The allure and mystery of that little black dress, an elegant row of pearls, her cigarette holder poised in the air; Audrey Hepburn immortalised a certain style and fashion in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) and set a classic standard that many women are still trying to capture today. But what is really known about the lady behind the look, and the other films that spanned a forty-five year career? Over the course of her life Hepburn evinced as much elusive behaviour as alluring charm, always placing precedence on her family and home over the machinations of Hollywood. Yes Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina Fair (1954) and Funny Face (1957) are all memorable pictures, classic examples of Hepburn’s characteristic grace and presence, but what about The Secret People (1952) or the epic NBC production of Mayerling (1957), or for that matter, her husbands?
In a new addition to the highly collectable Pocket Essentials Series Ellen Cheshire sets out to chart the life of this enigmatic actress. Cheshire begins the book with an hilarious quote that perfectly sums up the root of Hepburn’s enduring charm: ‘Fashion advice for every woman who will listen…A dress should be tight enough to show you’re a woman and loose enough to prove you’re a lady.’ This was Edith Head, Fashion Chief at Paramount and one of the key collaborators who, along with Hubert de Givenchy, helped mould Hepburn from a wartime youngster into an iconic embodiment of suave sophistication.
The introductory pages ("And She Lived Happily Ever After") see Cheshire tracing Hepburn’s rather inconspicuous family history and European heritage (her father was reportedly a member of Sir Oswald Mosely’s Union of Fascists). The link between her ‘fresh…cultured persona’ and the breakthrough into films is made explicit. Cheshire concludes that it was her very ‘Europeanism’ coupled with the ‘looks, figure and manner’ that prompted Hepburn’s movie career and lavish image to develop. Indeed, quite the opposite of the ‘dumb blonde’ starlet common of the period, Hepburn clearly made for an attractive new breed of actress. Nevertheless her initial roles were scant, with walk-on parts in the likes of Dutch In Seven Lessons (1948) and Monte Carlo Baby (1952) constituting the bulk of her work for several years. Although her involvement in these lesser films may be too slight to warrant consideration in such a compact book, the small roles do, like all movie careers, point the way to what would come and therefore become important in themselves.
The majority of the book wisely concentrates on those very films that made Hepburn famous, and uses the Pocket Essentials series’ effective formula of ‘Story’, Background’, and ‘Themes’ to unpick each film in a relatively short amount of text. Alongside the lineage of her movies, Cheshire also traces Hepburn’s fashion and developing style, from Edith Head’s involvement through to Audrey’s meeting and subsequent friendship with designer Hubert de Givenchy. The author enlivens each film analysis with small deviations, like the section on ‘The Older Man’; be it Bogart in Sabrina Fair (1954) or Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953) it seems Hepburn enjoyed working relationships with the older gent. At times though, Cheshire’s attempts to encapsulate fully Hepburn’s screen presence become excessive. The pieces on ‘Audrey Hepburn Inspired Novels’ and the disreputable Hollywood remakes, ‘How Could They’, are superfluous and detract from what is otherwise a concise 96 pages of biography. The section on Hepburn’s TV appearances and her theatrical productions could also have easily been left out – while the book wants to be definitive, it is still a ‘pocket guide’.
Audrey Hepburn is an inescapable screen legend, but one who is sadly more often remembered for a handful of films. Ellen Cheshire’s affectionate homage goes some way to remedying this, recounting the life of the Hollywood great in a light-hearted and accessible tone that puts it alongside the other worthy entries in the Pocket Essentials series.