Audrey — the driven career and sad life of Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn believed her feet were too big. This is just one among many deeply felt hang-ups captured in the sad, enlightening new documentary Audrey. The star, according to her own testimony, would also have liked a smaller nose, to have been a blonde or better yet — this more than anything — a dancer.

The movies opens at a breakneck clip, detailing an early life most of us would spend adulthood in flight from. Hepburn’s faux-aristocratic father walked out when she was six, despite sharing with her mother a keen enthusiasm for Hitler. (Director Helena Coan does not airbrush.) The young Audrey spent the second world war in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, a malnourished teenager passing messages for the Dutch resistance.

Then in postwar short order: West End choruses; Ealing bit parts; parallel talent spottings by French writer Colette and Hollywood director William Wyler; Roman Holiday, an Oscar. The film hurtles, but such was the pace at which Hepburn was moving. She was driven enough to accelerate the world around her, the magic wand seemingly waved over her career as frantic as windscreen wipers in a storm.

What the best of the film gets at is the machinery behind the magic. (All movie stars have their machinery.) The talking heads are a mixed bag — the word “iconic” will need a long lie-down after this — but veteran critic Molly Haskell offers maximal insight. Remembering her own formative first glimpse of Hepburn, she repositions a starlet now thought of as old-world as instead a proto-feminist, “abdicating her princess-ship” to adventure through Rome on a scooter.

Cinema history is full of iron fists unbothered with the velvet glove once out of sight of the camera. Here, the figure that emerges is a flawless professional who trained her cut-throat perfectionism wholly on herself. In her melancholy personal life, it cannot have been much consolation. As a film star it may have been her secret weapon. Rather than letting herself be shaped by studio heads, Hepburn was forever self-invented. The pity is that — for her if no one else — being Audrey Hepburn was the problem.


On digital platforms from November 30

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