Magical screen presence, fashion arbiter, shrine to good taste, and tireless crusader for children's rights, Audrey Hepburn has become one of the most enduring screen icons of the twentieth century. Best-known for her film roles in Breakfast at Tiffany's, My Fair Lady, Roman Holiday and Charade, Hepburn epitomized a waif-like glamour, combining charm, effervescence, and grace. When she died of colon cancer in 1993, the actress was the subject of endless tributes which mourned the passing of one who left an indelible imprint on the world, both on and off screen.
Born into relative prosperity and influence on May 4, 1929, Hepburn was the daughter of a Dutch baroness and a wealthy British banker. Although she was born in Brussels, Belgium, her early years were spent traveling between England, Belgium, and the Netherlands because of her father's job. At the age of five, Hepburn was sent to England for boarding school; a year later, her father abandoned the family, something that would have a profound effect on the actress for the rest of her life. More upheaval followed in 1939, when her mother moved her and two sons from a previous marriage to the neutral Netherlands: the following year the country was invaded by the Nazis and Hepburn and her family were forced to endure the resulting hardships. During the German occupation, Hepburn suffered from malnutrition (which would permanently affect her weight), witnessed various acts of Nazi brutality, and at one point was forced into hiding with her family. One thing that helped her through the war years was her love of dance: trained in ballet since the age of five, Hepburn continued to study, often giving classes out of her mother's home.
It was her love of dance that ultimately led Hepburn to her film career. After the war, her family relocated to Amsterdam, where the actress continued to train as a ballerina and modeled for extra money. Hepburn's work led to a 1948 screen test and a subsequent small role in the 1948 Dutch film Nederlands in Zeven Lessen (Dutch in Seven Lessons). The same year, she and her mother moved to London, where Hepburn had been given a dance school scholarship. Continuing to model on the side, she decided that because of her height and lack of training, her future was not in dance. She tried out for and won a part in the chorus line of the stage show High Button Shoes and was soon working regularly on the stage. An offer from the British Pictures Corporation led to a few small roles, including one in 1951's The Lavender Hill Mob. A major supporting role in the 1952 film The Secret People led to Monte Carlo, Baby (1953), and it was during the filming of that movie that fate struck for the young actress in the form of a chance encounter with Colette. The famed novelist and screenwriter decided that Hepburn would be perfect for the title role in Gigi, and Hepburn was soon off to New York to star in the Broadway show.
It was at this time that the actress won her first major screen role in William Wyler's 1953 Roman Holiday. After much rehearsal and patience from Wyler (from whom, Hepburn remarked, she "learned everything"), Hepburn garnered acclaim for her portrayal of an incognito European princess, winning an Academy Award as Best Actress and spawning what became known as the Audrey Hepburn "look." More success came the following year with Billy Wilder's Sabrina. Hepburn won a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance in the title role, and continued to be a fashion inspiration, thanks to the first of many collaborations with the designer Givenchy, who designed the actress' gowns for the film.
Hepburn also began another collaboration that year, this time with actor/writer/producer Mel Ferrer. After starring with him in the Broadway production of Ondine (and winning a Tony in the process), Hepburn married Ferrer, and their sometimes tumultuous partnership would last for the better part of the next fifteen years. She went on to star in a series of successful films during the remainder of the decade, including War and Peace (1956), 1957's Funny Face, and The Nun's Story (1959), for which she won another Oscar nomination.
Following lukewarm reception for Green Mansions (1959) and The Unforgiven (1960), Hepburn won another Oscar nomination and a certain dose of icon status for her role as enigmatic party girl Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). The role, and its accompanying air of cosmopolitan chic, would be associated with Hepburn for the rest of her life, and indeed beyond. However, the actress next took on an entirely different role with William Wyler's The Children's Hour (1961), a melodrama in which she played a girls' school manager suspected of having an "unnatural relationship" with her best friend (Shirley MacLaine).
In 1963, Hepburn returned to the realm of enthusiastic celluloid heterosexuality with Charade. The film was a huge success, thanks in part to a flawlessly photogenic pairing with Cary Grant (who had previously turned down the opportunity to work with Hepburn because of their age difference). The actress then went on to make My Fair Lady in 1964, starring opposite Rex Harrison as a cockney flower girl. The film provided another success for Hepburn, winning a score of Oscars and a place in motion picture history. After another Wyler collaboration, 1965's How to Steal a Million, as well as Two for the Road (1967) and the highly acclaimed Wait Until Dark (1967)--for which she won her fifth Oscar nomination playing a blind woman--Hepburn went into semi-retirement to raise her two young sons. Her marriage to Ferrer had ended, and she had married again, this time to Italian doctor Andrea Dotti. She came out of retirement briefly in 1975 to star opposite Sean Connery in Robin and Marian, but her subsequent roles were intermittent and in films of varying quality. Aside from appearances in 1979's Bloodline and Peter Bogdanovich's 1980 They All Laughed, Hepburn stayed away from film, choosing instead to concentrate on her work with starving children. After divorcing Dotti in the early 1980s, she took up with Robert Wolders; the two spent much of their time travelling the world as part of Hepburn's goodwill work. In 1987, the actress was officially appointed UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador; the same year she made her final television appearance in Love Among Thieves, which netted poor reviews. Two years later, she had her final film appearance as an angel in Steven Spielberg's Always.
Hepburn devoted the last years of her life to her UNICEF work, travelling to war-torn places like Somalia to visit starving children. In 1992, already suffering from colon cancer, she was awarded the Screen Actors' Guild Achievement Award. She died the next year, succumbing to her illness on January 20 at her home in Switzerland. The same year, she was posthumously awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi