Stardust: TCM’s Star of the Month
By Ed Garea
“How shall I sum up my life? I think I’ve been particularly lucky.” – Audrey Hepburn
Totally enchanting and drop-dead gorgeous, we had never seen anything like her when she hit stardom in 1953. Not only has the American Film Institute ranked her as the third-greatest female screen legend in Golden Age Hollywood, but she was also inducted into the Best Dressed Hall of Fame.
She personified glamour and style, but her life off-screen contained little of that. She was deeply devoted to humanitarian causes, devoting much of her later life to UNICEF, working in some of the poorest communities in Africa, Asia and South America to oversee immunization campaigns, clean water campaigns, and food programs. For anyone who thought she had an ulterior motive for her commitment, she had a ready answer: “Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics.”
She was born Audrey Kathleen Ruston in Ixelles, a district of Belgium, on May 4, 1929. Her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, was a British subject who worked in international finance. Her mother, Ella van Heemstra, was a Dutch baroness. The family traveled between Brussels, Arnhem, The Hague, and London before settling down in the suburban Brussels town of Linkebeek in 1932. Her father hyphenated the family name to Hepburn-Ruston in the mistaken belief that he was descended from James Hepburn, third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Dad was also a major-league screwball in the political realm. Heavily involved with the British Union of Fascists, he suddenly left the family in 1935 for London, where he spent his time working for the organization. Hepburn described his departure as the most traumatic event in her life and recounted that he never visited his daughter abroad.
Now it was time for her mother to screw things up to a fare-thee-well. Instead of moving to London, she moved to Arnhem in the mistaken belief that Holland would remain neutral in the next war. The result was five years of occupation by one of the most repressive regimes in history. Audrey took the alias of Edda van Heemstra, lest her British-sounding name call unwanted attention. Her half-brother Ian was deported to Germany to work in a labor camp, and her other half-brother, Alex, went into hiding to escape the same fate. Things came to a head in 1944 when, after the failure of Operation Market Garden by the Allies and a nationwide strike by Dutch railway workers, the Germans decided to starve out the country by blocking off resupply routes of the Dutch people's already-limited food and fuel. This would forever be known in Holland as “The Hongerwinter,” in which 22,000 died from malnutrition. Hepburn’s family was forced to grind tulip bulbs to make flour for bread and cakes. As a result of her poor diet, Audrey developed acute anaemia, respiratory problems and edema. It wasn’t until the liberation of Holland in May 1945 that the United Nations was able to go in and begin feeding the needy.
After the war ended Hepburn’s mother moved the family to Amsterdam, where Audrey underwent ballet training. As the family’s fortunes were lost in the war, her mother worked as a cook and housekeeper for a wealthy family to make ends meet. Later that year the family moved to London, as Audrey won a scholarship with Ballet Rambert. Her mother cleaned houses and performed other menial jobs while Audrey supported herself through modeling. She also dropped the Huston from her surname. Unfortunately, the illnesses she developed as a result of the wartime famine made it physically impossible for her to reach her goal of becoming a prima ballerina. Instead, she decided to concentrate on acting, working as a chorus girl in West End musical theater revues while taking elocution lessons on the side with actor Felix Aylmer.
She registered as an actress with the Associated British Picture Corporation and appeared in minor roles in several 1951 productions. While working in a small role in the film Monte Carlo Baby (1952), being shot in Paris, she was spotted by the author Colette, who decided to cast her as the star in her Broadway adaptation of Gigi. As Hepburn had never appeared on stage she took lessons in stagecraft during rehearsals. The play was a hit, running for 219 performances, and Hepburn received major plaudits for her role as the title character.
Returning to film, Hepburn made a screen test for the film Roman Holiday (1953). The producers wanted Elizabeth Taylor, but director William Wyler was so taken with Hepburn’s screen test that he cast her instead. The film was a major hit and earned quite a few award, including the Oscar for Best Actress. Paramount signed her to a seven-film contract, allowing her 12 months off between films to concentrate on stage work. While starring in the Broadway fantasy Ondine in 1954 she married co-star Mel Ferrer.
After 1967 Hepburn decided to cut back on her work to spend more time with her family. She made a moderately successful comeback in 1976, co-starring with Sean Connery in Robin and Marian. Her last motion picture was made in 1988 as a guardian angel in Steven Spielberg’s film Always. In 1989 she was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. She stated her gratitude to the organization for receiving international aid after enduring the German occupation as a child, and said her appointment would give her a chance to show that gratitude.
After a 14-year marriage, she and Ferrer divorced in 1968. Her second husband was Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti. This marriage lasted for 13 years before they divorced in 1982. Her last relationship was with Dutch actor Robert Wolters, the widower of Merle Oberon. She would stay with him from 1980 until her death from abdominal cancer on January 20, 1993 in Tolochenaz, Switzerland.
June 5: Start at 8 pm with the aim that made Hepburn a star: Roman Holiday (1953), an engaging Cinderella story with Audrey as a young heir to a European crown who, feeling stifled during her first trip to Rome, decides to take off and explore the city for herself. When she falls asleep on a park bench, American reporter Gregory Peck and his photographer, Eddie Albert, take her back to his apartment, not knowing who she is. Once he discovers his good fortune he and Albert decide to get their story by taking her on a Roman adventure she will never forget. Of course, what Peck doesn’t see is that he will fall in love with her. The film original billing was to have Peck’s name above the title with “Introducing Audrey Hepburn” right under the title. But Peck informed Wyler that he should elevate Hepburn to equal billing because he could tell she was going to be a major star and he was afraid that, otherwise, he would look like a major heel when she became a big star.
If, for some reason, you miss it, TCM is repeating the film on June 23 at 2:45 am.
At 10:15 pm Audrey stars with Gary Cooper in Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957), a romantic comedy with Cooper as aging American playboy Frank Flannagan, who finds himself seduced by Hepburn’s 18-year old Ariane Chavasse. To get around the censors’ disparaging view of a relationship between a middle-aged man and a teenager, Wilder saw to it that Ariane was always fully clothed and never seen in a compromising situation with Flannagan. Only the occasional removal of her gloves and Flannagan bestowing kisses on her hand and arm hinted that the couple were in a romantic relationship. Maurice Chevelier adds needed charm as Ariane’s father, a detective who specializes in adultery cases.
At midnight, Audrey and Anthony Perkins star in 1959’s Green Mansions, a romantic adventure set in the Venezuelan jungle. Perkins is a young poet seeking gold in order to finance his revenge on those who killed his father during a political uprising. Hepburn is a mysterious jungle figure named Rima with whom he falls in love. But the local Indians believe her to be an evil spirit, which seals their fate. Hepburn is miscast as the ethereal spirit, but she’s still worth a view. For his part, Perkins looks and acts confused.
June 12: Four Hepburn classics are on tap tonight with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) leading things off at 8 pm. Hepburn’s Holly Golightly is a little too refined for someone living spontaneously off the money men give her. Director Blake Edwards takes it way off course from the Truman Capote novel, adds his customary slapstick, and imbues it with an improvised, fairy-tale ending. Pauline Kael compared the relationship between Hepburn and George Peppered as the writer who lives just below her with that of Sally Bowles and Christopher Isherwood in Cabaret, but I see it as the middle piece between that and its ultimate dumbing-down, Pretty Woman. Mickey Rooney is embarrassing as a Japanese photographer who lives right above her, and Patricia Neal wins points as an interior designer who also keeps Peppard.
At 10:15 pm it’s Hepburn as the phonetically challenged Eliza Doolittle in George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964). Rex Harrison, who won the Best Actor Oscar for this, is phonetics professor Henry Higgins, who bets colleague Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), that he can transform Cockney street vendor Doolittle into a duchess simply by teaching her to speak proper English. Pickering accepts the wager and Eliza agrees to the instruction because she desires to move up in life. Of course, then relationship between Higgins and Doolittle grows from mutual dislike into a romantic flowering. The film was personally produced by Jack Warner, who chose Hepburn over the star of the Broadway production, Julie Andrews, because he was convinced Andrews couldn’t draw flies and he needed a big star. The next year Andrews served him up a large helping of crow with her starring role in the blockbuster hit The Sound of Music. Me? I preferred the earlier 1934 version: Hoi Polloi, starring the Three Stooges.
One of Hepburn;’s most challenging roles comes next at 1:30 am – The Nun’s Story (1959), based on a bestselling book by Kathryn C. Hulme. Hepburn is Gabrielle “Gaby” Van der Mal, a headstrong young lady in 1920’s Bruges, Brussels who gives up all her worldly possessions except for a pen given her by her widowed father, a renowned physician, to join a strict order as a postulant. Ordained as Sister Luke, her challenge is to become a selfless, sacrificing “instrument,” one for whom love of God takes precedence over each and every earthly concern. It can easily be said that no American movie had examined a novice's struggle with the spiritual life as did The Nun's Story. As in the book, Sister Luke has no difficulty with her vows of poverty and chastity, but it’s the third vow – that of obedience – that becomes the obstacle which cannot be overcome. In a touching and prescient scene where her father (Dean Jagger) bids her farewell, he says that she is too independent and stubborn to conform to the role laid out for her by The Church, and it is just that failing that repeatedly backfires on her and leads her to leave the religious life. The film has an excellent supporting cast that includes Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Niall McGuinness, and Peter Finch. Finch, a notorious womanizer who prided himself on seducing his leading ladies, met his match in Hepburn, who chose to remain faithful to her husband, Mel Ferrer.
Finally, at 4:15 am, it’s William Wyler’s updated remake of his 1936 film, The Children’s Hour. The basic plot is the same as in the 1936 original, These Three, only this time it can be said that what is being whispered about teachers Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine is they were lesbians, as opposed to being in a heterosexual love triangle. James Garner takes the Joel McCrea role, with Miriam Hopkins (who played Martha Dobie in the original) and Fay Bainter offering solid support. The capper in this production is the role of the little rumormonger, Mary Tilford. While Bonita Granville was nasty enough in These Three, Karen Balkin gives a performance that makes one’s skin crawl. A sidenote: supposedly, Hepburn did not know what a “lesbian” was during filming and it was left to co-star MacLaine to explain it to her.
June 19: We begin at 8 pm with How to Steal a Million (1967), a William Wyler comedy about a legendary art collector and forger (Hugh Griffith), who lends his prized forged Cellini Venus to a prestigious Paris museum. But before tests can be done to prove the Venus is a fake, though, his daughter (Hepburn) enlists the services of “society burglar” Peter O’Toole to steal the million dollar statue. I have to agree with the opinion of Kimberly Lindbergs in her TCM article: it’s “a completely improbable and utterly charming romantic caper.”
Next up at 10:15 pm is the thriller Wait Until Dark (1967). Hepburn is a blind woman whose photographer husband (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) was given a doll to mind by a woman at an airport as he returned from a business trip. Unbeknownst to the couple, the doll contains smuggled heroin that a man named Roat (Alan Arkin) is most anxious to obtain. He enlists two underlings (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston) to help him retrieve it and Hepburn must fight for her life against the trio, none of whom know that a neighboring girl has made off with the doll.
At 12:15 am, it’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1952), a delightful comedy from Ealing about a career clerk for the British treasury (Alec Guinness) who recruits a gang to help him steal a truckload of gold bullion. Audrey’s in it, but don’t blink or you’ll miss her. Following at 1:45 am is Ealing’s The Secret People (1952), which affords Miss Hepburn a meatier role.
June 26: Four more Hepburn films are on tap, beginning at 8 pm with Paris When It Sizzles (1964), a disappointing comedy with Hepburn as the assistant to Hollywood screenwriter William Holden. She tries to solve his writer’s block by acting out his fantasies of possible plots.
At 10:00 pm it’s Hepburn and Fred Astaire in the enchanting musical comedy Funny Face (1957). Fred is a fashion photographer who turns Greenwich Village unknown Hepburn into an international supermodel aided by a great score by the Gershwins.
At midnight it’s Hepburn in her last role as a guardian angel in Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989), a tepid remake of the 1943 classic, A Guy Named Joe, starring Spencer Tracy.
Finally, at 2:15 am it’s Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer in the hideous War and Peace (1956). If your idea of entertainment is overlong (3:28), oversimplified adaptations, this one is for you. If you must watch it, watch it for Hepburn.
June 27: Audrey and Sean Connery star in Robin and Marian (1976), a drama that picks up the characters of Sherwood 20 years later. And he’s still fighting the Sheriff. It airs at 6 am.
June 30: I’m more than a little surprised that this wasn’t included, or even plugged, in the fanfare over Hepburn being Star of the Month, but her delightful 1967 film with Albert Finney, Two for the Road, is airing at 2:00 am. Directed by Stanley Donen, it chronicles the bumpy course of a couple’s 10-year relationship – through courtship and marriage, infidelity and parenthood – all on the road in a variety of cars and seen through a series of vignettes in time. Excellent support from Eleanor Bron and William Daniels.