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Audrey: our fair lady

Audrey Hepburn was a flower born from otherwise thorny nobility

Audrey: a celebratory documentary that somehow neglects to mention her role in Two for the Road.
Audrey: a celebratory documentary that somehow neglects to mention her role in Two for the Road.

To paraphrase critic Molly Haskell, Audrey Hepburn awakened love in all who watched her. Why it took this long for someone to make a feature-length documentary about one of the world’s most adored and influential actresses and humanitarians is anybody’s guess. Audrey is as far from perfection as its subject is close, but one thing’s for certain: there has never been a movie star more beloved by her public than she.

Audrey was a flower born from otherwise thorny nobility. Her father was a diplomat of dubious distinction (his background is described as “very fuzzy”), her mother a baroness. Both parents were virulent antisemites who, in 1935, visited Germany and cheered on the marching Nazis. Dad skipped out in 1935, moving to England and joining the British fascist party. He made a brief return to the Netherlands in 1939 to sign divorce papers and — in what would amount to his penultimate glimpse of his daughter — place Audrey on a plane to London.

Decades later, and with the help of a private investigator, Audrey traced his whereabouts to Dublin, where the two spent a day together. He continued to turn a cold-eye to his daughter in spite of her forgiveness and the financial support she provided him during his remaining years. Many credit a lack of paternal love for inspiring her longing for a father figure in the men she chose.

Her entree into the world of entertainment came via a pair of ballet slippers and a tutu, a fact that documentarian Helena Coan hammers to death. There is no mention of Charade, Robin and Marian, or her performance in a film that many consider her shining hour, Two for the Road. Perhaps these exclusions had more to do with budgetary limitations than disdain for the projects. Many of the clips from her films are from public domain trailers, which avoid the cost-prohibitive fees attached to licensing clips from the finished products. We are instead treated to what amounts to five agonizing minutes of three ballerinas, all playing Audrey at various ages, dramatizing her life through dance. The bogus recreations have no place in a film about someone as genuine as Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey is remembered today more for her role as fashion’s iconic Queen of Gamin than for many of her performances. Sheets, handbags, t-shirts: you name it, and almost 30 years after her passing, Audrey’s licensed likeness still generates sales. When first they met, Audrey’s future full-time fashionista Hubert de Givenchy was expecting to see Katharine Hepburn stroll through the doors of the designer’s Grand Salon. In walked Audrey, a clothes hanger compared to the more full-bodied actresses of the day like Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren. It was Givenchy who introduced Audrey to the world of haute couture and together they collaborated on many of her most striking creations to form what her granddaughter called, “a perfectly curated image.”

The closest Audrey came to achieving pariah status was when Jack Warner personally selected her to play Eliza Doolittle in the big screen adaptation of My Fair Lady. Outrage reigned supreme: how dare she dare horn in by stealing Julie Andrews’ signature character! Her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, even though Audrey clearly proved her ability to carry a tune in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Coan confirms that the actress had her choice of projects, which makes it even harder to believe that she signed on board with slasher slop like Wait Until Dark — who wants to watch Audrey Hepburn cast in a one-set affair as a helpless blind woman being systematically tormented by a trinity of heroin-sniffing felons? This was followed by a ten-year vacation from acting, a decade during which she opted instead to focus on raising her children. Robin and Marian marked her return in 1976, followed by a career low point: picking up a paycheck as a pharmaceutical heiress targeted for death in the all-encompassingly generic Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. It was here that she began a romance with Ben Gazzara that lasted through the filming of her last gasp of grandeur in Peter Bogdanovich’s Lubitschian romantic comedy, They All Laughed.

Her reputation remained sterling until late last year, when Emma Thompson began spouting off in the trades. “I find Audrey Hepburn fantastically twee. Twee is whimsy without wit,” Thompson noted. “It’s mimsy-mumsy sweetness without any kind of bite. And that’s not for me. She can’t sing and she can’t really act, I’m afraid. I’m sure she was a delightful woman — and perhaps if I had known her I would have enjoyed her acting more, but I don’t and I didn’t, so that’s all there is to it, really.” This coming from an actress who has spent the last decade drawing from her own acting process to appear in sequels to Harry Potter, Nanny McPhee, Johnny English, and Men in Black as well as Beautiful Creatures (aka the YA franchise that never was), Bridget Jones’s Baby, and the unnecessary live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. And let’s not forget her giving voice to such animated touchstones as Brave and Dolittle. Thompson’s a fine one to shoot spitballs at Audrey’s reputation. In Hollywood’s golden era, the characters we saw on screen were “very much like the characters they played,” said Peter Bogdanovich, “that was the point.” The climatic scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s showcases Audrey at her best.

The one topic that is not given short shrift is Audrey’s role as a UNICEF ambassador. The majority of ego-driven celebrities connected to charitable work only agree to align with a cause if their name is prominently attached. (Sorry, Jerry.) Not Audrey. Unless one followed her career closely, her work to save children would no doubt have gone unnoticed. For those unfamiliar with her screen work, next to downloading her films, this is as fine an introduction as any. ★★★

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Blizzard of Souls — Fact-based historical drama as seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Arturs Vanags (Oto Brantevics), a fresh-faced Latvian teen who, along with his father, is spurred into battle after a Jerry shoots dead his mother and the family dog. (Shades of Inglourious Basterds: just moments prior to her demise — and seen from Arturs’ POV as he hides under the bed — mom offers her executioner a glass of milk.) It houses many of the stereotypes inextricably linked to Hollywood service pictures: upgrading threadbare combat boots with a pair found on a dead German; Arturs’ first kill; learning the language of love in the arms of an enemy fraulein; substituting the girl he left behind for the nurse who mended the first of his four wounds, and what war film would be complete without the old helmet-on-the-bayonet bit to indicate the source of sniper’s bullets? Director Dzintars Dreibergs skillfully argues that battle scenes can be equally effective when shot in cloudless blue daylight as under overcast skies, but it’s under the snow-blanketed cover of darkness that the film best achieves its goal of depicting the facelessness and sudden horrors of war. Ultimately, this amounts to a well-mounted Latvian recruitment film. 2020 — S.M. ★★

News of the World — The year is 1870. Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a news-reader, a nascent member of the broadcast news media, traveling from town to town with a stack of newspapers in his valise, looking to keep American abreast of current events at a dime a head. Not unlike John Wayne’s journeys in John Ford’s The Searchers or Henry Hathaway’s True Grit (with a little of Truffaut’s The Wild Child thrown in for good measure), Kidd’s journey involves the task of escorting a young girl (Helena Zengel), kidnapped and held captive by the Kiowa, back to what may or may not be her home. She’s been gone so long that Kiowa has become her native tongue, a move that forces our reader to do double-duty as the film’s narrator. Given the star’s general avoidance of dark, potentially uncomfortable material, it felt strange in these surroundings to introduce the concept of evil-doers trying to kidnap the child for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The rest is pretty much what one might expect of a vehicle starring America’s favorite movie star: good performances, solid production values, and more than a touch of stodginess. Directed by Paul Greengrass and co-starring Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel (living up to her last name), and Thomas Francis Murphy in a role once reserved for John McIntire (2020) — S.M. ★★

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Audrey: a celebratory documentary that somehow neglects to mention her role in Two for the Road.
Audrey: a celebratory documentary that somehow neglects to mention her role in Two for the Road.

To paraphrase critic Molly Haskell, Audrey Hepburn awakened love in all who watched her. Why it took this long for someone to make a feature-length documentary about one of the world’s most adored and influential actresses and humanitarians is anybody’s guess. Audrey is as far from perfection as its subject is close, but one thing’s for certain: there has never been a movie star more beloved by her public than she.

Audrey was a flower born from otherwise thorny nobility. Her father was a diplomat of dubious distinction (his background is described as “very fuzzy”), her mother a baroness. Both parents were virulent antisemites who, in 1935, visited Germany and cheered on the marching Nazis. Dad skipped out in 1935, moving to England and joining the British fascist party. He made a brief return to the Netherlands in 1939 to sign divorce papers and — in what would amount to his penultimate glimpse of his daughter — place Audrey on a plane to London.

Decades later, and with the help of a private investigator, Audrey traced his whereabouts to Dublin, where the two spent a day together. He continued to turn a cold-eye to his daughter in spite of her forgiveness and the financial support she provided him during his remaining years. Many credit a lack of paternal love for inspiring her longing for a father figure in the men she chose.

Her entree into the world of entertainment came via a pair of ballet slippers and a tutu, a fact that documentarian Helena Coan hammers to death. There is no mention of Charade, Robin and Marian, or her performance in a film that many consider her shining hour, Two for the Road. Perhaps these exclusions had more to do with budgetary limitations than disdain for the projects. Many of the clips from her films are from public domain trailers, which avoid the cost-prohibitive fees attached to licensing clips from the finished products. We are instead treated to what amounts to five agonizing minutes of three ballerinas, all playing Audrey at various ages, dramatizing her life through dance. The bogus recreations have no place in a film about someone as genuine as Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey is remembered today more for her role as fashion’s iconic Queen of Gamin than for many of her performances. Sheets, handbags, t-shirts: you name it, and almost 30 years after her passing, Audrey’s licensed likeness still generates sales. When first they met, Audrey’s future full-time fashionista Hubert de Givenchy was expecting to see Katharine Hepburn stroll through the doors of the designer’s Grand Salon. In walked Audrey, a clothes hanger compared to the more full-bodied actresses of the day like Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren. It was Givenchy who introduced Audrey to the world of haute couture and together they collaborated on many of her most striking creations to form what her granddaughter called, “a perfectly curated image.”

The closest Audrey came to achieving pariah status was when Jack Warner personally selected her to play Eliza Doolittle in the big screen adaptation of My Fair Lady. Outrage reigned supreme: how dare she dare horn in by stealing Julie Andrews’ signature character! Her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, even though Audrey clearly proved her ability to carry a tune in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Coan confirms that the actress had her choice of projects, which makes it even harder to believe that she signed on board with slasher slop like Wait Until Dark — who wants to watch Audrey Hepburn cast in a one-set affair as a helpless blind woman being systematically tormented by a trinity of heroin-sniffing felons? This was followed by a ten-year vacation from acting, a decade during which she opted instead to focus on raising her children. Robin and Marian marked her return in 1976, followed by a career low point: picking up a paycheck as a pharmaceutical heiress targeted for death in the all-encompassingly generic Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline. It was here that she began a romance with Ben Gazzara that lasted through the filming of her last gasp of grandeur in Peter Bogdanovich’s Lubitschian romantic comedy, They All Laughed.

Her reputation remained sterling until late last year, when Emma Thompson began spouting off in the trades. “I find Audrey Hepburn fantastically twee. Twee is whimsy without wit,” Thompson noted. “It’s mimsy-mumsy sweetness without any kind of bite. And that’s not for me. She can’t sing and she can’t really act, I’m afraid. I’m sure she was a delightful woman — and perhaps if I had known her I would have enjoyed her acting more, but I don’t and I didn’t, so that’s all there is to it, really.” This coming from an actress who has spent the last decade drawing from her own acting process to appear in sequels to Harry Potter, Nanny McPhee, Johnny English, and Men in Black as well as Beautiful Creatures (aka the YA franchise that never was), Bridget Jones’s Baby, and the unnecessary live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast. And let’s not forget her giving voice to such animated touchstones as Brave and Dolittle. Thompson’s a fine one to shoot spitballs at Audrey’s reputation. In Hollywood’s golden era, the characters we saw on screen were “very much like the characters they played,” said Peter Bogdanovich, “that was the point.” The climatic scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s showcases Audrey at her best.

The one topic that is not given short shrift is Audrey’s role as a UNICEF ambassador. The majority of ego-driven celebrities connected to charitable work only agree to align with a cause if their name is prominently attached. (Sorry, Jerry.) Not Audrey. Unless one followed her career closely, her work to save children would no doubt have gone unnoticed. For those unfamiliar with her screen work, next to downloading her films, this is as fine an introduction as any. ★★★

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

Blizzard of Souls — Fact-based historical drama as seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Arturs Vanags (Oto Brantevics), a fresh-faced Latvian teen who, along with his father, is spurred into battle after a Jerry shoots dead his mother and the family dog. (Shades of Inglourious Basterds: just moments prior to her demise — and seen from Arturs’ POV as he hides under the bed — mom offers her executioner a glass of milk.) It houses many of the stereotypes inextricably linked to Hollywood service pictures: upgrading threadbare combat boots with a pair found on a dead German; Arturs’ first kill; learning the language of love in the arms of an enemy fraulein; substituting the girl he left behind for the nurse who mended the first of his four wounds, and what war film would be complete without the old helmet-on-the-bayonet bit to indicate the source of sniper’s bullets? Director Dzintars Dreibergs skillfully argues that battle scenes can be equally effective when shot in cloudless blue daylight as under overcast skies, but it’s under the snow-blanketed cover of darkness that the film best achieves its goal of depicting the facelessness and sudden horrors of war. Ultimately, this amounts to a well-mounted Latvian recruitment film. 2020 — S.M. ★★

News of the World — The year is 1870. Civil War veteran Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a news-reader, a nascent member of the broadcast news media, traveling from town to town with a stack of newspapers in his valise, looking to keep American abreast of current events at a dime a head. Not unlike John Wayne’s journeys in John Ford’s The Searchers or Henry Hathaway’s True Grit (with a little of Truffaut’s The Wild Child thrown in for good measure), Kidd’s journey involves the task of escorting a young girl (Helena Zengel), kidnapped and held captive by the Kiowa, back to what may or may not be her home. She’s been gone so long that Kiowa has become her native tongue, a move that forces our reader to do double-duty as the film’s narrator. Given the star’s general avoidance of dark, potentially uncomfortable material, it felt strange in these surroundings to introduce the concept of evil-doers trying to kidnap the child for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The rest is pretty much what one might expect of a vehicle starring America’s favorite movie star: good performances, solid production values, and more than a touch of stodginess. Directed by Paul Greengrass and co-starring Mare Winningham, Elizabeth Marvel (living up to her last name), and Thomas Francis Murphy in a role once reserved for John McIntire (2020) — S.M. ★★

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