Celebrating the life and work of an icon

By Lawrence O'Toole
February 05, 1993 at 12:00 PM EST
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images

”I’ve never understood what makes me so special,” claimed Audrey Hepburn, who died at 63 of colon cancer on Jan. 20 at her home near Lausanne, Switzerland. But three generations of movie audiences have no doubt: Hepburn, who appeared in 26 films, including the classics Funny Face (1957) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), was the screen’s most enduring symbol of graceful self-possession. Her long, sculpted neck was the kind budding ballerinas — as the adolescent Hepburn herself had been — pray for. Her velvety voice, which barely made the acquaintance of consonants, purred elegance.

”Let me say that the so-called glamour in the movies wasn’t me,” insisted Hepburn, who, in 1954 at the age of 24, won both an Oscar, for Roman Holiday — her first starring role — and a Tony, for the Broadway play Ondine. ”It was the movies. That was a job, not reality.”

Born in 1929 near Brussels, Belgium, to, in her own words, a ”penniless” Dutch baroness and an Irish-English banker father, Edda van Heemstra Hepburn- Ruston said the biggest blow in her life came at the age of 6 when her father abandoned the family. ”I went on suffering as long as I didn’t see him,” she said. Her life remained riddled with partings. She married actor Mel Ferrer in 1954 and they divorced in 1968, by which time she had retired from movies. In 1969 she wed psychiatrist Andrea Dotti, whom she also divorced.

Hepburn was asked in 1988 to work full-time as a UNICEF volunteer, and she did so until she was diagnosed with cancer last November. Her decision, she said, was prompted by the kindness her family and she herself — jaundiced from malnutrition — received from a relief organization after the liberation of Nazi-occupied Holland. Of her later years, she commented, ”One has the same worries and concerns, but one is armed with a little more philosophy and acceptance.”

From her rich body of work, here are some of the most memorable Hepburn films.

ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) In this reverse-Cinderella tale, Hepburn, a princess, gets to be a commoner, run around the Eternal City, and enjoy the misery of her first big crush, all under the tutelage of reporter Gregory Peck. A

SABRINA (1954) Wistful Billy Wilder charmer in which chauffeur’s daughter Hepburn goes to Paris for an education and returns to dazzle all of Long Island society — and lose her heart to Humphrey Bogart. B+

FUNNY FACE (1957) Hepburn is the world’s most beautiful beatnik bookworm, discovered — and disarmed — by fashion photographer Fred Astaire in an eye-popping valentine to the fabulous ’50s. A-

THE NUN’S STORY (1959) Fred Zinnemann’s sober, languid tale of the inner struggle of a nun in the Belgian Congo (Hepburn, looking plain but glowing from within) who cannot bend her will to God’s. Her finest hour. A+

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) As definitive party girl Holly Golightly, she wears Givenchy, uses a foot-long cigarette holder, addresses everyone as ”dahhling,” and sits on her fire escape to sing longingly of her humble roots in a song called ”Moon River.” A

CHARADE (1963) In this neat, Hitchcockian comedy-romance-thriller from director Stanley Donen, a trio of bruisers separately pursue a gorgeous and gullible Hepburn while she is squired around glittering Paris by Cary Grant, who may or may not also be a villain. A

MY FAIR LADY (1964) They said she just couldn’t be down- and-dirty enough as a guttersnipe, and they were right. But as the lady Eliza Doolittle becomes, Hepburn is so bewitchingly beautiful she could read racing results from Ascot and still transfix. B+

ROBIN AND MARIAN (1976) This imagining of what happens to Robin Hood (Sean Connery) and Maid Marian (Hepburn) in later life has its longuers, but the two leads aren’t among them. It captures Hepburn, returning from retirement, in the beginning blush of her autumn years. B