The daughter of a Dutch baroness and an English fascist, Audrey Hepburn seemed to come from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly. Having won an Academy Award for her Hollywood debut, Roman Holiday (1953), she became the embodiment of a new kind of screen chic. But, while she tired of playing gamine Cinderellas, she was restricted in her ambition to grow as an actor by her protective but controlling husband, Mel Ferrer. By the time she freed herself, she had decided she no longer wanted to be a movie star. Hepburn only appeared in four films in the last 25 years of her all-too-brief life, but the 16 she made between 1953-67 brought her five Oscar nominations and helped redefine cinematic charisma.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Director William Wyler
Having played the role of a lifetime while hiding her English origins in Nazi-occupied Holland, Audrey Hepburn was subsisting on walk-ons in British pictures when the French author Colette spotted her on location for Monte Carlo Baby (1951) and cast her in the Broadway production of Gigi. Such was the acclaim that William Wyler insisted on selecting her over Jean Simmons as the runaway princess who charms American reporter Gregory Peck while scooting around the Eternal City on his Vespa. Enchantingly combining demure innocence with mischievous poise, Hepburn deservedly won an Oscar. She later reunited with Wyler on The Children’s Hour (1961) and How to Steal a Million (1966).
Director Billy Wilder
Despite jokingly telling Time magazine that she still had “to learn how to act”, Hepburn followed her Oscar with a Tony for Ondine before starting her seven-year deal with Paramount with Billy Wilder’s featherlight take on Samuel Taylor’s stage fairytale about the chauffeur’s daughter who falls for the boss’s son(s). Unable to land Cary Grant to play William Holden’s older brother, Wilder plumped for Humphrey Bogart, who took an instant dislike to his inexperienced co-star. Conversely, Holden fell in love with Hepburn and tried to rekindle their affair on Paris When It Sizzles (1964). But her only lasting relationship forged during the shoot was with designer Hubert de Givenchy.
Funny Face (1957)
Director Stanley Donen
A trained ballerina whose skills had illuminated Thorold Dickinson’s The Secret People (1952), Hepburn was so keen to co-star with idol Fred Astaire that she declined Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958) to play the Parisian bookstore clerk who inspires a visiting American photographer. Dressed in beatnik black, Hepburn proves a graceful partner in a Pygmalion scenario that screenwriter Leonard Gershe based on Richard Avedon’s relationship with model Dorcas Nowell. Cinematographer Ray June lovingly captures Hepburn’s elfin beauty in close-ups that cannily comment on the changing face of filmic technology. Indeed, director Stanley Donen anticipates French New Wave self-reflexivity with his dazzling visual ingenuity and witty parodies of modernity and MGM glitz.
Love in the Afternoon (1957)
Director Billy Wilder
Although Hepburn broke the record fee for an actress when she received $350,000 to headline King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956), Hollywood never quite trusted her to carry weighty dramas, especially when she excelled at frothy confections like Billy Wilder’s version of Claude Anet’s novel, Ariane. The story of a Parisian detective’s daughter who warns a philandering businessman about a jealous husband’s murderous intentions bore a resemblance to Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which Wilder had written for Ernst Lubitsch. But it wasn’t the amorality of the subject matter that caused ructions but the age difference between Hepburn (27) and Gary Cooper (55). Nevertheless, they delight in an undervalued gem.
The Nun’s Story (1959)
Director Fred Zinnemann
Between turning down the part of Anne Frank and playing an Amazonian bird girl in Green Mansions (1959), Hepburn accepted the role that changed her life. While making Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s novel about Belgian nursing sister Marie-Louise Habets, Hepburn became aware of the humanitarian activities of the United Nations, to which she would devote the latter part of her life. But, by spending preparatory time inside a convent, she also discovered a new approach to acting and channelled the pain of suffering a miscarriage into Sister Luke’s struggles with obedience and taking pride in her Congan missionary achievements. Variety declared it her finest performance.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Director Blake Edwards
Having played a racially abused Native American in John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960), Hepburn landed the role of Holly Golightly that author Truman Capote had always envisaged for Marilyn Monroe. As an introvert, Hepburn admitted “playing the extroverted girl was the hardest thing I ever did”. Yet, despite “the mean reds”, she looks so cool in Givenchy’s “little black dress” and so sweet sitting on a window ledge strumming a guitar along to ‘Moon River’ that it’s often difficult to remember how she survives (“Here’s $50 for the powder room”) in the New York she inhabits alongside struggling writer George Peppard and a stray marmalade tabby named Cat.
Director Stanley Donen
After several near misses, Hepburn finally got to co-star with Cary Grant in Stanley Donen’s wittily engrossing spy thriller, which afforded her the opportunity to engage in a little North by Northwest (1959) pastiche after she had turned down Alfred Hitchcock’s No Bail for the Judge in 1959 because it contained a rape scene. It goes without saying that the pair’s byplay is exquisite, recalling Grant’s pursuit by another Hepburn in Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938). Yet, if Grant hadn’t disliked Hawks’s script for Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964), the wonderfully villainous trio of Walter Matthau, James Coburn and George Kennedy would have been menacing Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood instead.
My Fair Lady (1964)
Director George Cukor
A lot is said about Hepburn depriving Julie Andrews of the role of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle that she had created on Broadway, but few remember that Paramount had once planned to star Hepburn in a non-musical biopic of Maria von Trapp. Rex Harrison did retain the role of Henry Higgins after Cary Grant famously declined. Yet, while Hepburn would miss out on an Oscar nomination after George Cukor forced her to mime to Marni Nixon’s playback, she earned her $1m fee by rising admirably to the challenge of a Shavian situation that must have reminded her of her own postwar diction classes with veteran actor Felix Aylmer.
Two for the Road (1967)
Director Stanley Donen
Hepburn was 36 when Stanley Donen and screenwriter Frederic Raphael talked her into a project she not only felt was risqué but also came excruciatingly close to home. With her own relationship with Mel Ferrer in serious difficulty, rumours spread that she and younger co-star Albert Finney had become exceedingly close while making this modishly non-linear cross-France chronicle of a 12-year marriage drifting towards the rocks. Yet Finney challenged Hepburn to jettison many of her trademark mannerisms and reinvent herself as a mature woman who had bitter rows rather than witty repartée and wanted sex as well as romance. Consequently, she came as close as she ever did to playing herself.
Wait until Dark (1967)
Director Terence Young
Hepburn earned her fifth Oscar nomination for her beguiling display of vulnerability and mettle in Terence Young’s oppressively tense adaptation of Frederick Knott’s stage hit. She prepared assiduously at the Lighthouse for the Blind in New York and took lessons in Braille and using a white stick. Thus, she resented being forced to wear contact lenses to hide her expressive eyes. But they also masked the pain of her off-screen problems with producer-husband Mel Ferrer and, following their divorce, Hepburn quit the screen for nine years. She then donned a habit once more to co-star with Sean Connery in Richard Lester’s touching paean to lost youth, Robin and Marian (1976).