It was the moment she stepped out of a New York City cab, dressed in a black silk dress designed by Hubert de Givenchy, rows of Tiffany pearls accentuating her Modigliani frame, that Audrey Hepburn became an icon. This is Hepburn the actress — a beautiful woman with swept up hair and dark glasses, biting into a croissant while gazing at jewelry at the Tiffany window. It is an image — symbolic — and not real.
The real Hepburn, the authentic one, was human and complex.
It is this woman who shines through in Audrey, director Helena Coan’s beautiful new documentary which is now on Netflix. Coan deconstructs Hepburn’s perfect image and makes it fall away — like sheaths of satin — to uncover Audrey Hepburn the survivor, the wife, the mother, the humanitarian.
It is her words that tell the story through archive film, media appearances and interviews.
The documentary also relies on interviews with those who knew her well — her sons — Sean Hepburn Ferrer (with husband Mel Ferrer) and Luca Dotti (with her second husband Andrea Dotti) — and some of her dearest friends, both in her professional and personal life — Andrew Wald, Ana Cataldi (Producer of Out of Africa,) and actor Richard Dreyfuss, among others.
The documentary explores Hepburns film career, her discovery by Collette (who made her Gigi,) her marriages, children (at the apex of her career, she left Hollywood to be with her family for 10 years,) finding love at the end of her life and her work with UNICEF.
But it goes deeper, and attempts to explain the woman behind the star. A Hepburn that is least-known and so far away from the gamine Audrey of Roman Holiday and Sabrina.
When Resistance Is Hidden In Shoes
Her real story is that of a Dutch aristocrat who was raised by parents with facist political allegiances. Her father left the family in Belgium and returned to his native England to become a Blackshirt; her Mum wrote op-eds praising Adolf Hitler.
They split up when she was six and Audrey, who was in school in England, was sent by her father back to the Netherlands with her Mum. The war broke out and Audrey didn’t see her father again for 25 years. When she finally did see him again — she was a movie star and he was cold and unloving.
During the war, Audrey aided in her country’s resistance to the German occupation. She was the little girl who used to carry resistance documents inside her shoes. She saw people dying because they had nothing to eat and the horrors of war. She almost died of starvation.
“On a fairly regular basis, although I can’t tell you how often because I have blocked it, I would see families being taken away, jabbed by rifles until the babies would be screaming and the mothers begging to be killed if only their children could be set free,” she told author Diana Maychick, in the book Audrey Hepburn: An Intimate Portrait.
Finding Strength in Abandonment
Audrey conquered Hollywood like no one else before or after but never got over the loss of her father. Her father leaving left her insecure, “for life perhaps,” she says in the film.
“I think she really was insecure,” said her granddaughter, Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer, in the film. “And you know, she fought to kind of project a perfectly curated image of herself because of it.”
“She had obviously the strength of character that was so appealing,” she said. “You couldn’t help but fall in love with her. She also had this incredible vulnerability.”
“She was a huge star, but there was this deep wound,” she said.
In Audrey’s own words in the film, she tries to explain the loss, and what it did to her. “You become very insecure about affection, and terribly grateful for it,” she says. “And you have an enormous desire to give it.”
And she never understood her beauty. She says she was always “terribly” self-conscious about herself
A Woman Kissed By God
“Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder,” Hepburn says in the film. “And this is something I can’t see. I see the problems when I get up in the morning. And do my best to look well.”
“What has always helped me a great deal are the clothes. It was often an enormous help to know that you looked the part,” she says.
The documentary, at 100 minutes, is a bit too long and the use of the dancers to mark the stages of Hepburn’s life (her lifelong dream was to be a prima ballerina) are a little too much, but the message is clear: Hepburn is a survivor who turned her trauma into a deep appreciation of life. And she also used her name for something good.
“She most certainly took trauma and transmuted into love,” her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, says in the documentary.
The famous director Billy Wilder said of the actress: “God kissed Audrey Hepburn on the cheek, and there she was.” Because of her unique beauty, that face, she was born a star, but she was so much more than a little black dress, pearls and gloves.