Friday, June 18

‘My mother was like an iron fist in a velvet glove’: the real Audrey Hepburn | Audrey hepburn

“Vvery alert, very smart, very talented, very ambitious. ”That was director William Wyler’s verdict after seeing a screen audition for Roman Holiday by a young showgirl named Audrey Hepburn in 1951. She landed the part, won an Oscar and the rest is history. For decades, Hepburn has been adored for her graceful beauty and style. But somehow, the “smart”, “talented” and “ambitious” woman Wyler described never appears in the books about her enduring charm with titles like How to be adorable: the Audrey Hepburn style. Now a new documentary, Audrey, gives us a more complex image of women.

Directed by Helena Coan, the film features never-before-seen archival footage of Hepburn along with intimate interviews with her family and friends. Speaking about Zoom from his home in Italy, Hepburn’s oldest son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, says his mother’s toughness is often overlooked. “She was not easy to convince. You have to fight in Hollywood for every little bit, and she did. But she played the naive role. And she was her too. None of us are alone one way or another. “

Hepburn was born in Belgium in 1929, the daughter of Baroness Ella van Heemstra, a minor Dutch aristocrat, and Joseph Ruston, an Englishman who was mostly absent from family life. He finally walked for good in 1935, returning to England, a moment that Hepburn describes in the film as “the first great blow of my life. My father’s departure left me insecure for life. ”Ruston barely got one visit when his daughter was sent to boarding school in Kent.

Ruston and Van Heemstra were Nazi sympathizers and he was friends with the English fascist Oswald Mosley. Was Hepburn embarrassed by his politics? “More than embarrassed, she was angry,” says Ferrer. “My mother absolutely hated it.” However, there is no evidence for the story that Hepburn’s parents had lunch with Hitler: “That’s a Hollywood rumor about how to sell 10,000 more books.”

Hepburn with her son Sean shortly after filming Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Hepburn with her son Sean shortly after filming Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Photograph: Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Hepburn spent World War II with her mother in the Netherlands under Nazi occupation. His uncle was among the Dutch assembled and shot. He saw Jewish women and children loaded into wagons. “It tormented her for the rest of her life,” says Ferrer. Van Heemstra had already renounced fascism and worked with the resistance in the Netherlands. Like many Dutch children, Hepburn also did her part, carrying messages hidden in her shoes, says Ferrer, who has written a biography of her mother and recently published a children’s book about her wartime life, co-authored with his wife Karin. . . “To protect her, I’m not sure they told her how important the messages were,” says Ferrer. “She knew they were important. But having heard the stories, and I don’t know this for sure, I’m sure I was protected from the content of those letters. “

In the freezing winter of 1944, the Germans let the Dutch starve to death. Hepburn went days without food and the family ate tulip bulbs to survive. “He used to tell me, ‘We spent days in bed with all our clothes on because the blankets weren’t enough.” As an adult, Hepburn was so thin that people often assumed she had an eating disorder – she weighed 48 kg (7 7 pounds) her entire life. Ferrer laughs at the suggestion that she was anorexic. “She could eat everyone in our family under the table, and she was a wonderful cook. If she had an eating disorder, I never found out. “She adds that her experiences during the war left Hepburn with armored resistance.” It gave her an iron determination, a respect for what it takes to do it. I’ve heard her described as a fist of steel in a velvet glove. “

Did he make her brave? “No. She was afraid all her life. I remember her giving speeches for UNICEF, standing behind a podium, shaking like a leaf.” In her later years, Hepburn worked practically full time for the UN agency for children, founded in 1946 to help children facing hunger and disease in Europe. Hepburn made four or five trips a year, on the road for weeks at a time, always on top of his report. In the pictures, what you see is her Genuine fondness for children: seems constitutionally incapable of passing a baby without stopping to kiss or pat.

After the war, Hepburn moved to London with her mother. By all accounts, the aristocratic Van Heemstra was emotionally cold and critical, yet she scrubbed the floors of a hotel for her daughter to attend ballet school. However, after missing vital years of training during the war, Hepburn lacked the technique to become a prima ballerina. She started acting to earn some money and was discovered at age 22 by French writer Colette on the French Riviera. Colette took one look at Hepburn and decided that she would be perfect for starring in the Broadway play of her novel Gigi, notwithstanding that Hepburn had only said a few lines as an actor at the time. Then came Roman Holiday and overnight stardom. “I didn’t know what hit me,” he recalls in the documentary.

Hepburn in Funny Face, 1957.
Hepburn in Funny Face, 1957. Photograph: Allstar / PARAMOUNT / Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Early in his career, the producers cast male actors old enough to be his father as love interests (and paid him a fraction of his paychecks). Bogart was 54 in Sabrina; Hepburn was 24 years old. Fred Astaire was 56 on Funny Face; she was 26 years old. These films were perhaps the beginning of Hepburn’s image as fragile, in need of protection. But the real woman was tougher, says Ferrer. “Think about it. She was the first woman, with Elizabeth Taylor, to earn a million dollars, at a time when women couldn’t open a bank account without their husbands. She could fight in her corner. That was thanks to the war, to the ballet, to his mother ”.

The movie is packed with anecdotes of Hepburn fighting her corner. He fought with his great friend, fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, over the costumes for his characters; she simplified the famous little black dress she made for Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When an executive dismissively announced that his song for the film, Moon River, was for the chop, Hepburn exclaimed, “On my corpse!”

Hepburn will never be forgotten as long as Breakfast at Tiffany’s is around. Truman Capote, who wrote the novel, thought Hepburn was wrong; he wanted Marilyn Monroe for the role. (His final verdict on the movie: “It made me want to throw up.”)

What is it about Breakfast at Tiffany’s that makes it so durable? Ferrer takes a few moments to respond. “I think that all his films have an extraordinary quality; they have not aged. I read an article a few years ago where Emma Thompson demoted my mother’s acting skills. My mother would be the first person to say that she was not the best actress in the world. But she was a movie star. “

Sean at an exhibition about his mother in Berlin, 2009.
Sean at an exhibition about his mother in Berlin, 2009. Photograph: Rainer Jensen / EPA

If Hepburn was in control of her brand, her personal life was another matter: her “Achilles heel,” says Ferrer. In her biography, she wrote that her mother’s best kept secret was her sadness. After spending her childhood trying to win her father’s love, she tried to find him in her relationships with men. “You become very insecure about affection and you feel terribly grateful and have a huge desire to give it,” he explains in the film.

Hepburn was married twice. Ferrer’s father was her first husband, actor Mel Ferrer, whom she married in 1954. Hepburn had a miscarriage before Ferrer was born in 1960. She describes her father as a “difficult and demanding man” and the couple became divorce. In 1969, she married an Italian psychiatrist, Andrea Dotti, moved to Rome, and had another son, Luca. The marriage was not happy: In the documentary, a friend reveals that the Italian paparazzi photographed Dotti with more than 200 different women. After another divorce, Hepburn lived with Dutch actor Robert Wolders until his death from cancer in 1993 at just 63 years old.

Family was important to Hepburn, who seems to have had the great gift of knowing what she needed emotionally. She always wanted to be a mother, she said: “Since I was a child, I loved babies.” After Ferrer was born, he more or less stopped acting, turned his back on Hollywood for 10 years, and wrote kind letters of thanks but not thanks to directors like Stanley Kubrick. Having denied her affection as a child, she poured it on her children. She explains her decision in the film with a brotherly acknowledgment that her choice is not the choice of all women: “I don’t want to be made to appear virtuous. It was a very conscious decision and, if you will, selfish. It was what made me happy, staying home with my children. It wasn’t a sacrifice because I felt like I wanted to stay home. “

Unlike his mother, Ferrer had a happy childhood in Switzerland and later in Rome. “I didn’t grow up in Hollywood, the place or the mood. We had no screening rooms at home. I grew up in the country as a normal child. I can see how movie stars lose touch with reality. I can understand that, because they tell you a million times a day with so many little gestures that you are somehow special and unique. My mother didn’t take herself seriously. I used to say that I take what I do seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously. “

Audrey launches on DVD and digitally November 30; Little Audrey’s Daydream is now available

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