“For the woman who’s most loved in the world…” says Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer, “…to have such a lack of love is so sad.” The woman Emma speaks of is her grandmother, Hollywood darling, UNICEF ambassador, and cultural icon Audrey Hepburn. To most, Hepburn is the star donning that famous “little black dress” and smoking a cigarette with a quellazaire as her character Holly Golightly from 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A radiant screen figure whose pop culture presence is often comparable to fellow icon Marilyn Monroe, though the two couldn’t be more different. In a time when the silver screen was mostly covered in leading ladies either classified as “bombshells” or “girls next door,” Hepburn’s gentle, almost regal nature represented a different kind of star. Her fresh look made her a sensation overnight after winning the Best Actress Oscar for 1954’s Roman Holiday and she started churning out films steadily for the next decade. However, Helena Coan’s 2020 documentary Audrey is more interested in Audrey the person rather than Audrey the movie star. Her lifelong dedication to being kind, caring, and giving the same love that took her so long to find makes for a more compelling topic than any behind-the-scenes Hollywood look.
Audrey is a pretty straightforward look at the actor’s life starting with her upbringing in Brussels under her parents Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston and Baroness Ella van Heemstra. Her mother and father both came from money and were fervent Nazi supporters before the war. Ruston left the family when Audrey was six, leaving an emptiness felt then and for the rest of her life. Hepburn – then called Audrey Kathleen Ruston, whose name would later be changed to hide her British heritage – lived through WWII firsthand, narrowly escaping capture and just barely living after starvation. Once safe from the war, she pursued her true passion, ballet dancing. Though acting was far from her mind, she was eventually discovered and cast in the role of Gigi on Broadway which would lead to a starring role opposite Gregory Peck in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday as well as an Oscar win.
Thus kickstarts not only Audrey’s film career, but the rest of her life moving forward. She would soon find herself married to fellow actor Mel Ferrer with whom she would have her first son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer. This marriage, and her burgeoning Hollywood career, would quickly diminish. As she found herself in a new marriage with Andrea Dotti, and a new son in Luca Dotti, she also found herself a new career move. Her entire life’s wish up to that point was to have children and now that she did, leaving them during long film shoots was too much for her to bear. This began a shift in her life where she would more or less retire from acting and focus on raising her family.
Soon, her marriage would end as well. Hepburn never remarried, but took solace in a final partner, Robert Wolders. At this stage in her life, she was called to become an ambassador for UNICEF. She had remembered the organization’s work from her own days living through the war and felt it was important to reciprocate what they had done for her. In what might be the most important work of her career, she spent her later years using her star power to travel the world and combat world hunger.
What viewers might be a bit upset by at first is that Audrey doesn’t spend too much time on the titular actress’ actual Hollywood career. Some of the bigger titles are represented and hit on (Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, etc.) with some great anecdotes and trivia on the making-of. But die-hard Hollywood fans should know that her film work is almost an afterthought in this story. That’s because this doc isn’t about Audrey’s films, but about Audrey herself. And if there’s anything we can learn from it, it’s that while terribly important to her and while it’s what she’s known for, Audrey’s films were never her priority.
From the beginning of Audrey it is suggested that the loss of Joseph Ruston from Audrey’s life left an unfillable void. Along with this, Baroness van Heemstra was a strict and stern woman, rarely showing love unless she felt it was deserved. It seemed Audrey tried to find that lost love in her romantic interests, though she was often unlucky in this regard. Ferrer and Dotti were notably unfaithful and more career-centric than family centric. Though she was adored by millions of fans, it was never enough to take the place of a more personal and intimate love. It’s what she strived for her entire life for and this is something Coan understands.
At its heart, Audrey is about a woman who spent her entire life putting her real passions to the side as she searched for the love she deserved. She couldn’t be a dancer, so she became an actress. She couldn’t have a relationship with her father, so she turned towards older, more dominating men. She was notorious for giving the love that she never got, which eventually found itself in her family and her charity work. Coan understands what history often forgets: Audrey Hepburn was so much more than the classy young woman everyone pictures in their heads when they think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She survived a war and used that trauma and empathy to fuel her later life’s work in other countries. “Humanitarian” is a word often associated with the actress, but perhaps “actress” should be the word associated with the humanitarian.
There are other aspects casual viewers might not enjoy about Audrey. While understandable, the documentary is far too short. Some of the several important aspects felt like they were merely touched on (some of her most notable acting roles were even overlooked). The doc is also occasionally interrupted with dances from three ballerinas, representing three different stages of Audrey’s life, that some viewers might find tiresome. While it might alter the project’s pacing, the choice also humanizes it just as much as the rare audio and never-before-seen archival footage. Interviews from Hepburn’s friends and family as well as industry professionals she worked with such as Richard Dreyfuss and Peter Bogdonavich ground and support the information. It is surely a treat for any die-hard fan but, as stated before, any vintage Hollywood aficionados should know her film career is hardly the primary focus. The focus, in essence, is love – because that was Hepburn’s focus. Some of her own words in the doc’s final moments are “When I love, I love unconditionally,” and that is enough to represent the film on its own.