The team behind the award-winning ‘McQueen’ film have made a new documentary about Audrey Hepburn. Niamh O’Donoghue talks to the director about the fashion and film icon’s life, her relationship with the designer Givenchy and the sadness that stayed with her after her father — who spent much of his life living in Dublin — left when she was just a child
There’s a wonderful French word, ‘dépouillé’[deh-pool-e-yay], which means without ornament, with everything stripped away and reduced to its foundations. It’s not an overtly fanciful turn-of-phrase but it is exact in its intentions and is both elegant and deliberate. It’s a contemporary word that, when pronounced correctly, renders your mouth into a particular bourgeois-style shape, and there’s a purity to its sound: it demands attention but in the same stroke of breath is also effortlessly blasé.
It is an expression that contextualises and encapsulates the late, wildly-talented and endearing Audrey Hepburn. A doyenne of the golden age of Hollywood, over the course of her career, Hepburn worked with directors as varied as Billy Wilder and George Cukor and starred opposite Tinsel Town’s most-famous male leads, including William Holden, Marlon Brando and Rex Harrison. One of the last great actors of her generation, Hepburn’s legacy as a film and fashion icon is forever immortalised, not least for the captivating and transformative roles she portrayed and the Belgian-born beauty’s revolutionary approach to fashion.
In 1951, a 22-year-old Hepburn — then a recent European export — made her Broadway debut as the star of Gigi, a stage adaptation of Colette’s hit novella. Hollywood took note of the gamine ingénue, and two years later the world fell in love with the actress, as Princess Ann, in William Wyler’s Roman Holiday.
Although Hepburn’s life has been well-documented in the 27 years since her death, a new documentary by the BAFTA-nominated team behind fashion film McQueen, aims to paint an intimate portrait of her life both in and out of the spotlight, offering a never-before-seen look at the star as well as a series of intimate interviews with her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, and granddaughter, Emma Kathleen Hepburn Ferrer. Audrey uncovers sides of Hepburn people are less acquainted with, including her difficult upbringing after her father left her family, which led to psychological challenges that lasted her lifetime.
Where to begin? For the director Helena Coan, who completed the film via Zoom under Coronavirus restrictions from her home in London, the obvious starting point was the Oscar winner’s love of ballet. Coan partnered with The Royal Ballet to choreograph a series of dance-based “portraits” of Hepburn for the project — interweaving breathtaking theatrical dance scenes with rare archive footage of the star’s lesser-known travels. Playing the part of Audrey in her heyday? London Royal Ballet principal dancer Francesca Hayward — while prima ballerina assoluta Alessandra Ferri tackles her later years and Keira Moore makes her screen debut as a young Audrey.
“With Audrey, she’s always been in my peripheral vision,” says 26-year-old Coan of her life-long desire to pursue the mammoth project. For Coan and her team — a predominantly female crew — selling Audrey’s story was a challenge as many production companies believed the star’s story lacked depth and excitement. One studio, Coan tells me, suggested the star — who survived a war, malnutrition, was a child of divorced parents, and suffered devastating loss in her adult life – was not heroic enough.
“As a filmmaker, the stories that I’m most interested in are ones where people, particularly women, turn pain and trauma into something beautiful and something prevailing and powerful. The reason why I wanted to tell this story is because Audrey, for me, is the pinnacle of someone who took pain and trauma and transformed it into something really incredible and beautiful,’’ Coan says.
“People have never really taken the time to look at what an incredible woman she was and in the day and age that she lived in, how kind of subtly revolutionary she was as a woman. She completely changed the way that a woman could look.”
The very first time we see Audrey in the film she’s wearing the infamous white floral Givenchy dress she wore to the Academy Awards in 1954. With her big almond eyes and black raven hair, Audrey Hepburn was the antithesis of the Hollywood bombshell and atypical of what was in cinema at the time. Audrey’s physical differences afforded her a leverage that her Hollywood counterparts at the time — Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak and Diana Dors — were not. She was able to give appeal to an otherwise ordinary pair of black jeans, a black polo jumper and penny loafers (Funny Face) but could also render an audience speechless in an awe-inspiring couture gown (Sabrina). Audiences the world over soaked up the actress’s beauty, iconic style, and effervescent charisma, but Hepburn herself was painfully self-conscious of how she looked and admitted, given the chance, she would “have changed everything”.
For Hepburn, fashion was a gateway to self-expression and, ultimately, self-love, and Coan’s film explores the star’s journey from Bohemian to high couture connoisseur with an abundance of archive footage (“hours and hours and hours,” says Coan of her efforts to seek out unseen footage). Her subversive approach to fashion and beauty led generations of women to think about their appearances in a non-conformist way and gave them permission to love themselves as they are.
The one constant throughout Hepburn’s big-screen career was her love of French couturier Hubert de Givenchy. It’s hard to believe one of the fashion world’s greatest platonic love stories almost never came to pass, when, in the 1950s, Givenchy refused a request to design for Hepburn for Sabrina. The documentary tackles this portion of Audrey’s life with fizzy excitement and, along with stunning archive footage, includes a rare interview with Clare Waight Keller, a former artistic director for Givenchy, in the very salon in Paris where Hepburn first met the famous designer.
Waight Keller recalls the fateful day when an “absolute petite, fragile, very fine-featured coltish girl” entered the atelier and how Givenchy “was not completely enthralled in the beginning”. But the Belgian-born star won him over, offering her first choice of his newly designed collection. The rest, as they say, is history.
Any fashion devotee will know all about Hepburn’s greatest Givenchy on-screen moments. From that organza, jet-embroidered black and white floral gown seen in Sabrina that started it all, to the intoxicating selection of Givenchy costumes in Funny Face, particularly the spotlight-stealing red gown worn against the backdrop of the steps of the Louvre. There is also the glorious black satin gown she wears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the series of chic belted shift dresses, pillbox hats and 1960s swing coats in Charade, the peach number in Paris When It Sizzles, replete with cowl-detailing and the simply irresistible and romantic lace face mask in How To Steal A Million. The list goes on.
Despite Hepburn’s dainty proportions — a look indicative of her generation that suffered hardship and malnutrition during WWII — through his clothes, Givenchy made the lines he drew on her body look statuesque.
“Fashion came into my life when I had my very first haute couture dress made by Hubert de Givenchy for a picture called Sabrina, and I must say I wasn’t disappointed,” Hepburn famously mused about her adoration for the finer things in life. “The beauty of it was extraordinary. I’ve always had a love for pretty things, pretty clothes.”
It was Audrey’s years of intensive ballet training that helped her to establish a natural movement and flow with her body, which was only accentuated later on by Givenchy’s innate understanding of the female physique. It could be said that together, Audrey and Givenchy gave rise to ‘style’ as we now know it.
The duo’s 40-year relationship serves as a poignant reminder of the frivolity of today’s celebrities-for-hire. A-listers and influencers these days happily attend a red-carpet wearing one designer, then change into another for the after-party. They profess their love for a designer on social media one season, then forget them the next. Givenchy and Hepburn were, according to New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman, the “original brand ambassadors”. But, as Friedman suggested, perhaps it’s impossible to recreate what Givenchy and Hepburn had. “The digital world moves too fast; people’s attention spans are too short.”
In the documentary, Hepburn is quoted as saying of the relationship: “Hubert would do something terribly simple. But there’ll be just that one little bow or little rose or something that will give it a little, as I say, sense of humour, a little fun.”
The pair’s relationship worked so well because it was mutually beneficial: the couturier helped the star develop her personal image with aplomb and she, in return, amplified the clothes she wore with elegance. Just like Coco Chanel became known for her double ‘C’ emblem and Christian Dior for his Bar jacket, Hubert de Givenchy became known for his muse. As Hepburn once said: “Givenchy’s clothes are the only ones I feel myself in. He is more than a designer, he is a creator of personality.”
“Audrey’s background in dance, particularly the discipline of ballet, helped her understand her silhouette,” says Irish fashion historian and writer Ruth Griffin. “Watching her in her films and looking at images of her, you can see her ballet background in how she holds herself. As a trained ballet dancer, movement to her was an art-form and she had enormous grace.”
For Hepburn, fashion was all about the essence of what she would wear and in the film, she notes how she worked with the distinguished couturier to “strip everything away” (‘dépouillé’). She’s credited with spearheading the move from “buxom leading ladies to a more effortless take on 1950s style”, Griffin tells me. From her short, elfin crop to a simple white cotton shirt tied at the waist, the style cues that appear in her most popular movies, the fashion historian adds, was tinder to the blazing feminist movement of the time.“The effect of this film was almost immediate she ushered in a modern look that spoke to so many women. Audrey was fresh, European, exotic and had a figure like no other.
“What’s interesting about the film Funny Face is that the storyline brought to light the beatnik look which originated in the art and literary movement of the 1940s and 1950s in Greenwich village, New York City. The effect of the film and Audrey wearing the look turned something underground to mainstream. The irony is that a look that we so often cite as ‘classic’ and connect Audrey with today — the black turtle neck, cropped capri pants, ballet flats and a trench coat — was something that was very avant-garde, almost masculine, which had an edge. It was Audrey who made it acceptable and fashionable.”
Is there a designer today who captures the same spirit of Hepburn, the way Givenchy did?
It’s certainly open for debate, and indeed there are myriad designers and brands that offer similarly pared-back, feminine designs that may have appealed to the star.
Their relationship was truly symbiotic,” Griffin insists, “but if Audrey were still alive today, I think she would enjoy championing female designers, perhaps someone like Roksanda Ilinčić who would offer her colour and femininity, and Jil Sander and Khaite for pared-back silhouettes and easy, elegant pieces that would magnify her particular blend of style and substance.”
Despite the worldwide acclaim, the best kept secret about the film star, it is often claimed, was that she was sad. As well as her public-facing life, Coan’s film addresses the many difficulties the much-loved actor faced, including her difficult upbringing after her father, Anthony Hepburn-Ruston, left the family in 1939 when Audrey was 10 years old.
“I thought my mother was going to never stop crying,” says the (digitally-remastered) voice of an emotional Audrey in the film, who was told by her mother — Ella van Heemstra — that her father left for work and would not be returning home. “It was the first big blow I had as a child. It was one of the traumas that left a very deep mark on me.”
The traumatic event led to relationship challenges that lasted throughout her lifetime, most notably being the breakdown of her marriages to Mel Ferrer and Andrea Dotti. The question of whether Audrey was looking for a father-figure in her relationships has been broadly discussed and is touched-upon in the documentary with commentary from key members of the star’s immediate family.
With the aid of The Red Cross, Hepburn sought out her father, who was found to be residing in Dublin in a smart flat off Merrion Square. And so, in 1964, after 25 years of total separation and accompanied by her first husband, Hepburn travelled to Dublin to reconnect. For 35 years, the father of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars had lived in the capital city virtually unnoticed. The pair met up and went on to keep in touch on an intermittent basis until his death in Dublin, on October 16, 1980. He was buried in an unfussy grave in Mount Jerome Cemetery, in Harold’s Cross, where his marble headstone reads: “In Everlasting Memory of Anthony Hepburn-Ruston. Always remembered by his loving wife Fidelma and daughter Audrey. It’s believed Hepburn never returned to Dublin after her father’s death.
In her later life, Hepburn devoted much of her time to helping the world’s children. “Her humanitarian work defined her I think,” says Coan, who gives critical attention to Hepburn’s philanthropic work throughout the film and credits the star for using her own experiences with starvation and malnutrition as leverage to help children during the hunger crisis’ in Africa and the far East.
“It was the most important role of her life doing that work and that was a really important thing for me to focus on, because she lived through a war and she knew what it was [like].”
The star, in offering her notoriety to Unicef, helped to fund crucial aid missions. On one occasion, Hepburn turned up in front of the US Congress asking for additional funding for a particular emergency and received an additional $60m in one hour: such was her pull power and commitment to positive change. Her granddaughter, Emma Ferrer, is keeping the tradition alive.
“That is the most heroic thing that a person can do is to get up time and time again and keep leading with love,” says Coan of Hepburn’s commitment to altruism and ending child hunger.
“She was very angry about the state of the world when she died,” Coan continues. “Her son [Sean Hepburn Ferrer] told me that when she was dying, she was still talking about what she hoped for the world and how she believed things would be better.”
Audrey Hepburn, the actress who epitomised Hollywood chic in the 1950s and 1960s, died on January 20, 1993, from colon cancer, at her home in Tolochenaz, Switzerland. Were she alive today, what she might be doing is anyone’s guess: a return to the screen, perhaps? Undoubtedly, she would have continued to pour time and energy into helping the less fortunate, doing so with the relaxed savoir faire she became synonymous for.
‘Audrey’ is available to rent and own on digital from November 30