From the moment she burst onto the scene and even decades after her death, Audrey Hepburn has been an international star. Even now, she still receives more media attention than many of our current celebrities. Hepburn achieved fame as a film star, fashion icon and even a humanitarian.
But even though I’ve seen most of her films, read many articles about her public persona, I realized recently that I knew very little about the private Audrey Hepburn. The real Audrey. Who was she? I knew only the most basic of facts, which is why when the opportunity arose to participate in The Audrey Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by Janet at Sister Celluloid, I decided to review Donald Spoto’s biography, Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn.
Spoto has written many other books on film celebrities, but this is my first experience with him. For the most part his writing style stays factual. The text is succinct and moves along at a good pace. He gives just enough information without bogging the whole thing down with too many unnecessary details. On the other hand, there are some phases of Audrey’s personal life and career that he spends a great deal of time on and others that he breezes through or skips altogether.
THE PUBLIC AUDREY
“MY CAREER IS a complete mystery to me,” said Audrey Hepburn, reflecting later on her success. “It’s been a total surprise since the first day. I never thought I was going to be an actress, I never thought I was going to be in movies, I never thought it would all happen the way it did.”
Occasionally, Spoto veers from presenting facts and sounds more like an opinion columnist. This occurs mostly when he’s evaluating her films. For instance he clearly believes Humphrey Bogart was miscast in Sabrina, an opinion I happen to share. He states practically the same thing about Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon. In fact, Spoto asserts that Cooper wasn’t the only problem in the film. He also states that Hepburn’s costumes are not correct for her role and that Billy Wilder’s direction is lacking.
“She is that almost extinct type—a serious student of acting,” William Wyler
Spoto makes an interesting observation however, in mentioning that in almost all of Audrey’s early films, she is cast opposite a much older romantic lead. This serves to de-sexualize the onscreen relationship. It’s an interesting point, I’ve never considered before, but certainly one Cary Grant seemed to be aware of. He turned down several opportunities to co-star with Audrey specifically because of their age difference before finally agreeing to Charade. But, of course he found a way around potentially appearing ridiculous by making Audrey the romantic aggressor in their film. And it works.
Spoto also has plenty to say about The Nun’s Story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady. He devotes a whole chapter to The Nun’s Story, because it is one which personally changed Audrey’s life. It was her favorite film and the character she most related too. She made life-long friends with the author and original “Sister Luke.” Sister Luke’s spiritual journey in the film also deeply resonated with Audrey’s questions and beliefs about life.
“Audrey has reached a new maturity. I have never seen anyone more disciplined, more gracious or more dedicated to her work than Audrey. There was no ego, no asking for extra favors; there was the greatest consideration for her co-workers…She has proven herself a great actress in a very difficult and exacting part.” Fred Zinneman
As for My Fair Lady (my all-time favorite musical), Spoto argues that it should have been a role for which Audrey was nominated for an Oscar. Many who worked on the film, thought her dedication and commitment to the role were outstanding. Even before filming began, her performance continually improved as she practiced, particularly the singing. But according to Spoto, behind the scenes machinations by Jack Warner to have Marni Nixon secretly record the soundtrack and then dub for Audrey took the film from a masterpiece to merely a good piece of entertainment. Spoto believes that Nixon’s voice is too sophisticated for Eliza Doolittle and that it jars viewers out of Audrey’s excellent performance creating dissonance about the character.
“Audrey, unquestionably the nicest and most talented girl in the business, deluged me with praise and roses,” Noel Coward
There have been many criticisms about Breakfast at Tiffany’s over the years, many of them valid. One is that Audrey was completely miscast, as the role had originally been meant for Marilyn Monroe. Spoto argues that though Audrey is a different Holly Golightly than appeared in Truman Capote’s original short story, she makes Holly her own, as well as the film. Comparisons between the book and the film are inevitable, but unfair to Audrey. Her performance should not be compared to the Holly of the book, but appreciated for itself.
From the day Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released, the image of Audrey Hepburn, sitting at her open window, strumming her guitar and singing “Moon River” in her tentative, wistful mezzo, is perhaps the single most enduring emblem of the enchantment she brought to a legion of moviegoers, then and later. Indeed, we are not listening to Holly singing: this is Audrey, and it is her song, delivered directly from her own introspective personality.
THE PRIVATE AUDREY
Right or wrong, all of Spoto’s opinions about Audrey’s films are thought-provoking. But what I really found interesting is learning more about the woman herself.
“I myself was born with an enormous need for affection and a terrible need to give it,”
I knew very little about her early childhood and was surprised to learn she had two half-brothers. Nor did I know that her parents were early supporters of fascism, though her mother eventually abandoned the party. I had heard of Audrey’s deprivation, living in Europe during WWII, but was surprised to learn just how bad things were. They literally starved. Audrey witnessed terrible atrocities and even delivered messages for the Underground as a twelve year old girl. What a terrible responsibility she had.
Her insecurity endured throughout her lifetime, as her elder son confirmed years later: “She was basically a very insecure person whose very insecurity made everyone fall in love with her…[She was] a star who couldn’t see her own light.”
But it wasn’t the physical deprivations that haunted her the rest of her life. It was the emotional ones. Audrey possessed a naturally affectionate nature. However, neither parent provided for her emotional needs. Her dad’s early abandonment scarred Audrey. Her mother’s inability to nurture Audrey created a lifelong insecurity in her, to the point that she never felt fully safe in her relationships. The irony is that her mother really did love her, but didn’t know how to express it. There was always a distance between the two women even though they were very involved in each other’s lives.
“My mother had great love, but she was not always able to show it.
“I worshiped my father. Having him cut off from me was terribly awful…Leaving us, my father left us insecure—perhaps for life.” The departure of her father was, she added in 1989, “the most traumatic event in my life.”
Of course the book also delves into other important relationships in her life. Opinions held by various peers of Audrey all seem to be less than favorable regarding her marriage to Mel Ferrer. “It was fascinating to watch Mel move in on Audrey,” remembered Radie Harris, a respected Hollywood journalist who had known him since 1936. “After that first meeting [with Audrey], Mel never let go, and they were inseparable.” Some felt that he was too controlling of her and used her career to further his own. It is clear he always had more ambition than she did. He’s even compared to Svengali.
Naturally, her long standing friendship with designer Givenchy is also mentioned, although I wish the book had delved a bit deeper into that relationship. But Spoto does highlight the importance of it when he writes, “Over the course of forty years, their mutual respect and devotion grew into something beyond that of designer and mannequin or clothier and client. They both cultivated their natural styles—their shared love of gardens, for example, and of good (not necessarily expensive) food and wine—into rare forms of a refined attitude toward life; with them, style became substantial. “There are few people I love more,” Audrey said of Hubert. “He is the single person I know with the greatest integrity.”
I learned of Audrey’s love affairs with screen writer Robert Anderson, who worked on The Nun’s Story. Interestingly, Anderson was originally involved with Ingrid Bergman who was considered for the role of Sister Luke. But she didn’t believe she was right and suggested Audrey Hepburn. Her relationship with the tragic William Holden is covered as is the one with Two for the Road co-star Albert Finney and Bloodline co-star Ben Gazzara.
She never had the burning desire to become and remain a movie star, as do most actresses, but instead cared only for personal happiness, peace, love, her children, a husband whom she loved and who loved her…Although she loved acting, she wanted to work less and spend more time in private.
But of everything I learned, one thing surprised me the most. This film and fashion icon (who also appeared on stage with success), never had a strong desire to be an actress. She worked hard at it, she even enjoyed it at times. But after the death of her childhood dream to be a ballerina, Audrey had one driving motivator in her life – to be a mother. She was always willing to step back from her career for motherhood. She broke off several of her relationships because the men couldn’t have children and another, because it threatened her custody of her child.
Audrey Hepburn’s public image seems to be just that, an image. In reality, she was a woman who yearned for a simple, private life full of children and love. Ironically, though she was so often unlucky in romantic love, the public and all of her peers adored her. No one had a single bad thing to say about her.
She also was able to stay grounded, despite all the fame and success. Perhaps, this was due to her life-long insecurity, maybe due to her earlier experiences with true hardship. Audrey was always aware of what really mattered. Later in her life this led her to her final career as a humanitarian with UNICEF. Having early on suffered emotional and physical hardship, she wanted to give back to children experiencing the same. And she took this job very seriously.
Her colleagues at UNICEF were at once impressed by a major difference between Audrey’s work for them and that of other volunteers. It is standard procedure that celebrities, like politicians and others, read speeches prepared and written by experts. But Audrey researched and wrote her own texts, preparing and rewriting her remarks both for the press and for her UNICEF reports. At home, she read books and journals about the country she was to visit, studying like a scholar preparing for an important examination—and then, after her research, she put questions, in writing or by telephone, to her colleagues at UNICEF headquarters. “You can’t just get up and say, ‘Oh, I’m happy to be here, and I love children,’” Audrey said of her homework. “No, it’s not enough to know that there’s been a flood in Bangladesh and seven thousand people lost their lives. Why the flood? What is their history? Why are they one of the poorest countries today? How are they going to survive? Are they getting enough help? What are the statistics? What are their problems?”
This concern for others and utter lack of pretension and selfishness pretty much sums up Audrey’s true character through out her life. As she said, “Giving is living. If you stop wanting to give, there’s nothing more to live for.”
Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn was an interesting biography. It isn’t perfect, it even lags at times. But I loved getting a deeper understanding of a woman whose image has become larger than life. I have learned great respect for Audrey Hepburn thanks to the author’s presentation of her life. I’ve come to believe that she was a truly great person, not because of her fame and success, but in spite of it.