AUDREY HEPBURN WAS ever the cool Galatea to Hollywood's ham-handed Pygmalion. In most of Hepburn's films, the plotline goes something like this: young innocent gets a makeover and finds love through fashion. She might easily have been dismissed as an animated draper's dummy if she hadn't also appealed to so many women, and for so many fascinating reasons. Faced with the busty, girdled sex toys that were Marilyn Monroe, Janet Leigh, and Jayne Mansfield, women welcomed this skinny, almost sexless brunette in Capri pants. While women were busy making a fetish of Hepburn's flat shoes, Hollywood slyly slipped in a plea for the domestic virgin all men wanted to marry, casting Hepburn as a princess draped in jewels who really just wants to flip pancakes for her man and a truckload of tykes. In the context of the 1950s and early '60s, Hepburn's characters had it both ways. She made a career out of playing a princess, but made her mark by being miscast.
The Audrey Hepburn film festival at the Varsity theater offers five of her most popular (if not necessarily her strongest) films: Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, My Fair Lady, and, of course, Breakfast at Tiffany's. In Roman Holiday (1953), directed by William Wyler, Hepburn debuted as a runaway princess who goes slumming -- well, Hollywood's brand of slumming -- in the streets of Rome, gets a haircut, and falls in love with Gregory Peck. Typical of the contradictions Hepburn characters bring into play, Princess Ann skips out of the confinements of royal life to wander alone and freely among the masses, trading glass slippers for sandals, and dancing with barbers. She escapes, but deep down she yearns for the domesticity that confined most American women in 1953: "I'm a good cook," she tells Peck. "I could make my living at it. I can sew, too, and clean the house and iron. I can do all these things. I just haven't had the chance to do them for anyone." She looks up, and we want to buy it because she's radiant.
In Sabrina (1954), the brilliant Billy Wilder directed Hepburn as a young chauffeur's daughter who is madly in love with the lord of the manor, played with great style by William Holden. Sabrina is sent off to cooking school in Paris, gets a haircut, returns in a blaze of fashion glory, and ends up with Humphrey Bogart. Sabrina is rich with wit, fine performances, and plenty of close-ups of Hepburn's beautifully lit face. This remains one of her finest films.
Funny Face (1957), on the other hand, is a frothy concoction of fashion shows, dance numbers on Barbie playhouse sets, and sloppy slapstick, none of which blend. Hepburn plays a dowdy bookstore clerk with (gulp!) intellectual aspirations. Fred Astaire, as her fashion photographer Pygmalion, soon cures her of such pretensions by putting her in makeup and a pretty frock. She flies to Paris, gets a haircut, and dabbles in, then ditches her intellectual pursuits, because her heart really belongs to daddy, the tap-dancing photographer 40 years her senior.
While these roles fit her like a well-cut tiara, Hepburn was not the obvious choice to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She couldn't sing, and no amount of "ows" and "aitches" and soot smudged on high cheekbones could sell her as a Cockney guttersnipe. Her costar, Rex Harrison, made no secret of the fact that he preferred his Broadway costar, Julie Andrews, for the role. But Hepburn signed on and sweated through singing lessons. She was dubbed in the end, but she won over Harrison -- and most audiences -- anyway.
But when I hear Audrey Hepburn's name, it's the ghost of Holly Golightly that appears. Hepburn played several memorable roles before and after Golightly, including Karen Wright in The Children's Hour (1961) and Susie Hendrix in Wait until Dark (1967), but Holly Golightly was this swan's true song.
As Golightly, the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Hepburn emerged from the haute couture ether in pearls and a Givenchy column dress, hair sculpted into a cinnamon twist, with her cigarette trailing a prim wisp of smoke from its perch in a foot-long holder.
The story goes that Truman Capote sketched the heroine of his 1958 novel with somebody else in mind. Holly Golightly gadded through the pages of Breakfast at Tiffany's forever in search of her front door key and a millionaire to marry. Until her yacht came in, however, she made money for rent, high heels, and high liquor bills as an upscale escort.
Readers met Golightly (née Lulamae Barnes from the Southern sticks) on the streets of Manhattan after an all-night date, drinking hangover coffee from a Styrofoam cup, and ogling the goods in a Tiffany's window. "Jewelry for a woman is a form of money she can have," Jeanine Basinger wrote in A Woman's View, her study of female film roles through the '50s. And Capote's "wild thing" wanted nothing better than to leave her poor backwoods roots behind in order to nest in a Tiffany's box. "A cross between Lolita and Auntie Mame," Golightly hid hard edges beneath a delicious bleached confection. She was stacked, stylish, more than a little stubborn, and -- as far as Capote was concerned -- Holly Golightly was Marilyn Monroe.
Capote had his way -- at first. Although signed to play Golightly, Monroe's catalog of unhealthy habits kept getting in the way of the shooting schedule, and Capote's vision was soon canned. Hepburn, poised (elegantly) for battle, lobbied for the role and got it.
Rarely was a role so audaciously miscast. That's why Breakfast at Tiffany's has always been a perverse and guilty pleasure. Hepburn transforms Capote's sensual, troubled protagonist into a gamine goofball -- relentlessly bright-eyed, charming (and elegant), even on a vodka drunk. When Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen) finally shows up to talk the wayward Holly into coming back to their tumble-down Appalachian shack (a tough sell under any circumstances), he might as well have plopped onto Planet Golightly from a galaxy far, far away. In another delightfully absurd scene, Golightly appears on the fire escape strumming a small guitar, her feet bare and her hair wrapped (elegantly) in an Aunt Jemima kerchief. "We're after that same rainbow's end, waitin' 'round the bend," she warbles with precise British diction, "my Huckleberry friend, Moon River, and meeeeeeeeee." Meanwhile, George Peppard -- as the clean-cut, highly principled gigolo who falls for her -- moons from an upper window.
All the same, for all her incongruities most of us who know the film can't imagine anyone but Hepburn playing Holly Golightly. That was Hepburn's special sleight of hand. Like the character Capote penned, Hepburn's screen image was a lovely and false-fronted confection hiding edgy contradictions.