Audrey Hepburn: 30 years after the death of the ugly duckling that conquered Hollywood

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the death of the strangest of the movie stars of what we now call “classic Hollywood.” “Today we call” because, strictly speaking, the fifties are already those of the most modern cinema, closest in terms of form and themes to the one that continues to surround us, superheroes, aliens and dinosaurs aside. That is to say, thirty years have passed since the death of Audrey Hepburn at the age of 63, due to colon cancer. If the reader expects us to talk about her health problems, the anorexia nervosa that accompanied her practically all her life or her work for Unicef ​​(or the myriads of cigarettes she smoked), we are sorry: We are going to tell you why Audrey Hepburn is important today.

Charade (1963) directed by Stanley Donen
Charade (1963) directed by Stanley DonenCollection ChristopheL via AFP – Archive

Google will inform you that she started acting in 1948. That she was a dancer and that since she was fifteen, when the Second World War broke out and death surrounded her in long-suffering Arnhem. That her parents were Nazi sympathizers and that was traumatic for her; that the war caused her chronic malnutrition but that she still danced and helped the Dutch Resistance. That, at the end of the contest, she began to act in Great Britain. That’s where we’re going to start: with the early Audrey Hepburn movies. First, Nederland in zeven lessenshot in Holland, where she is a stewardess and it is a kind of mockumentary; One Wild Oat (1951, where her role was supposed to be longer and was cut out); gold bars (1951, a scene as Alec Guinness’s “girlfriend”); the marriage sham Young Wives’ Tale; sinister conspiracy (where she is a dancer), from 1952; Y Monte Carlo Babywhere she is a temperamental actress.

In almost all of these roles, Hepburn shows more of her right side than her left, although anyone who knows her iconography knows that the second is her stellar profile. Specially in Conspiracy…there’s a problem with your eyebrows. The makeup in general is correct and highlights the sweetness of the expression, but there is always a problem of dissociation between the nose and the rest. In all these films, moreover, she appears as the pretty naive one, especially in the British ones; object of looks or disdain, just an instrument in front of the cameras or within fiction.

The famous left profile of Audrey, already in Hollywood
The famous left profile of Audrey, already in Hollywood

British cinema – and European cinema in general – have been reluctant to “create” stars. They existed (how could they not exist?) but they lacked the aura that Hollywood, with surgical precision, managed to give to those who had “it”, the “It” of the “It Girl” (a term from the twenties created for Clara Bow , which every once in a while returns as an aesthetic postulate that applies to the elusive combination of the earthly and the mythical).

Hollywood not only created the language of cinema but also the shape of its inhabitants. It is necessary to review the performances of the Swedish Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman in their own country and compare them with those they carried out in the United States to see that the same thing is different. In the second case, the comparison can be even more flagrant if we look at the films that Ingrid made with Roberto Rossellini. But the Garbo was the twenties and thirties; the Bergman, the thirties and forties. Decades in which the power to endow not only artifice with life but above all artifice to life allowed the star system It will work as a public attraction. It was no longer so in the fifties, when the star (the image that is both everyday and unattainable, as Edgar Morin said) began to be replaced by the interpreter, the actor or the actress. From John Wayne to Marlon Brando (or Karl Malden, rather); from Rita Hayworth to Patricia Neal. The suffering of Marilyn Monroe is somewhat understandable, born to be a star of the old system and forced to study at the Actors Studio to be taken seriously: part of the blonde tragedy has to do with her status as a hinge.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in The Princess Who Wanted to Live, her Hollywood debut for which she won an Oscar
Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in The Princess Who Wanted to Live, her Hollywood debut for which she won an OscarJohn Springer Collection – Corbis Historical

That’s why Audrey Hepburn is the strangest star: because of her anachronism. Her entry into Hollywood was The princess who wanted to live. His entry into Hollywood was his (only) Oscar. And she was left when Hollywood discovered that that thin face on the body of one meter seventy (height that perhaps prevented her from being a dancer) amplified her gaze if the angle took her left profile. The machine sharpened the nose, defined the eyebrows, allowed a perfect rhombus to be established between her eyes with the rectified hairline and her smile. In The princess who wanted to live, that face does two things that in European cinema it would hardly have been able to do (the tradition of naturalism, Max Factor notwithstanding): it smiles like a normal girl; she points like a ruler (even when she smiles like a ruler). All of Audrey Hepburn’s great roles tell the same fairy tale: that of the transformation into a myth of a beauty that could have gone unnoticed..

It is what happens in Sabrina: the driver’s daughter who leaves for Paris, simple and knock-kneed, to return transformed into absolute elegance and beauty, always between two men. It is what happens in luxury dollwhere the exterior of an extroverted, eccentric, worldly girl, of that high-end prostitute, hides a princess who also wants to live (but as a princess). All of Hepburn’s iconography crystallizes in that film: her slim body, her fitted dress, her infinite quiff, her wide eyes, and her bangs (the bangs, although curiously moviegoers Peter Bogdanovich in our cheating loves and Steven Spielberg in Always they seem to have forgotten, it is Audrey Hepburn as well as the blonde hair and the mole are Marilyn: icons of the icon). It is not a person but a margin, a complete watershed between the material –the exercise of love for money– and the spiritual: the response to sincere love. Hepburn as a cat that always falls standing still and on the border between the flesh and the ethereal.

And it is what happens in My beautiful ladywhich is the complete manual of the hepburian person: the foul-mouthed lumpen transformed into nobility by dint of lessons in manners and behavioral linguistics. That film ostensibly shows what the others leave out: the creation of a star through scientific machinery in pursuit of pure enjoyment (what else is cinema?). To such an extent that, although Hepburn could sing (don’t forget “Moon River”), she was dubbed by Marni Nixon. But the Eliza Doolittle who sings is her, whoever the voice is in the fiction we call “real life”. My beautiful lady it is a festival of left profiles and head-on looks from Hepburn and, again, the fairy tale of the transformation of flesh into spirit.

Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Little Doll of Luxury
Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Little Doll of LuxuryArchive

Although there is something that should reveal to various psychoanalysts: Audrey’s characters stay with the father figure more at hand. Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, George Peppard (well, maybe he’s a bit of an exception, but no) and Rex Harrison (who looked like her grandfather). Despite the fact that Harrison was British, the Hepburn-character always sticks with the paternal Hollywood portrayal. Or with God (story of a nun), or with their ancestors (the problem what is not forgiven, where she is a redskin secretly adopted by a family of settlers; film that incidentally shows how little she cared about beauty to John Huston). There is something back in tradition in Hepburn’s roles that ties into Hollywood’s own lore. Except in one case.

Like the lumpen Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, another of the many examples in her filmography in which she emerges from her chrysalis as a princess.
Like the lumpen Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, another of the many examples in her filmography in which she emerges from her chrysalis as a princess.ap-File

The exception is wait in the dark, where she is a blind woman locked in her apartment at the mercy of some psychopaths (the main one, Alan Arkin) who seek to murder her. Here there is a husband but there is no fairy tale and Hepburn, again at the fortunately wrong moment in history, becomes the first action heroine that big spectacle cinema gave. Cutting off the power to face a murderer while blind is a trick she has taken advantage of a few years ago. Do not breathe, for example. But what Hepburn does there is monumental: she acts with her whole body. It’s true, she always did: check out the legs on the bike in The princess who wanted to livesee the cat movement in luxury dollsee the steps in the gazebo in Sabrina; check out the progress on Eliza’s pose at My beautiful lady.

But that was subtle: here is the actress, in complete command of her art and instrument, twenty years ahead of Linda Hamilton in Terminator or the great Ellen Ripley by Sigourney Weaver. And even so, also, an artifice: the woman with the most penetrating look that cinema gave (not the disdainful one of Bette Davis, the liquid one of Marilyn Monroe, the defiant one of Joan Crawford, the perverse one of Rita Hayworth or the feline one of Ava Gardner) leads us to believe that she is blind. Much more than a directing job, it is the pinnacle of a star who knows how to master every muscle to produce emotions. Today cinema (not only Hollywood) seems to have forgotten: that the star, that exceptional being between Olympus and the asphalt, is what really attracts us. It is not the armor that made a success of Hombre de Hierro but knowing that under the mask is Robert Downey Jr., a survivor of the tradition to which Audrey belonged.

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Audrey Hepburn: 30 years after the death of the ugly duckling that conquered Hollywood