|Scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's|
She loved more than fashion. She loved life.
I am rather sure that many people have had similar experiences to me when discovering their first Audrey Hepburn movie. For most, it is likely Breakfast at Tiffany's or Roman Holiday. For me, it was My Fair Lady; a film that should have been more problematic than it was. For starters, Eliza Doolittle's accent is nails-on-chalkboard weird and Hepburn had her singing dubbed by someone else. Yet somehow, there was a presence that escaped the rascally edges of the performance. It was a transformation that mixed physicality, song and comedy with beauty and language. It is a performance so charismatic that I was immediately in love and have been for the better part of two years now.
But what makes Hepburn my favorite? She doesn't necessarily have the biggest range. In fact, she almost can be described as "quaint" in every role with her low-toned voice and elegant demeanor. Yes these are limitations, but considering other icons such as cowboy John Wayne or silent clown Harpo Marx, it is about buying into a personality. In this case, Hepburn was the classy, fashionable girl that is still something to aspire for. If you see enough of her work, it becomes a trope that she goes overseas and returns with better outfits. She is the young and carefree world traveler that we all wish to be. However, she isn't as careless as this would imply. Despite her presence, she has a cautious sensibility that makes even her more iconic roles such as Holly Golightly or Sabrina Fairchild have a certain timelessness to them. There were other films from the 50's and 60's (such as How to Marry a Millionaire) that mixed sexual politics with feminism and failed. For what it's worth, Hepburn could get the man and still be empowering.
Another one of her many subversive techniques comes in how easy it is to underestimate her talent. Funny Face is a film that feels cliche on paper: plain-looking girl becomes fashion icon. For the most part, the structure isn't all that different from a typical romance. However, with direction by the great Stanley Donen, it becomes a musical that highlights even better than My Fair Lady why Hepburn was timeless. For starters, she sung her own songs. Add in a phenomenal dance routine in a French nightclub in between beautiful cinematography and songs, and it makes perfect sense. In that singular moment, she dances with personality, bringing the moment to life. It isn't just the physicality, but her facial reactions and placement within the scene. It is electric and the highlight of a film full of great moments. If you must understand Hepburn's appeal in one scene, this is it. It may not be the most fashionable, but it knocks you out.
While she was known for playing this archetype, it wasn't her only role. She played sympathetic and reserved nun in The Nun Story in which her fashion was reserved to a black robe. It was here that we're able to see that she brought humanity to the role, creating depth and sympathy in a film full of conflicting topics. Even in problematic films like War and Peace, she brought enthusiasm to the role and elevated an otherwise stilted four-hour production. She was radiant and self-aware to make meta comedy with Paris When It Sizzles; a film that is not great, but ahead of its satirical time. If one can summarize why Hepburn has remained so important decades later despite last being seen in a minor role in Steven Spielberg's Always, it's that she was charismatic and while able to present real conflict, managed to portray a sense of optimism.
Thankfully, the stories of Hepburn off camera were just as reassuring to her grace. She was a progressive thinker and remained classy by not getting into any major image-shattering conflict (at least publicly known). While her image, which was antithetical to the voluptuous starlets of her time, of being small was a result of a medical problem caused during World War II, she persevered and made a career that reflected the good in culture. Maybe her fashion sense outshines her charisma, but she still embodied someone who was neither squeaky clean or risque. She was human. To watch her work is to be entranced not only by beauty - that could come from anyone - but also exuberance. She never fails to make me smile and on her birthday (May 4), I feel the need to honor her with this post.