A Film Documentary about Audrey Hepburn. Written and Directed by Helena Coan. Available on Netflix.
Audrey Hepburn, born Audrey Kathleen Ruston (1929 –1993), was a beauty, fashion, film and humanitarian icon about whom a negative word was never said. At a time when female film stars fell into one of three categories- sex pots (Marilyn Monroe), girls next door (Doris Day), or smart aleck noir girls (Barbara Stanwyck), Hepburn defied classification. She was a gamine (not the usual tomboy type) with class. By all accounts as gracious as she was graceful, she opened herself to unconditionally loving (her own words) in reaction to a history that offered only scraps.
This film takes us from war torn childhood in Europe through success in Hollywood and her committed work for UNICEF. Film and photos are copious. Hepburn’s own voice often comments. We hear from her son Sean, granddaughter Emma, family friend, Andrew Wald, and close women friends; from the grandson of Richard Avedon whose story became Funny Face to a former artistic director at Givenchy who addresses an image collaboration unique in film; from critic Molly Haskell, to people who worked with her, to those who worked for her becoming a tight knit family.
Hepburn’s mother was an apparently critical Dutch noblewoman, her adored father, British. The Rustons supported the Nazis. When she was four, Mr. Ruston abandoned the family for England where he joined the Black Shirts (Fascists.) The little girl dreamed of life as a dancer. Hoping The Netherlands would remain neutral, she was sent to family and school in Amsterdam. There she lost herself in ballet.
When Germany invaded, she and her relatives lived in cellars scrounging for food. (Hepburn describes this as having made empathy acute where children in need were later concerned.) She developed acute anemia, respiratory problems, and edema. “Had we known that we were going to be occupied for five years, we might have all shot ourselves,” she says. After liberation, a dance scholarship enabled going to England. When she was told extended malnutrition and lack of technique would prevent a career, musical chorus lines and small movie roles provided work. There’s film on a lot of this.
In the south of France to shoot 1952’s Monte Carlo Baby (Nous Irons à Monte Carlo), Hepburn was spotted by the author Colette who asked her to New York to play Gigi on Broadway. The play ran for 219 performances. Back in England, William Wyler was looking for an unknown to star with Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Both these pivotal events slide by without details. “We feel closer to her because she had no training and had to draw on her own experience,” film critic Molly Haskell notes. The nascent actress won a Best Actress Academy Award.
Couturier Hubert de Givenchy expected Katherine Hepburn when Audrey arrived, but was soon captivated by her. A lifelong friendship ensued during which a new, minimalist, but feminine style was created as exemplified in the films Sabrina, Funny Face, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When the producers wanted to cut “Moon River” out of the latter, Hepburn declared, “’Over my dead body.” She was, her friends tell us, a lioness in her professional life, but insecure with romantic relationships.
The actress was married to Mel Ferrer 17 years before they “drifted apart.” Husband and wife lived and worked together. Her son describes the liaison as warm and positive despite his difficult father. She appeared in The Children’s Hour showing unexpected range and took singing lessons for My Fair Lady, dubbed because executives thought comparison wouldn’t hold up to Julie Andrews. After 1967, at the height of her career, Hepburn stepped away from film 10 years to be with her son. “It was a loving and selfish decision,” she declares unequivocally.
Her next husband, Dr. Andrea Dotti, was a commanding Italian. A second son, Luca, was born. Neighbors remember her as thoroughly unpretentious. The Dottis lived in Rome. Unfortunately, her new spouse had the cliché Mediterranean attitude that men were entitled to mistresses. He had many. Friends were surprised she stuck it out so long before divorce. Films during this and the next chapter are skipped over.
Hepburn was introduced to the handsome, much younger Robert Wolders, who had been Merle Oberon’s life partner, by friends. They were happy together the rest of her life and never married. I met the couple at Givenchy’s 50th Anniversary Tribute, a fundraiser for The Fashion Institute of Technology where I was employed. She was wraith thin, utterly charming, and ethereal. He was protective, proud, respectful and warm. The couple lived a quiet life until she once again agreed to become a public figure – for children. Wolders traveled with her on UNICEF expeditions..
There’s a great deal of coverage on Hepburn’s time in third world countries among the emaciated, deprived and diseased. “We’re not in a World War. There’s no reason for children to go hungry,” Hepburn declares. “I’m filled with a rage. What happened to collective responsibility?! Amen. Five years later, UNICEF had doubled in size.
Audrey Hepburn kept her Cancer secret as long as she could. She died, surrounded by loved ones, leaving sizeable legacy.
The only thing wrong with this cinematic portrait is the irritating and unnecessary use of ballerinas, one for each of three periods in her life. These move separately in shadow and then together, taking us out of narrative rather than deepening it. Otherwise the piece is well put together and does exactly what it purports to- showing us a remarkable, many-faceted woman.
Featured photo: Public domain studio publicity portrait for the film Sabrina with William Holden and Audrey Hepburn.