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An Ode to the Most Elegant of Actresses

By Molly Haskell

She appeared as fragile as a cut flower, but for someone who looked as if she might blow away with a strong breeze, Audrey Hepburn proved astonishingly durable as a star. She lit up the screen in 1953, as the hooky-playing princess in "Roman Holiday", and from then on set her own pace and style with a look that decidedly ran counter to then-prevailing standards of female beauty. She was patrician, exotic, boyishly slender at a time when the accent was on big-breasted bombshells and girl-next-door types -- and even the latter had hourglass figures. Yet her blend of bohemianism and haute couture, of rebel and royalist, took fire and the best directors in Hollywood fell over each other in their eagerness to work with her.

In its Absolutely Audrey Festival this month, AMC features four of the actress's finest: William Wyler's "Roman Holiday" and "How to Steal a Million", Billy Wilder's "Sabrina", and George Cukor's "My Fair Lady". She mesmerized other directors, too: Stanley Donen in "Funny Face" (1957) and "Charade" (1963), Fred Zinnemann in "The Nun's Story" (1959) and King Vidor in "War and Peace" (1956). Indeed, Hepburn starred in a remarkable number of really good pictures, especially considering, in 1953, the studio system was ebbing. And when you compare her to the now-you-see-them now-you-don't careers of today's beleaguered female stars, struggling to get parts in a macho, bottomline Hollywood, her staying power looks downright miraculous.

But then, there was always something miraculous about this creature who, while playing a princess, was enacting a fairy tale of her own, the one in which a young unknown is plucked from obscurity and becomes a star overnight. Well, not complete obscurity. The daughter of a Dutch baroness and an English banker who deserted mother and daughter when Audrey was six, Hepburn grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland and went to London on a dance scholarship. She was working as a model and bit-part actress when, shooting a British film on the Riviera, she met Colette. The writer was dazzled and handpicked her for the lead in the Broadway version of "Gigi." This performance got her the part in "Roman Holiday" opposite Gregory Peck -- and an Oscar® to boot!

Hepburn made all of her costars look good, from gigolos (George Peppard in 1961's "Breakfast at Tiffany's") to aging Romeos (Humphrey Bogart in "Sabrina" and Gary Cooper in 1957's "Love in the Afternoon"), but there was something magical about her pairing with Peck. As the scheming journalist whose heart is captivated, he was at his most heartstoppingly attractive. Looking at them today, Peck and Hepburn seem not to know how beautiful they are, and the mutual caress of their personalities at that moment in time -- both shy, both vulnerable, one entering a scary new world, the other slightly wiser and more cynical -- can still take your breath away. Females of all ages and nationalities went crazy. Women cut their hair short in imitation of Hepburn's, and it was the one movie that I, entering my teens, and my mother, both adored.

And to think it might never have happened! After all, Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant were first slated for the roles. Other revelations lie in store in AMC's documentary about the making of the picture, called "Backstory: Roman Holiday". For instance, the original script was written by Dalton Trumbo who, shortly after appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee and being sent to jail for his Communist sympathies, realized he had to write something commercial to support his family while away. He drew on America's then-infatuation with British royalty -- Queen Elizabeth's coronation was in 1953 -- and the idea of a princess wedding a commoner from Princess Margaret, at the time weighing marriage to fighter pilot Peter Townsend.

After "Roman Holiday," Billy Wilder grabbed Hepburn for "Sabrina" as the chauffeur's daughter who goes to Paris and comes back a polished cook and fashion plate. He saw her classiness as unique, "a salmon swimming upstream" in a Hollywood of "drive-in waitresses," as he put it, according to his biographer Ed Sikov. He liked that she was intelligent and cultivated. He'd first cast Cary Grant in Bogart's role, but Grant withdrew and Joseph Cotten, who'd played it onstage with Margaret Sullavan, wasn't a big enough star (and Sullavan was too old for the screen version).

There was a great behind-the-scenes to-do about the wardrobe for "Sabrina." Givenchy won out over Edith Head, who'd done so well by Hepburn in "Roman Holiday," and now was reduced to supplying the tree-climbing tomboy rags in the pre-Paris sequence. Rumor has it that before her team-up with Givenchy, Hepburn had applied to Balenciaga, then the most fashionable designer, who at first thought she was the Hepburn (as in Katharine). He agreed to see her, only to find out she was a virtual nobody, and turned her down flat. The studio wanted her to pay for the Givenchy gowns: If they paid, they'd have to give the designer a credit in the film. And thus, though Edith Head won an Oscar® for Hepburn's sensational black gown, it was pure Givenchy. Featuring the "Sabrina neckline," it covers the actress's protruding collarbones but reveals the throat. On the set, Head told her to wear falsies, but Wilder vetoed the idea; he liked her thinness and wanted to go against the bosom-worship of that time.

Hepburn wore clothes better than any other actress ever has; it's an essential element in her persona. And "My Fair Lady" was an exceptional showcase for her -- when she emerges the fair lady, wowing even arid Rex Harrison, she is sublime in her Cecil Beaton period costumes. She played opposite Peter O'Toole, another sparkling British leading man in "How to Steal a Million." This heist adventure reverses the "My Fair Lady" dynamic as a very elegant Audrey Hepburn changes into a grubby cleaning lady for a caper with O'Toole.

If it's true that Balenciaga once rebuffed Hepburn because she wasn't the Hepburn, it was Audrey who had the last laugh. Now she's taken her place with Katharine and all the great stars of the '30s and '40s as a luminous screen memory who was ultimately inimitable and irreplaceable.

Molly Haskell is a film critic and author. Her most recent book is a collection, "Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Men and Women and Films and Feminism."

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