Retrospective Roundtable

The Films of Audrey Hepburn

This month’s retrospective focuses on one of Classic Hollywood’s most beloved actresses. Known for her sense of fashion and screen presence, Audrey Hepburn elevates each film she performs in from the dramatic The Children’s Hour to the thrilling Wait Until Dark. Dabbling into musical performances, Hepburn demonstrates a strong versatility in acting that one might not realize if one hasn’t delved into her filmography beyond the classics. Read below to join us in exploring Audrey Hepburn’s films in the latest entry in our monthly column:

Roman Holiday (1953)

By Eugene Kang

Roman HolidayFor such a delightful film, Roman Holiday had so much working against it. It was the first major American production to actually film in Rome, which was still recovering from the devastation of World War II. It was so expensive to shoot outside in real locations that it had to be filmed in black and white instead of color.

This story of a princess who runs away from her regal duties for a day to gallivant around Rome while a reporter and his friend secretly document her adventures was written by John Dighton and Dalton Trumbo, the famously blacklisted writer, who couldn’t even put his own name on his screenplay. Hepburn was also a relative unknown, and this would be her first major film role. Yet director William Wyler knew he had something special with the newcomer Hepburn. He had ordered his assistant director to keep filming after the screen test was officially over so as to see Hepburn in a more relaxed state. What Wyler saw in that screen test was a natural charisma and charm of such power that they included some of the screen test footage in trailers for Roman Holiday. Even when she betrays some of her patrician upbringing when she orders around Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), she is so naturally likable that we are charmed. She is also quite funny. Even though Hepburn sounded naturally posh, it’s clear that she was self-aware enough to use it to comic effect, such as when she is in her semi-drugged state. Everyone in that production knew how special Hepburn was, including Gregory Peck, who would insist that the unknown actress receive equal billing with him, which was then unheard of.

Sabrina (1954)

By Henry Baime

SabrinaAfter rising to stardom with her Best Actress winning role in William Wyler’s 1953 classic, Roman Holiday, Audrey Hepburn followed up her success with more success as she played the titular role in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina and received another Best Actress nomination and won the BAFTA, taking further steps toward her status as a Hollywood icon. The film sees her playing the daughter of a chauffeur who has long been enamored with a wealthy member of the family (played by William Holden) who employs her father and begins to notice her following her return from Paris, threatening the future of his company and causing his brother (Humphrey Bogart) to intervene. The trio at the forefront of the film have an excellent chemistry throughout that carries the entire production but Hepburn is the strongest player of the lot, realizing a transformation over the course of the years of the film’s plot while turning every second on her despite having a role that mostly serves to promote the development of Holden and Bogart’s brothers. Going well beyond the role written for her, with a story told in every glance, Hepburn is truly a wonder to behold.

Funny Face (1957)

By Kevin Jones

Funny FaceSomehow, Audrey Hepburn was cast alongside Fred Astaire in this musical as a young girl who has a “funny face”. One would have to be insane to describe Hepburn as having a “funny face”, but nonetheless, this musical from Stanley Donen encapsulates all that makes her an alluring screen presence. It has perhaps the defining moment of her career in my eyes with her descending a set of stairs and throwing her arms up in the air while wearing a striking red dress. The style, flair, and affability, she possesses makes her impossible to look away from in any role and Funny Face is no exception. She may be no great singer – she would even be dubbed over in her later musical role in My Fair Lady – Hepburn captures the energy needed to carry a role such as this. She is charming and funny, while possessing a frenetic energy about her that suits this sugary sweet and upbeat musical to a tee. It can be hard to perform alongside or in the same film as a master dancer such as Fred Astaire, yet she holds her own, making up for any slight flaws with her unmatchable screen presence. Though not as highly regarded as some of Donen’s other films or Hepburn’s other films, Funny Face nonetheless underscores so much of what I love about Audrey Hepburn. No matter the role, she throws herself into it entirely and elevates the entire production to her level by simply being herself.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

By Nick Davie

Breakfast at Tiffany'sPerhaps Hepburn’s most famous performance, as the socialite Holly Golightly, often found frequenting New York’s Tiffany’s jewellery store, has her life altered when she falls for creative new neighbour Paul Varjak (George Peppard). The role of Golightly perfectly portrayed by Hepburn, who brilliantly combines the naivety and eccentricity of the 50s extroverted party-girl. Breakfast at Tiffany’s character Holly became the Hepburn prototype for her other notable roles, such as Regina in Charade and Gabrielle/Gaby in Paris When It Sizzles. The influential role of Holly Golightly would see Hepburn nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars and further embed her status as a cultural icon for years to come. The role is perhaps not credited enough for its nuanced observations about Golightly’s past that she so desperately tries to hide and deny. Whilst money-centric, naive and ostentatious, Holly hides her youthful marriage from new romance Paul, creating a witty back and forth between the pair. Though the film’s politics and portrayal of minorities are somewhat outdated and questionable on reflection, the performance of Hepburn in the adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella is still considered a career high-point. A role Capote himself had earmarked for Marilyn Monroe, an alleged Paramount double crossing led to Hepburn’s casting- Monroe would be left disappointed, but Hepburn etched furthermore into Hollywood history.

The Children’s Hour (1961)

By Nick Adrian

The Children's HourWhen people think of Audrey Hepburn, general opinion seems to remember her as more of a “movie star” than an “actress” – meaning her reputation often overshadowed her actual talent. This is unfair because she could be an incredibly captivating dramatic talent, she just didn’t always have the projects to prove it. This is especially evident in her role in William Wyler’s 1961 film The Children’s Hour. Based on the play of the same name by Lillian Hellman, it follows former college classmates and close friends Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) as the leaders of a private school for girls whose lives and reputations are shattered by one of their students spreading a rumor that they are lovers.

Despite this theme, the word “lesbian” is never mentioned in the film. In fact, due to the strict censorship of its day, not much is ever explicitly stated. Hellman’s play debuted in the 30s and dealt even more frankly on the subject but the supposed allegations in Wyler’s film are merely hinted at. Still, it was a slightly more progressive Hollywood that never exploited its theme but rather exploited the prejudiced reactions towards it. It’s not exactly an early example of a queer film and might even be considered a bit insensitive by today’s standards, but it was at least a step in the right direction for more forward-thinking American filmmaking. It could even be seen as a risky step in Hepburn’s career, shedding her glamour and allure for a more dramatic and important role. In short, The Children’s Hour is an often overlooked entry into Hepburn’s filmography that boasts one her more impressive performances and proves she was at times interested in taking a risk.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

By Nick Adrian

Paris When It SizzlesConsidered a lesser entry in Audrey Hepburn’s filmography, Richard Quine’s romantic comedy Paris When It Sizzles deserves a reevaluation. It focuses on famed Hollywood screenwriter Richard Benson (William Holden), who has just sold a pitch for a new script without writing a word of it. Enter Gabrielle Simpson (Hepburn), a secretary Benson hires to quickly help him finish a draft before his deadline. Her presence proves helpful as the two not only brainstorm several directions in which to taken the film, but also ignite a romance between themselves.

The film is unconventional in that while the majority of it is spent in Benson’s Parisian apartment shooting ideas off of each other, the rest is made up of imaginary scenarios and vignettes to visually display the ideas as a film-within-a-film with Benson and Simpson as the leads. Drafts for their script, ‘The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower’, range from a vampire tale, to an action-packed western, to a Hitchcock-inspired crime caper. This provides several opportunities for Quine’s film to playfully parody movie clichés – from the campiness of horror films to the high intellectualism of the burgeoning New Wave. Its an early example of the “meta” humor that’s gotten increasingly popular today, featuring fourth-wall gags, celebrity cameos (Tony Curtis, Marlene Deitrich, Frank Sinatra…’s voice) and several opportunities for Hollywood making fun of itself. It boasts almost slapstick performances from Holden and Hepburn that might have rubbed audiences the wrong way upon initial release. It didn’t get great reviews but, to me at least, Paris When It Sizzles feels ahead of its time. Its a fun, lighthearted film that’s due for a reappraisal and deserves to be a more represented work of Hepburn’s.

Wait Until Dark (1967)

By Eugene Kang

Wait Until DarkTo be frank, Wait Until Dark won’t do much for audiences for much of its running time. Wait Until Dark betrays its origins as a stage play by staying in Audrey Hepburn’s apartment and rarely utilizes the film medium to its greatest potential. Hepburn plays a blind woman who is beset by dishonest men who want to retrieve a doll stuffed with drugs that has found itself in her possession under unlikely circumstances. Much of the film is dialogue-driven and relies on rather demanding suspensions of disbelief (is there really no one else in that apartment complex?). Yet despite its flaws, the film is compelling to watch because of Hepburn, whose natural sympathy shines through. Hepburn and director Terence Young also did their research to make Hepburn convincingly blind, mainly in her physicality. Hepburn gave off a natural elegance, so it is quite effective when her poise is undercut, especially in the last twenty minutes of the movie, which takes place mostly in the dark and is easily the best part of this film. Also, Alan Arkin plays an almost comical villain (he wears three disguises!) yet he is such a threatening, insidious presence, we only fear for Hepburn’s safety even more. Arkin’s clearly method-influenced acting against Hepburn’s more traditional style is the most interesting interaction in this film and makes this movie worth sitting through a somewhat dry first half.

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