This stylish beauty’s inimitable blend of regal grace and elfin innocence made her an immediate international screen and stage sensation, and her stylish presence became a cinema staple throughout the Baby Boom generation. Though born in Belgium in 1929 to the prosperity inherent to a British banker father and a Dutch noblewoman mother, Audrey Hepburn (nee Audrey Kathleen van Heemstra Ruston) came to know hardship at age six when her father walked out on the family.
Growing up in both the Netherlands and England, she was 10 when her mother elected to move back to her native country; Nazi Germany would occupy it the following year, and while Audrey pursued her love of ballet over the WWII era, she also met with malnutrition that would compromise her physical and professional development.
After the war, the family relocated to Amsterdam, and Audrey Hepburn (the new surname a legal necessity after her estranged father changed his) pursued dance and modeling; she received her first screen appearance as a stewardess in a minor 1948 Dutch travel documentary, Dutch in Seven Lessons. A dance school scholarship brought her to London in 1949, where she found chorus opportunities on the stage and small roles in British films like 1951’s One Wild Oat, in which she can be spotted quickly as a hotel receptionist; Laughter in Paradise (as a cigarette girl), and The Lavender Hill Mob, in a bit part that Alec Guinness, recognizing her talent, helped her secure. The young actress was thereafter chosen by Collette to originate the role of Gigi on Broadway, and her rave reception ensured a Hollywood courtship.
She followed with one of the splashiest debuts in American cinema history, as her charming runaway princess who falls for American reporter Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953) resulted in a smash hit for Paramount and a Best Actress Oscar. The studio wasted no time in signing her to a seven-picture deal, and the gracious gamine dominated the decade with another Oscar-nominated work as the Cinderellaesque chauffeur’s daughter in Sabrina (1954). Her teaming with Humphrey Bogart in that film, and with Fred Astaire in Funny Face (1957), along with her co-starring part with Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon (also ’57), pretty much showed audiences how well Audrey took to roles opposite older men. One of those men, Mel Ferrer–who was only 12 years her senior– became her personal partner as well when they wed in 1954, eventually filming 1956’s epic film version of War and Peace together as part of her Paramount deal.
In 1957, Audrey agreed to make a rare television appearance with then-husband Ferrer in the Producer’s Showcase TV production of Mayerling, portraying the tragic, true love affair of Baroness Marie Vetsera and Crown Prince Rudolph. Considered lost for more than 50 years, the production came to light in 2012 and was made available to the home video market. Audrey continued to prosper in the fifties, co-starring as the jungle-dwelling Rima alongside Anthony Perkins in Green Mansions (1959) and as the conflicted novitiate of The Nun’s Story (also ’59), co-starring Peter Finch.
Although destined to be one of the world’s most recognized movie stars, she actually didn’t think very much about her looks, which she believed to be quite average, saying, “I think sex is overrated. I don’t have sex appeal and I know it. As a matter of fact, I think I’m rather funny looking. My teeth are funny, for one thing, and I have none of the attributes usually required for a movie queen, including the shapeliness.” Throughout her career, Miss Hepburn continued to downplay her special gift apparent to everyone else except herself, offering, “My look is attainable. Women can look like Audrey Hepburn by flipping out their hair, buying the large sunglasses, and the little sleeveless dresses.”
The early ’60s saw her tender performance as a Native American girl raised by white settlers in 1960s’ The Unforgiven, with Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy and silent screen icon Lillian Gish. The following year, Hepburn received another Academy Award nomination for a signature performance as Truman Capote’s flighty Manhattan party girl Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Award-winning songwriter/musician Henry Mancini said of Audrey, “‘Moon River’ was written for her. No one else had ever understood it so completely. There have been more than a thousand versions of ‘Moon River,’ but hers is unquestionably the greatest.” Nearly a half-century later, one of the iconic “little black dresses” fashion guru Givenchy designed for the actress for the film was auctioned off for an astonishing final bid of over $920,000.
Hepburn followed with more memorable work in the controversial Lillian Hellman drama The Children’s Hour (1961), co-starring with Shirley MacLaine and James Garner. One of her most popular successes was the breezy 1963 comedy/thriller Charade, opposite Cary Grant. The 1964 romantic romp Paris–When It Sizzles saw her continue her trend of appearing opposite older gentlemen with co-star William Holden (the two having been paired off before in Sabrina). And in How to Steal a Million (1966), she was paired with Peter O’Toole, while she shared screen honors with Albert Finney a year later in Two for the Road, .
Appearing in the 1964 screen adaptation of the hit stage musical My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison, however, brought Audrey some special challenges. Some felt Julie Andrews should have played the role she created on Broadway, but Hepburn had no hand in any deceptive dealings with production head Jack Warner. She said, “I understood the dismay of people who had seen Julie Andrews on Broadway. Julie made that role her own, and for that reason I didn’t want to do the film when it was first offered. But Jack Warner never wanted to put Julie in the film. He was totally opposed to it, for whatever reason. Then I learned that if I turned it down, they would offer it to still another movie actress. So I felt I should have the same opportunity to play it as any other film actress,” and added, “if I had stopped to think about comparison with my predecessors as Eliza, I’d have frozen completely. But I loved this part. Eliza is vulnerable, but she has a beautiful inner strength. I made myself forget the problems. I threw myself into it and tried to make it me,” which indeed she did, with grace and charm.
After her final Oscar-nominated performance–as a blind woman terrorized by killers in 1967’s Wait Until Dark–Hepburn opted for semi-retirement, spending her time with family and her energies to support of UNICEF and aid to starving children. She was offered the leading role in the 1969 musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, opposite O’Toole, and 1973’s 40 Carats, with Gene Kelly. Reportedly, she also turned down the leads in pictures as diverse as Nicholas and Alexandra, The Exorcist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Turning Point (the last of which she later confessed, “That was the one film that got away from me”), as she stayed at home raising her sons (one from her marriage to Ferrer and one with her second husband, Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti).
Highlights from the sporadic balance of her screen career include the 1976 adventure/romance Robin and Marian with Sean Connery as Robin Hood; the comic mystery They All Laughed (1981), directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the made-for-TV Love Among Thieves in 1987; and her last film appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Always, a 1989 remake of the MGM classic love story A Guy Named Joe.
Succumbing to colon cancer in 1993 at age 63, she was a posthumous recipient of the Motion Picture Academy’s Jean Hersholt Award for her lifetime of humanitarian work. The ever-gracious star left her fans with these beautiful words, “Remember, if you ever need a helping hand, it’s at the end of your arm. As you get older, remember you have another hand: the first is to help yourself, the second is to help others.”