It used to be said that you can’t be too rich or too thin. We now no longer believe this. Bankers and hedge fund managers are too rich; and now the celebrity magazines and tabloids lead the choruses of “Look how skinny’s she’s got!” The nicer way of saying the same thing, and making it a compliment, is to call the person elegant.
Audrey Hepburn came to be synonymous with this form of elegance. Even in her early films, her height, her skinniness and her wistfulness combined to get her noticed. In the unhelpful role of Chiquita in The Lavender Hill Mob, she attracts the attention both of Alec Guinness and of the camera: a woman visually striking and possessed of a certain quality of unhappiness.
Being slight and vulnerable, Hepburn could have made a career as one of cinema’s perpetual victims – a leading lady for Alfred Hitchcock, maybe. But she was too thoughtful, and too smart in her choice of roles, to let that happen.
Somehow, you can see it all in her childhood and adolescence. Hepburn’s parents were an English banker and a Dutch baroness. Both were fascists, who split up before the second world war began. Her mother took her from their home in Belgium to the Netherlands,seeking to avoid the fighting. Holland was promptly occupied by the Germans. Having been schooled in England, half-British and fluent in English, Audrey had to adopt a Dutch persona – Edda van Heemstra – for the duration of the war. We cannot blame the girl for becoming an actor, then – it was forced on her.
Another thing that was forced on her – along with the rest of the kids and most of the adults in Holland – was a lousy diet. In the latter part of the war, food supplies ran out and, like many others, Hepburn suffered from malnutrition, which led to acute anaemia and respiratory problems.
Such was the price of elegance. And yet the story of Audrey Hepburn’s early life really does have a legendary, movie-like quality. One of her brothers was a prisoner in a Nazi labour camp. As children, starving, they watched railway wagons go by, full of children, also starving. Audrey, still a teenager, danced to raise money for the Dutch resistance. These things created a strong character, something many actors never get around to acquiring. And it paid off when, shooting a small role in another movie, she was offered the lead role in the stage musical of Colette’s Gigi.
Leading roles in Hollywood pictures followed, and Hepburn was romantically linked to various leading lights: the usual story. Where she differed in her trajectory from the starlets who had gone before, perhaps, was in her conscious decision to become a fashionista. The designer Hubert de Givenchy became a close friend and advised her on her wardrobe. Eventually the pair became business partners.
The association of actors or singers with a brand seems old-hat now: the kind of product placement that Lady Gaga might parody or Bono personify. If you want someone to blame for those glossy ads of Mr and Mrs Bono getting out of their safari plane with their designer luggage, the blame must ultimately fall on the fair shoulders of La Hepburn and Givenchy, who called her his muse.
This was always Hepburn’s world – she was the daughter of a baroness, darn it! – but it was Breakfast at Tiffany’s which cemented her into it. The author of the piece, Truman Capote, wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the leading role, and – given that Holly Golightly is both consummately sexy and utterly neurotic – Monroe might have done a great job. In any case, the studio, Paramount, favoured Hepburn over Monroe, so that was that.
One hates to give any credit to the machiavellian moguls, but in the role of Holly, Hepburn is hard to beat. Capote makes it clear in his original that Holly is a call girl. Hepburn plays it ambiguous, while the film skirts around the fact with amazing decorum (“Here’s $50 for the powder room”) in such a way that it is possible to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s without knowing Holly is a hooker, and thus not knowing what the story (with its commodity-culture title) is about.
And beyond Capote’s character and Hepburn’s performance is the iconic image of Holly herself – with little black dress, black gloves, a tiara and a foot-long cigarette holder. This is a parody of elegance – a deliciously sexy and entertaining parody (so yes, Monroe could have done it, too) which has long since transcended the film. You may never have seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s, an entertaining movie directed by the workmanlike Blake Edwards. But you have certainly seen pictures of Audrey Hepburn in that outfit – a uniform as iconic as Clint Eastwood’s serape or The Terminator’s leather jacket. And you have seen innumerable billboards featuring models wearing that outfit and trying to sell you perfume. And you’ve seen even more full-page magazine ads featuring the same ultra-long-and-thin gamines wearing that outfit, or part of it, trying to sell you jewellery, shoes or designer bags.
Even the title Breakfast at Tiffany’s implies a cultural turnabout. A film is no longer a freestanding drama. It is part product placement: a meal in a high-class jewellery store. It anticipates egregious tie-in titles such as Harley-Davidson & the Marlboro Man and The Coca-Cola Kid. It pulls it off, in a way those other films don’t, because it’s original, and its author is Truman Capote, and it features a wonderful fusion of star power, good acting and iconography.
Hepburn went on to play an annoying cockney flower girl in My Fair Lady. I think she is very good in it, though connoisseurs of the lilting London brogue may disagree. The film was another triumph of the studio system, which, like the Pentagon, solves problems by throwing people and money at them. Hepburn was not a strong singer, which the studio knew going into the project. They simply hired Marni Nixon to replace her singing voice, and didn’t tell Hepburn until later. Classy, no?
Thereafter Hepburn acted less frequently. She was very good in Wait Until Dark – playing that girl-victim again, and blind to boot, she turns the tables very effectively. She wasn’t slow to turn down roles that didn’t interest her, or which she didn’t feel right for. She rejected the invitation to play Anne Frank – in spite of her own experiences in occupied Holland – because she felt she was too old, and a teenager should do it.
That she didn’t act more frequently in later life must also have to do with the material she was offered. And therein lies the problem of having been an “icon”. You are Audrey Hepburn, a really good actor, dancer, and comedian, and producers from all over the world come to you and, forgetting all the other work you’ve done, offer you the chance to play a batty hooker in a black dress with a cigarette holder. How many times do you say yes? How long before you decide to spend more time with your family, as Hepburn did?
This was a pity, since Hepburn was a strong actor, with a great capacity for comedy – most obviously in her early films, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Sabrina. Iconic status may help if you aspire to a political career – governor of California, maybe? – or if you want to do a lot of commercials. But actors only get to play the roles they’re hired for, and some of them really do aspire to something beyond what they’re generally offered: to stretch themselves, to do things differently.