May 4, 2001

Cornell Cinema

Print More

In an era of blonde bombshells with curvaceous mounds of flesh and lacquered red lips, Audrey Hepburn put the world under the spell of her naturally radiating beauty and magic. In 1953, when Hepburn ripped the silver screen in half with her debut role in Roman Holiday, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress, Hollywood was in the business of selling sex with stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield at the top of the game.

The dethroning of these then Tinseltown queens was akin to a European coup d’etat by the Belgium born daughter of an English banker and a Dutch baroness. Born Edda Kathleen van Meemstra Hepburn-Ruston on May 4, 1929, Hepburn attended a private girls’ school in London and was raised under the care of her regal mum after her parents divorced. While vacationing with her mother in Arnhem, Holland, Hitler’s army seized the town at the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Europe. During this time, Audrey suffered from depression and malnutriution, but attended ballet school in London on a scholarship soon after the liberation. The lithe silhouette that would become internationally known was largely shaped by these two biographical events in young Hepburn’s life.

Hepburn began modeling while studying ballet and found instant success with her natural poise and grace. It wasn’t long until she attracted attention from European film producers and starred in her first film, Nederlands in 7 lessen, in 1948. In 1951 she left Europe for the gilded promises of Los Angeles, and she was making her Academy Award acceptance speech less than two years later.

The phenomenon that would be known for generations to come as the Audrey mystique was well underway. It wasn’t long until Hepburn secured her place in the crypt of Hollywood legends with her Oscar-nominated performances in 1957’s Funny Face and 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Perhaps at no other time in her career did Hepburn shine more brightly and capture such a magnitude of praise and attention as in these two celebrated films.

In Funny Face, Hepburn plays a beatnik baby named Jo Stockton who is swept away by the philosophy of empathicalism. In order to meet the black-clad founder of this order of young radicals who reject materialism, Jo agrees to model the creations of the hottest designer in Paris for the fashion magazine Quality.

However, a wrench is thrown into the plans when Jo falls for photographer Dick Avery, played by Fred Astaire, and you know what that means: singing and dancing. It’s a charming musical, romance, and comedy with a score by Gershwin and choreography by Astaire himself. However, it is debatable if the film would have been nearly as enchanting had not Ms. Hepburn lent it some of her magic (and had not Givenchy lent her some of his fashions).

The cinematic bar was only raised to even greater heights when Hepburn blew the world away for all time as Holly Golightly in the legendary Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Perhaps the only thing more charming than Hepburn herself is the mistaken character of Ms. Golightly with her nameless cat, gold-digger ambitions and mysterious past. Never was a more dastardly heroine more lovable or sympathetic. Not only did Paul Varjek, played by George Peppard, fall in love with her despite her numerous flaws, so did and do theater audiences around the world. Could it be the Audrey mystique? With a great character from a best-selling novel, it’s unavoidable.

These two films are excellent specimens of study when considering the force of Audrey Hepburn, who not only changed Hollywood with her charm and magic, but also the world. Hepburn was the type of actress who enabled audiences to forget that they were watching a performance and allowed them to unknowingly lose themselves in a story and a feeling. She was truly a teacher of empathicalism, placing the viewer in the shoes of her character and immortalizing them on screen. Whether she was playing a cat like Holly Golightly or a kitten like Jo Stockton, Hepburn always gave her films a shiny finish of fairy dust. However, her famous pixie cut and elfin smile can’t be given all of the credit.

Perhaps the Audrey mystique went beyond the actress’ professional talent to her well known philanthropic heart. Hepburn served as a special ambassador to the United Nations UNICEF fund helping children in Latin America and Africa until she died of colon cancer in 1993. Magic is not easily or often feigned. It seems to only radiate from a special person. The world can consider itself fortunate that Audrey Hepburn chose to share some of her magic on the great, immortalizing canvas of the silver screen as well as the expansive screen of the world.

Archived article by