Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) was an engaging screen actress who won an Academy Award in 1954 for her work in Roman Holiday. She also worked with the United Nations to alleviate the misery of the poor.
Peerless in her screen presence, actress Audrey Hepburn had huge brown eyes, a husky voice, and a dancer's gracefulness—qualities that seduced the entire moviegoing world. While Hepburn was never an actress with a wide range and had very little acting training, she was never boring. According to People, Humphrey Bogart once said of her style, "With Audrey it's kind of unpredictable. She's like a good tennis player—she varies her shots." Certainly every fan has chosen his or her favorite Hepburn moment; for some its Hepburn's regal entrance in the denouement of My Fair Lady, with her towering hairdo and sweetly serious expression, while others may prefer her playful dance sequence in a book store in Funny Face. In any case, Hepburn's most successful movies capitalized on her childlike qualities, pairing her with an older actor whose character was eventually disarmed by her inestimable charm. Several years after she was chosen by Colette to star in the Broadway version of the French author's Gigi, Hepburn burst onto the Hollywood scene with 1953's Roman Holiday. Costarring Gregory Peck, the film tells the tale of a runaway princess who is shown around Rome by a reporter smitten with love for her. He nonetheless convinces her to resume her royal duties. The role landed Hepburn an Oscar at the tender young age of 24 for best actress. Full of adoration, Jay Cocks described the last scene of the film in Time, remarking that Peck's close up expressions of loss "would have been nonsense if Peck did not have something wonderful and irreplaceable to miss. He had Audrey Hepburn."
Her Humanitarian Work
In turn, Hepburn yielded to a calling other than acting, preferring to spend her time with her two sons and working for UNICEF. "If there was a cross between the salt of the earth and a regal queen," Shirley MacLaine told People, "then she was it." An articulate and impassioned spokeswoman, Hepburn was named the goodwill ambassador for the international children's relief organization UNICEF in 1988. Instead of using the title for travel privileges and charity balls, Hepburn worked in the field, nursing sick children and reporting on the suffering she witnessed. Her last plea proved most moving; Hepburn had traveled to Somalia in the fall of 1992, and her sad but hopeful account galvanized the world's response to the dreadful famine and warfare that would eventually kill thousands in that West African country. For all her otherworldly good looks, Hepburn was a down-to-earth, sensible actress in a Hollywood of excess.
Perhaps Hepburn's humility sprung from her childhood. Her father, an English-Irish banker, deserted her family when she was only 8 years old. Another traumatic mark was left by the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II. Her mother, a Dutch baroness, had sent the youngster to the Germanic nation at the beginning of the war to live with relatives. People noted that "along with her grandparents, she received food from a relief agency—UNICEF's precursor. 'Your soul is nourished by all your experiences,' she once said.'It gives you baggage for the future—and ammunition, if you like."' The once chubby Hepburn was whittled down by a diet that sometimes consisted only of flour made from tulip bulbs; nonetheless, as a fledgling ballet dancer, she sometimes carried messages for the Resistance in her toe shoes. Many years later she politely refused to make a movie of The Diary of Anne Frank as she felt the young Jewish girl's experience of World War II too closely mirrored her own. While memories of fear, deprivation, and cattlecars full of deportees populated her dreams for the rest of her life, Hepburn utilized her experiences in ministering to the world's starving children, many of whom did not know that the beautiful woman was a movie star.
Hepburn and her mother moved to England to pursue her dance career after the war. She was cast in bits parts on stage and screen in both Holland and England before she had the good fortune to be discovered by Colette in Monte Carlo, Monaco. Because Colette insisted Hepburn play Gigi, the young woman was thrust into an entertainment world that would compete fiercely for her. In 1952 she won a Theatre World Award for Gigi, followed a year later by the Academy Award she won for Roman Holiday. A hot commodity, director Billy Wilder snapped her up in 1954 for his new film. Sabrina, about a chauffeur's daughter whose education in Paris makes her the toast of Long Island society, costarred William Holden and Humphrey Bogart as her love interests. Eventually Hepburn shared the screen with all the best leading men of her time: Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Rex Harrison, Mel Ferrer (whom she wed in 1954 and divorced in 1968), and Sean Connery. Of Hepburn's 27 films, quite a few have become classics and only a few films are generally acknowledged to be bad. Although Hepburn had knocked everyone out with her 1956 portrayal of Natasha in War and Peace, another big movie did not fare so well. Green Mansions was a fantasy in which Hepburn gamboled as a birdgirl. Directed by Ferrer, the adaptation from W. H. Hudson's novel of the same name was thought laughable by some. The same year, 1959, she made her first serious film, The Nun's Story. Seeking meatier roles, Hepburn disinte-grating during a motorcycle trip across France. Hepburn and Albert Finney were applauded for their realistic portrayals. After l967's spooky Wait Until Dark, in which she plays a blind woman who ultimately bests a psychotic, Hepburn took on an extended sabbatical. Acting became secondary in her life, as she bore a child at age 40 during her 13-year marriage to Italian physician Andrea Dotti. Hepburn made only four more movies between 1976 and 1989. The last, Always, featured her in a cameo as an angel. Money was not a consideration; besides her own income, Hepburn lived in Switzerland with Robert Wolders, the wealthy widower of actress Merle Oberon, for the last 12 years of her life (she died in 1993). Though Hepburn was nominated for three Oscars after Roman Holiday, she never won again. Shortly before her death, she was given the Screen Actors Guild award for lifetime achievement. Unable to accept in person she sent actress Julia Roberts to accept the honor in her place. While Hepburn's acting was highly appreciated in her lifetime, she would doubtless prefer to be remembered as UNICEF's hardworking fairy godmother.
Further Reading on Audrey Hepburn
Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1993
Detroit Free Press, January 21, 1993
Entertainment Weekly, February 5, 1993
New York Times, January 25, 1993
People, February 1, 1993
Time, February 1, 1993
Times (London), January 22, 1993