These Audrey Hepburn movies make it abundantly clear why she’s a legend.
When legendary fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy died at 91 on March 10, the photos that accompanied his obituaries featured Audrey Hepburn, his most devoted famous fan, who wore his clothes by special request in her movies. Here was a man who’d spent decades in the fashion industry, and he was most famous for dressing one specific woman. Audrey Hepburn, fashion icon, humanitarian, actor and legend, was born in 1929. Taken far too young by cancer in 1993, she is one of the few classic movie stars, along with John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, whose image is still recognizable even by younger people who may have never seen her films.
There was, of course, much more to Hepburn than her appearance. An actor of deep feeling, she emerged in the early 1950s, when the cinematic acting style shifted from the classical style of Joan Crawford and Clark Gable to the method acting of Marlon Brando and Geraldine Page. Hepburn was one of the last old-fashioned movie stars, a bridge between the two eras, never burying herself in the role as audiences are accustomed to seeing from the Meryl Streeps of the world, but still creating believable, empathetic characters.
Hepburn, born on May 4, 1929, in Brussels, Belgium, spent some of her youth in a boarding school in England. During much of World War II, she lived in the Netherlands, helping the resistance by delivering messages, foreshadowing her later philanthropic work in UNICEF. After studying ballet and getting tiny parts in British films in the early 1950s, Hepburn got her big break on the Broadway stage in 1951 in the play Gigi. She was discovered there by Hollywood, and the rest is history.
Audrey Hepburn’s career as a leading lady in Hollywood lasted a brief 14 years as she spent much of her later life in humanitarian pursuits, but her roles cemented her legacy as one of the most classic of classic movie stars. Here are five Audrey Hepburn movies that best capture her ineffable charm and unique spirit.
1. Roman Holiday (1953)
Hepburn’s debut as a lead in William Wyler’s masterful and wistful romance garnered her a Best Actress Academy Award. Here she plays a traveling princess feeling trapped by her endless diplomatic responsibilities, longing to be among the citizens and sights of Rome. When she finally decides to play hooky, she’s discovered sleeping on a bench by Gregory Peck’s Joe Bradley, a newspaperman who sees the possibility of a big exclusive story. Of course, the two fall in love as they spend a single day together exploring the city, before their story has to end when Princess Ann recognizes the responsibilities she must uphold.
Shot on location in Rome, this first of the great Audrey Hepburn movies beautifully establishes her screen personality as elegant yet approachable, with a childlike enthusiasm and hope for better things. It was no mistake that many of Hepburn’s films featured her as a fish out of water. Few actors have captured the joy of discovering the new as Audrey Hepburn did.
2. Sabrina (1954)
Billy Wilder’s film about the chauffeur’s daughter desperately in love with the dashing young scion of the family whom her father serves, builds upon Roman Holiday’s conceit of the outsider longing to live in a new environment. Here, however, the situation is reversed as we see the working-class girl longing for life among the upper class. William Holden, here at the peak of his career, plays David Larrabee, the playboy of the family Sabrina’s father works for, and Humphrey Bogart portrays his older brother Linus. Linus attempts to woo Sabrina to make her forget about David, who’s supposed to marry an heiress as part of a big business merger, and a unique and uncomfortable love triangle results. This movie begins the curious trend in Audrey Hepburn movies of pairing her with much older romantic leads. Bogart, 30 years Hepburn’s senior and playing a part originally meant for Cary Grant, is miscast here, but Wilder’s script and direction and Hepburn’s effortless charm make up for it.
3. Funny Face (1957)
Speaking of older costars, here Hepburn was matched with Fred Astaire, also 30 years her senior, in a delightful musical directed by Stanley Donen and featuring music by George Gershwin. Playing a meek bookstore employee flung into the high-flying world of modeling in Paris (and shot on location), Hepburn cements her fashion icon status forever in this movie. While she lacks the singing voice and dancing savvy of someone like Astaire’s old partner Ginger Rogers, Hepburn more than makes up for it with the force of her personality. Donen, who codirected Singin’ in the Rain five years earlier, is at the peak of his confidence and ability here, showing Hepburn to her full advantage. She far outshines the older Astaire in one of his final musicals, and to his credit, he appears delighted about it. Among the most dazzling numbers is an amusing and affectionate parody of modern dance, as Hepburn shows an aging Astaire how it’s done “now.”
4. Charade (1963)
Hepburn reunited with Donen in their second of three films together in this Hitchcockian caper about the murder of her husband and the villainous trio trying to get the $250,000 he stole from them. Finally paired with Cary Grant as the man helping her (or is he?), Hepburn is both the damsel in distress and the woman in pursuit of Grant. Here, while the age difference between her and her costar is curiously extreme, there’s little debating her amorous intentions with the always-debonair Grant. One of the best line exchanges in her career is when she demands of him, with defiance, “Do you know what’s wrong with you?” He replies, “What?” and she lights up subtly, steps toward him and purrs, “Nothing.”
Of all the Audrey Hepburn movies, this one features the best overall cast. Beyond the perfect casting of Grant as her mysterious love interest, whose various aliases become a running joke in the film, there’s James Coburn, Walter Matthau and George Kennedy, three of the greatest character actors of any era, all at early points in their film careers.
Charade is also the easiest to see of all the Audrey Hepburn movies. When Universal Pictures released the film in 1963, its copyright label lacked the word “copyright” or the symbol for copyright, so it was immediately in the public domain. Many poor prints show up on YouTube, but make sure you watch a clean, pristine print that shows off the beautiful actors and colors in wide screen.
5. Wait Until Dark (1967)
One of Hepburn’s last starring roles hinted at the kind of movies she might have made into the ’70s. Based on the play by Frederick Knott, it’s the story of a blind woman targeted by criminals seeking a stash of heroin in a doll that’s happened to find its way to her apartment. Comedian Alan Arkin is cast brilliantly against type as the primary psychotic, and here Hepburn eschews the elegance present in so many of her previous films. By 1967, with films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate bringing about a sea change in Hollywood, the old-fashioned movie star was quickly being relegated to the sidelines, and here we see what Hepburn might’ve done in that era. Fragile, terrified, yet with an indomitable inner strength in the face of horrifying odds, Hepburn is astonishingly good in her role. Terence Young’s direction heightens the claustrophobia inherent in the stage play, making this a triumph of suspense.