Audrey Hepburn

…Was an elegant spirit

Audrey Hepburn

Over the years I have gained an appreciation of classic Hollywood, largely through 2 cinimaphile friends, screenwriter Robert Avrech and another  friend of some 30 years.

When Robert had a post about Audrey, as is my nature since she interested me, I had to learn more about her. Her son, Sean Ferrer, wrote a beautiful book about her, from a son’s viewpoint who knew her as a mother and friend.

In an industry known for many self-important narcissists, Audrey was the real deal. She was humble and kind to all by nature. On the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she would talk and laugh with the film crew. Always on time. Incidentally,  a song that was prominent in the movie, Moon River, stayed in because of Audrey’s insistence. Paramount wanted to eliminate it, and she said “over my dead body“. It’s still being heard today, 58 years later.

It’s usually the little things that reveal one’s true character.

My favorite Hepburn story goes back to the early 50s, when she was starring in her first big movie, Roman Holiday. She was still living in Europe, and had heard about this new couturier,  Hubert de Givenchy, and set up an appointment with his secretary as Miss Hepburn.

On the appointed day, she announced herself and de Givenchy tells her that he is sorry, but he has a prior appointment. But he invited her to look at the rack of last year’s designs, which she did without complaint. Can you imagine most stars giving him the “do you know who I am?” routine?

De Givenchy thought that Katherine Hepburn was the appointment.

Audrey and Hubert became lifelong friends, and laughed about this for years. It was de Givenchy who years later, upon hearing of his friend’s serious cancer, flew her from her home in Switzerland to UCLA hospital for treatment in his private jet.

In classic Hollywood the studios had their own costume designers for the stars in their movies. Helen Rose and Edith Head were two of the most famous. Audrey was the only star ever allowed to pick her own costumes,  and she used de Givenchy exclusively. It was always in her contract with the studios.

As a young girl, she grew up in near famine conditions in Nazi-occupied Holland. Her mother, fearing an imminent Nazi invasion of Britain, moved the family to Holland. Not the brightest move. If I remember Sean’s book, she and her father, who left his family earlier,  were estranged for most of their lives. She even helped the Dutch resistance. When she turned 16, Holland was liberated.

When the war ended, she wanted to become a ballet dancer, but found acting to be her true calling.

I believe her heart for children living in appalling conditions was the reason later in life she became the most famous ambassador for UNICEF.

So anyway, I have mentioned from time to time my enjoyment of classic movies on the big screen. People who don’t “get it” tell me that you can see the same thing on television.

But the big screen is how the directors intended it. It’s how the cinematographers intended it. A little TV does not convey the vast emptiness of this scene in North by Northwest. To see Casablanca on the big screen as people did 75 years ago? No comparison with the television.

So I went to see My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. This was in the theaters in 1964.

You know how I can tell when a movie is good?

When all of the audience stays for the credits at the end.

And how do you know when a musical is good?

When you still hear the music 54 years later.

Although at the end, I learned that while Audrey was excited to get the role and wanted to demonstrate her singing abilities, the director decided that she had trouble with the range and picked an unknown star, Marni Nixon, to dub her singing. You probably have never heard of Marni but you know her voice in a number of movies.

The movie is, of course, based on the play by G.B. Shaw entitled Pygmalion.

The premise?

Henry Higgins, a Professor of phonics, makes a bet with his friend Col. Pickering that he can take a poor Cockney girl selling flowers on the street, Eliza Doolittle, and through 6 months of intense training, make her sound like a duchess. The final test is a dance at Buckingham Palace.

Usually if there is a musical based on a play, or in only once case I know of, a play based on a movie, one is very good and one mediocre. In this case both were excellent although some say that the movie betrayed Shaw’s intention at the end. Won’t spoil it for you.

In December 1974, I went to London. While wandering around at night, fully agreeing with the saying of Dr Samual Johnson some years earlier,  having sampled entertainment in the Soho district, decided to go to the theater district and see a play.

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“When you are tired of London, you are tired of life” Piccadilly Circus, Dec 1974 —Dr Samuel Johnson, 1777

Pygmalion starring Diana Rigg was at the Albery Theater, and I thought “If one could only see 1 play in London this would be it“.

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The seats were sold out and in any event on a corporal’s pay (and having spent a week in London, did I already mention that?), they were selling SRO (Standing Room Only) tickets for the princely sum of 2 pounds.

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Diana Rigg as Eliza Doolittle. Naturally I used a slow shutter speed and no flash.

Apparently Oh Calcutta was also playing and to a young Army corporal, the promised scene at the end with lots of nudity was enticing, but in the end I decided to go for cultha.

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“Culcha” over more earthly pleasures…

And apparently I picked one of the plays in London theatrical history.

Anyway, Audrey was an elegant spirit and a true lady.

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