dance by a church meadow has a dream-like beauty, and her smoky night club dance is a deliriously entertaining, freestyle counterpoint to Astaire’s dapper classicism.

Each of these three films is central to the Hepburn legend, yet Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains the most revered. Why? It has a sentimental ending, a horribly misjudged Japanese caricature from Mickey Rooney, and Hepburn herself wilfully sugar-coats the bittersweet reality of her character Holly Golightly’s existence… but who, even so, can forget the opening shots of dawn on New York’s Fifth Avenue as, to the gentle accompaniment of the theme song Moon River, Holly alights from a yellow cab to gaze longingly into the jeweller’s window? Or the most swinging cocktail part of all time, where she hypnotises her cat with her oversize cigarette holder and sets light to someone’s hat? Or, later, when she and George Peppard execute petty larceny in a gift store?

Holly – like the cat she refuses to name – is a free spirit, which is why the conclusion is far too tidy. Hepburn was always a free spirit, too, in a non-threatening, Hollywood sort of way. For some, she’s all about glamour and regality. But while romance was central to her films, she also epitomised youth and vitality, and a dawning age when women dressed for themselves – and other women – as much as men, and when they certainly weren’t going to grow up to look like their grandmothers. And that’s why she still sizzles on the screen today.

The Audrey Hepburn season at the BFI Southbank runs until 30 January.

(Breakfast at Tiffany’s from 21 January to 3 February).

See www.bfi.org.uk for more details and to book online.

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