Chasing Audrey

Written By:  Amanda Leduc

It is March of 1987.  I am five years old and my life has become four walls and the starchy sheets of a hospital bed.  I live for visits and dread the kind but impersonal hands of the nurse, come to check my temperature at four am.  I am recovering from a series of surgeries; first, the insertion of a ventricularperitoneal shunt behind the left side of my brain, placed there to drain the cyst that sits in the centre of my cerebral cortex like a malevolent general.  The shunt is a gamble that loses, and so the doctors move to open neurosurgery.  They shave off my hair (my mother, who does not think to ask to keep it, cries about this later on).  They plug me into an IV machine, lay me flat on the surgical table, and spend thirteen hours cutting away at the problem.  The general is divided into slices and sent to the incinerator.  The bits of cyst that are grafted too closely to the brain are left untouched, in the hope that they will be too damaged to regroup.

        Eight hours into the surgery, I have a seizure and die on the operating table.  A small death, a temporary death, only that.  The heavy black paddles of a defibrillator shock me back into existence, and the rest of the surgery goes as planned.

        I stay in the hospital for three months.  For the majority of the time my head is bandaged, a great white turban that blocks my peripheral vision and gives me a low-level migraine.  I do not like the nurses because they are brisk, no-nonsense, and smell like the hospital.  But when my mother comes to visit I snap at her, refuse to come out of bed, then burst into tears when she leaves the room.  My mother is seven months pregnant and trying desperately to be strong.  At night, she weeps because she is afraid that I am disappearing.

        Halfway through my hospital sojourn, fed up with my boredom and my moods, my mother turns to the nurses for help.  One day, when I have no visitors, they wheel me into the common room and push a tape into the VCR.

        “Your mother says you like dancing,” says the nurse.  “We thought you might like this.”

        I have never seen a black-and-white movie before, and this is what flickers on screen.  I am immediately transfixed by the shadows, by this strange world that is so much more and yet not at all like colour.  I am intrigued by the young woman – Princess Ann, says the scratchy male voice-over – who waves from her carriage window.  Even at five, I register the slant of her cheekbones, the hesitant beauty of her smile.  Princess Ann is a woman I wouldn’t mind having in the hospital with me.

        But what captures me the most is that initial ballroom dance scene, where Princess Ann – Miss Audrey Hepburn, none other, though it will be some years before I register the name – waltzes around the room like a live version of Sleeping Beauty, her dress billowing about her like magic.  Suddenly, all things are possible.  I am healthy in the hospital and already the surgery seems far away.  I decide:  when I am older, I am going to look like that.  I am going to be like that.  

        I did not know enough, then, to differentiate between the princess on screen and the woman in real life.  But in the end it didn’t matter, because in every way possible she turned out to be a princess anyway.

*

She was born Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston in Brussels, Belgium, on May 4, 1929. Her father was an Englishman, her mother a descendant of Dutch nobility.  Her parents divorced in 1935; shaken, her mother moved Audrey and her two half-brothers to Arnhem, in the Netherlands.[1]

        She grew up dancing, a ballerina child under the shadow of the war.  Childhood dreams of the stage and art flourished alongside the crueler realities of the German occupation of Holland: her brother was sent to a Nazi labour camp; her uncle and her mother’s cousin were shot in front of her for being part of the opposition.[2]  During the Dutch famine of 1944, she made flour out of tulip bulbs and danced, secretly, to raise money for the Dutch resistance.  She would later cite these audiences as her most important:  ‘The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.’[3]

        In 1945, she moved to Amsterdam to study ballet with Sonia Gaskell.[4]  Three years later, intent on the dancing dream, she moved to London to study with Marie Rambert, the famed Polish instructor.  Rambert praised her dancing but was unsure of her long-term prospects; her height (at 5’7”, rather too tall for a prima ballerina), coupled with the effects of her malnutrition during the war, made for uncertain success.[5] 

        Uncertain success is difficult for a dancer – it is a profession that demands excellence.  Audrey wanted to excel.  But she was poor.  She needed to work.  Here she was, poised between desire and practicality.  What to choose?  Where to go?

*

It is the spring of 1988, a year after my brain surgery.  I have had yet another surgery this year – a lengthening of the tendons in my right foot, to correct the awkward turned-in shuffle of my toes.  My cast has been off for some weeks and the physiotherapist has recommended dance class as a way of exercising the muscle.  My mother, who used to be a dancer and would like her own daughters to do the same, signs myself and my younger sister up for ballet class, for jazz, for tap.  My sister is only four and cannot understand my excitement.

        But she does, as it turns out, understand the dancing.  I do not.  My arms are not graceful and my right foot, stiff from surgery, can turn out only forty-five degrees.  I am now almost seven and already too plump for a leotard – not a fat child, no; just round in all of the wrong places.  I close my eyes and think of Audrey but I am too large, too unsteady – there will be no channeling of elfin energy while I am in class.

        My sister, an immeasurably better dancer, dances into her teens.  I take my cue and follow other pursuits.

*

In 1948, Audrey took her cue from Rambert and started acting.  Her first role was in the educational film Dutch in Seven Lessons.  For the next few years, she had small parts in some European and British films.  Then, in 1951, she landed the starring role in the Broadway production of Gigi, which garnered starred reviews and ran for 219 performances.[6] 

        But it was her performance in the 1952 film Roman Holiday, her first American film, that captivated the world.  Gregory Peck, her costar, was reportedly so sure of her success that he convinced the producers to give her top billing alongside his own name.[7]  Not surprisingly, Audrey garnered an Academy Award for the role; it was her first win, and the first of four nominations that would span her career.

Come with me; behold.  Here is Princess Ann, bored and restless in the middle of the ball.  Here is Joe, cocky and street-smart at his poker game.  Now, the breakdown, the escape, the chance encounter of Ann and Joe by the side of that fountain.  This is very unusual.  I’ve never been alone with a man before – even with my dress on.  With my dress off, it’s most unusual. [But] I don’t seem to mind … do you?  A chaste night, the princess on the couch, slumbering in long-awaited pajamas.  

        Morning.  Watch Joe as he discovers ‘Anya’s’ true identity, look at that trademark smile, blossoming behind a startled hand.  Now, the leave-taking.  I must get back, I must, and now the carefully orchestrated meet-up (oh, what grace, what style, Mr. Peck!), and a merry day in Rome.  Now a party, now the grand escape from the secret police, and now that sudden first kiss by the edge of the water, the moment frozen just so in quintessential Hollywood style.  What woman, watching, could fail to be enchanted?

        Then, slowly, the gradual unraveling of the dream.  Anya must return to the embassy.  Joe, adrift in newfound feeling, must let her go.  And finally, the infamous last scene, full of coded messages.  Watch the hurt in Anya’s eyes fade to gratitude as Joe promises his compliance in the secret; watch, too, as Joe stands alone in the hall, his princess returned to her everyday.

        She was twenty-three when she made the film, twenty-four when she won the Oscar.  She was tall and dark and so slender as to be almost androgynous, the antithesis of the full-figured Hollywood starlet.  But the world was ready.  As though there’d been an Audrey-shaped hole in the universe, waiting patiently just for her.

*

As I grow older, I watch Roman Holiday, and I draw crazy parallels.  I am not a princess.  But I have dark hair, hair that is also short, hair that is taking its sweet time to grow.  I am awkward around people, unsure – I long, even then, for a dark-haired man to steal me away through the city.  I blur Princess Ann and Princess Audrey and imagine that this is just my gawky phase, these uncertain years between eight and twelve, that necessary step in the journey of the swan.  One day, I will be princess, actress, icon, whatever.  She was tall and dark in the age of the diminutive blonde; perhaps I am the inverse, the diminutive brunette whose hesitant shuffle is a new kind of song.  Perhaps.

*

An Audrey-shaped hole in the universe.  When it filled, Hollywood opened for her like the petals of a flower.  Suddenly, the world couldn’t get enough of this dark-haired European.  She followed Roman Holiday with Sabrina, a beguiling vixen on the arm of both William Holden and Humphrey Bogart – quite the tall order for a newcomer barely into her twenties.  

        And then came 1957’s Funny Face.  It was her fourth Hollywood picture, following her turn as Natasha Rostov in 1956’s War and Peace.  It was her first musical, and, as she’d say later, one of her favourite films because she got to dance with Fred Astaire.[8]  And it paired Audrey with a young Hubert de Givenchy, giving birth to the genius that would both shape and epitomize her status as one of the icons of Hollywood style.  Suddenly, bookish chic was all the rage.

*

It is the spring of 1996.  In a few short months I will leave elementary education behind and venture into that exciting universe known as high school.  Most of the people in my class are nervous about this, emotional.  I do not get along with most of them – I have too many memories, too many taunts about my slow-to-grow hair, too many laughs at my awkward gait.  I have a countdown on my calendar, and every crossed off day is one more breath of air.

        At almost fourteen, I am beginning to give up hope that 5’7” lurks in my genes, a coil of slender leg and arm waiting to unroll.  I am small and still round, and while my eyebrows whisper Audrey at odd moments (they are also dark, and triangular, and so thick as to be almost overpowering), my bust-to-waist-to-hip ratio says Marilyn Monroe.  I have given up on the dancing but wish for it in low moments, as though it is key to navigating the world.  If I can burst into my high school in a flurry of rhythm and song, people will notice.  I will carve out a name for myself that is defined by my body in a different way – no history of surgeries, no limp for this Amanda, or a limp that is so inconsequential as to be almost non-existent.  

        I leave elementary school in June.  I spend the summer reading books, writing stories and watching movies – I have recently acquired Sabrina, and that swish and flick as Audrey/Sabrina breaks an egg into the bowl whispers promise.  Maybe it isn’t quite the Audrey-in-ballroom-gown that speaks to me, after all.

        And then, I watch Funny Face.

I have grown up with the black-and-white Audrey, and this shift to colour seems at once garish and uncertain.  But here is Jo Stockton, bookish wallflower, surrounded by her stories, her “empathicalist” ideals.    Watch her as she struggles against the Quality magazine campaign – struggles, and then relents in the face of a trip to Paris and the chance to meet the enigmatic Professor Flostre, the embodiment of all her philosophical ideals.  Watch as the unlikely, unlooked-for romance between Dick (Fred Astaire’s suave photographer) and Jo unfolds among the fashion shoots in Paris: first shot, the triumphant walk down the steps of Sacre Coeur; next, Jo the fisherwoman, the surprise permanently etched on her face as that glistening silver trout arcs toward her through the air.  Jo the ingénue, Jo the svelte lady in glorious big hat.  Jo, the uncertain bride.  Splash some tears in her eyes, says Dick, at this the final shoot.  And look, the tears are already there.

Much of the dialogue, not to mention the shadier parts of the premise (Fred Astaire, who was thirty years older than Audrey when the film was made, is blokey and suave and too much Svengali when, years later, I watch the film again) escapes me on my first watch.  I am captivated, instead, by the idea of this simple, earnest bookstore clerk overtaking the world.  Perhaps life is not about making one’s mark as a princess, or a princess type – perhaps there is room for a girl to be both “beautiful” and “intellectual” all at once.  Maybe the funny face – the wayward eyebrows, the dowdy clothes, the earnestness – has its place in society after all.

*

For all its musical frivolity, Funny Face cemented Audrey’s status as both a serious actress and an antidote to the buxom blonde of the day.  The fashion scholar Elizabeth Wilson, writing after Audrey’s death in 1993, linked her performance in Funny Face to the emergent trend of individualism and bohemian style that characterized 1960’s America:

                … for me her charm lay … in a style that seemed the

                embodiment of sophisticated, existentialist Europe as

                opposed to the overripe artificiality of Hollywood.  She

                might look like Bambi, but her casual style signaled

                student, not starlet; she proved that a woman could have

                brains and still be attractive … [S]he demonstrated that

                there was, after all, another way to be.[9]

Funny Face also did much to bring together Audrey the actress and Audrey the woman, further cultivating her star persona – much was made of the similarities between the on-screen relationship and Audrey’s own relationship with the much older Mel Ferrer, whom she married in 1955.  The pairing of Audrey and Givenchy gave birth to a new fashion awareness, both in the film and in Hollywood at large.  The film also did its part to reinvigorate Hollywood’s lagging musical industry – Audrey followed the success of Funny Face with a series of musical roles, culminating in her iconic performance as Eliza DoLittie in 1964’s My Fair Lady.  

*

I am much older when I watch Funny Face again – older, not necessarily wiser, with the same slant toward philosophical idealism as Jo.  I am drawn to charismatic, witty older men, though my own stories have not ended so happily.  I detest the colour pink.  I have also worked in a bookstore, and while part of my twenty-first century female self scoffs at the ‘smoothness’ of that first kiss on the ladder, I am guilty of a romantic twinge all the same.  How novel – a romance begun in books!  

        But romantic twinge notwithstanding, Dick Avery is no Joe Bradley.  Empathy, he says to a startled Jo after that fateful bookstore kiss.  I put myself in your place, and I knew you wanted to be kissed.  Humour aside, when I watch this scene again the dialogue prompts a derisive snort from my corner.  Run for the hills!  I want to shout to the shaken girl.  Don’t let him get you!  

But I’ve lost her.  Nothing left to do, now, but watch the romance play out.  

*

As I get older, the magic of Audrey’s early roles lose some of their power.  Roman Holiday remains my all-time favourite film, but I am not a princess, and I cannot dance, and there is no Joe Bradley waiting to sweep me away.  The initial rush of knowledge that characterized my first watching of Funny Face fades, somewhat, in the face of my hindsight cynicism – empathicalist or not, Jo still capitulates to her Svengali.  (In softer moments, I will admit that they both do, in a way – Dick Avery is not the same man for his brush with the bookish Jo.)

        But I am a twenty-first century child, a product of Disney and sensationalist media and tried-and-true books.  After a while I lose the wonder that accompanied my first viewings of the films.  I turn my back on Hollywood and immerse myself in the world of independent movies.  I spend a year watching nothing but international films.  I read books.  I watch plays and spend evenings deconstructing the dialogue.  I try my hand at playwriting and ignore the fact that what emerges is a younger, inverted version of the Svengali phenomenon.  

        But Audrey is everywhere – in the slant of my heroine’s eyebrows, in the peculiar dainty joint of a stranger’s wrist and hand at a sidewalk café.  In late 2006, the GAP uses footage from Funny Face for its ‘skinny black pant’ campaign.  I do not own a television, but the pictures are everywhere.  I watch Jo cavort through the Parisian café to the tune of AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’ and wonder where my own sense of abandon has gone.

        Then I receive the Audrey Hepburn DVD collection for Christmas 2006.  I have not experienced Audrey on DVD before, and all of the extras that come with Roman Holiday and Sabrina  (Funny Face is not, sadly, part of the collection) reinvigorate my understanding of the films.  The Audrey who talks candidly with the director and chops off her hair during a Roman Holiday screen test is a woman I have not met before, and yet instantly feel like I’ve known.  Likewise for the Audrey who accepts her 1953 Academy Award with shaking hands – this Audrey is nervous, and shy, and suddenly I wonder if the eyebrows are our only connection.  

         But the Audrey in black dress and pearls, the Audrey who strolls in front of that famous jewelry store, is a new incarnation altogether.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s is in the collection, and suddenly I am five years old again, glued to the screen.  ‘Moon River’ plays in the background.  Audrey, as the infamous Holly Golightly, stares into the window of Tiffany’s and eats her danish.  I have never, I think, seen someone look so poised and so lonely all at once.

*

Her portrayal of Holiday Golightly is now considered one of the iconic performances of twentieth century cinema, but at the time, Audrey saw it as her most challenging role.  She was, by her own admission, an introvert playing the outgoing girl.

But look – how she sparkles! -- as this charmingly naïve woman who navigates the world of New York men with such ignorance, yet such aplomb.  Let us pretend, for a moment, to be Paul Varjak (George Peppard), the bemused new neighbour with his dwindling writerly hopes.  Watch him as he steps gingerly into Holly’s apartment to use the phone, see the incredulity blossom as he takes in her haphazard suitcases and then learns she’s been in New York for a year.  And then, over the next few days, more of Holly:  the “weather messages” to and from the ex-con; the swinging parties; Holly’s fascination with millionaire Rusty Trawler (do we detect jealousy from Paul, even then?).  Then the new desire to marry the Brazilian millionaire and leave New York.  The cat, always the cat.  If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then – then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!

It is a film both edgy and sweet, one that has lost none of its edge through the years.  At the time of filming, Audrey was thirty-one years old and a new mother.  No longer quite the doe-eyed innocent, she had been looking for a way to alter her screen persona.  But she hesitated to play the part, at first – Holly is a call girl, albeit a charming one, a role far removed from the black-and-white purity of Roman Holiday’s royal ingénue.  

Yet in the end it seems a role made for her, one that is as much Audrey as anything she’s ever done.  And in many ways, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is as much a ‘childhood’ film as Roman Holiday – Holly, at her core, longs to return to the innocence of her youth, to find a place that calls to her, to be surrounded by people that make her feel at home.  And isn’t that what we all long for, as adults – that return to a time when things were simpler, when love and simple pleasures were more than enough?

As a writer, I am a stalwart champion of Paul and his literary hopes.  I snicker behind my hand as he quotes that oh-so-memorable Times review:  Mainly they’re angry, sensitive, intensely felt, and that dirtiest of all dirty words – promising.  Or so said The Times Book Review, October 1, 1956.  I cheer on his budding relationship with Holly because I can see that his creative energy is fast becoming bound up in this incandescent woman.  And who could blame him?  What writer, faced with Holly’s encouraging smile, wouldn’t feel the urge to keep creating, wouldn’t fail to love this vivacious, irrepressible brunette?    I love you, says Paul, near the climax of the film.  So what? says Holly.  So what? he shoots back, outraged.  So plenty!

        I love her, and I’m not even Paul.

*

And so, in the end, I have this Audrey in my mind as well.  Audrey the princess, Audrey the bookish independent, and Audrey the bohemian, Audrey the “wild thing”.  All roles, all characters that somehow manage to convey a bit of the woman underneath.

        It is, naturally, a wild speculation.  Part of her allure lies in the dichotomy of her Hollywood era – a time when actresses were still actresses, when the private lives of stars still managed to stay out of the public eye.  But at twenty-five, I am no less captivated than at five years old, when I peered intently at the screen from beneath my white turban.  I am older and I have seen more and somehow, it doesn’t matter.  In a way, Audrey Hepburn is my Tiffany’s, that famed jewelry store that can lift Holly Golightly out of her ‘mean reds’.  I am the child who longs to be princess, the bookish philosopher who nonetheless lets herself fall madly in love.  I have seen more shades of the mean reds than I care to remember.  And when they happen, there is nothing for it but to take a trip down Hepburn Lane, to a time when cinema was sweet and you could believe in the power of a different woman.

                        People associate me with a time when movies were

                        pleasant, when women wore pretty dresses in films

                        and you heard beautiful music.  I always love it when

                        people write me and say, ‘I was having a rotten time,

                        and I walked into a cinema and saw one of your movies

                        and it made such a difference.’[10]

This golden age, of course, could not last forever; Hepburn stepped back from filmmaking in 1967, after a highly successful fifteen-year career.  She divorced Mel Ferrer in 1968 and wed Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti in 1969; her second son was born later that year.  From then on, she acted only occasionally, preferring instead to devote her time to both personal pursuits and her humanitarian work with UNICEF.[11] 

        But the movies remain, and along with them, the testimony of virtually all who knew her.  Gregory Peck famously said, “It was easy to love her.”[12]  Director Billy Wilder, who chose Audrey for the role in Roman Holiday, said, “There was so much inside her […] you trusted her, this tiny person.  You cannot duplicate her, or take her out of her era […] there will not be another.”[13]  In the world of cinema, she stands alone in the sheer size of her adoration – people do not have negative things to say about her, a legacy almost more powerful than the films themselves.

*

It is late in the year 2007.  I have uprooted myself and am chasing pen and ink in a strange country, a place with delightful brogues and too much rain.  My possessions have whittled down to what can fit in two suitcases, which means that my life now consists of clothing, my notebook, my computer, and my Audrey Hepburn DVD collection.  I have not yet had occasion to feel the ‘mean reds’ in my newfound country, but Roman Holiday is there, just in case.  

        One day, in the not-too-distant-future, I will stand in front of the Eiffel Tower and shout Bonjour, Paris!  And then I will rent a moped and motor around Rome, perhaps visit the famous tourist shop that takes its name from the movie.  I will visit Arnhem and listen to my feet strike the cobblestones that a slender, dark-haired woman danced on over sixty years ago.  I will not be dancing, because that is not my gift – instead, I will listen with notebook in hand.  And maybe, if I am lucky, Audrey will whisper her words in my ear.

 


[1] Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund.  ‘Life and Career’, Audrey Hepburn.com, <http://www.audreyhepburn.com/>  [accessed November 2, 2007].

[2] ‘Early Life’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Hepburn#> [accessed November 2, 2007].

[3] Audrey Hepburn, Coronet, 1955.

[4] <http://www.audreyhepburn.com/> [accessed November 4, 2007].

[5] <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Hepburn> [accessed November 4, 2007].

[6] ‘Lighting Up Broadway’, People Extra, 1993.

[7] <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Hepburn> [accessed November 10, 2007].

[8] <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Hepburn> [accessed November 8, 2007].

[9] Elizabeth Wilson.  ‘Audrey Hepburn:  Fashion, Film and the 50’s’, in Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader.  Eds. Pam Cook and Philip Dodd.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

[10]  ‘Audrey Hepburn’, TV.com, <http://www.tv.com/audrey-hepburn/person/110730/biography.html> [accessed November 15, 2007].

[11] <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Hepburn> [accessed November 15, 2007].

[12] ‘Audrey Hepburn Quotes’, Audrey Hepburn: l’ange des enfants, <http://www.audrey1.com/quotes/>  [accessed November 17, 2007].

[13] Ibid.

Books and Periodicals Consulted

Hepburn, Audrey, ‘Audrey Hepburn’ in Coronet (1955).

Krämer, Peter.  ‘A Cutie With More Than Beauty:  Audrey Hepburn, The Hollywood Musical, and Funny Face’, in Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond.  Eds. Bill Marshall, Robynn Jeananne Stilwell (Exeter: Intellect Books, 2000), 62-69.

Unknown, ‘Lighting Up Broadway’, in People Extra (1993).

Wilson, Elizabeth, ‘Audrey Hepburn: Fashion, Film and the 50s’ in Women and Film: A Sight and Sound Reader.  Eds. Pam Cook and Philip Dodd (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 36-40.

Websites Consulted

Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund.  ‘Life and Career’, Audrey Hepburn.com, <http://www.audreyhepburn.com/>  [accessed November 2, 2007].

‘Audrey Hepburn Quotes’, Audrey Hepburn: l’ange des enfants, <http://www.audrey1.com/quotes/>  [accessed November 17, 2007].

‘Early Life’, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audrey_Hepburn#> [accessed November 2, 2007].

‘Audrey Hepburn’, TV.com, <http://www.tv.com/audrey-hepburn/person/110730/biography.html> [accessed November 15, 2007].