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Hollywood’s last princess

For cinema connoisseurs, Hepburn whose birth anniversary it is today was a star in celluloid heaven, but for the starving children of Somalia, she was a harbinger of love and care. Rohit Sharma writes.

india Updated: May 03, 2011 21:36 IST
Rohit Sharma

‘I’ve seen countless fragile little skeletons, sitting and lying under a tree, waiting to be fed. I will never be able to forget their eyes. For many it is too late… but for many, many more, we can still be in time,” said the Unicef ambassador Audrey Hepburn, wiping her tears, at a press conference after her visit to Somalia in 1992. For cinema connoisseurs, Hepburn whose birth anniversary it is today was a star in celluloid heaven, but for the starving children of Somalia, she was a harbinger of love and care.

A life magnificently lived for 63 years and a career that spanned four decades, Hepburn, as a woman and an actress showed the world what a great lady she was — perseverance, compassionate and graceful, with an innocent ignorance of her own splendid beauty.

It was in the 1950’s in Hollywood, the screen was being ruled by ethereal czarinas — Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor. Hepburn drove the scooter in Roman Holiday to her first and only Academy Award for Best Actress in 1954. Even though she didn’t belong to any aristocracy, Hepburn beamed sophistication, making her one of the most recognised women around the world.

Audrey Kathleen Ruston was born today in 1929 in Belgium. She grew up in a war- torn Nazi-occupied Arnhem, the Netherlands. She gave ballet performances to earn money, which she clandestinely contributed to help Dutch soldiers fighting the Germans. The end of World War II brought misery to Arnhem’s families, including Hepburn’s, as she witnessed the food supply crisis and deaths, something that explained her anger at the causes of African children’s conditions.

Hepburn’s strong persona and gritty demeanour came from her childhood situations. Popular costume designer Edith Head sketched her look and “camouflaged her flaws”. The designer Hubert de Givenchy took over as her fashion adviser, becoming a close friend and later her business partner. He designed her famous looks in Funny Face and Sabrina. Hepburn always thought she was too thin, pale and awkward to be called beautiful. But today, she is the biggest style icon cinema has ever produced — her Holly Golightly little black dress was auctioned for more than $900,000 — the highest price ever for a movie costume.

Undoubtedly, the best known Hepburn movie is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Through Truman Capote’s confused call-girl Golightly, Hepburn proved her versatility as an actress and a singer, as she sang ‘Moon River’. Her singing, though, didn’t impress the producers of the film version of popular Broadway musical My Fair Lady. Directed by George Cukor, the film had Audrey’s singing, which later was dubbed by a lesser known Marni Nixon. Hepburn worked very hard to achieve the right diction, expressions and mannerism of a cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. The Academy did not buy it and snubbed Audrey from even a nomination in the ‘Best Actress’ (1965) category thanks to the dubbing. Hepburn presented a bouquet of bubblegum roles in Charade, How To Steal A Million and Two For The Road and the thriller Wait Until Dark. Certainly, she could do it all.

In the age of champagne socialites and baby-shopping celebrities, Audrey Hepburn’s name shines like a beacon, far away from any blemish. Today, she stays as a point of reference for any actress, fashion designer and anyone who wants to selflessly do something for the underprivileged. Like her character in Roman Holiday, Hepburn chose duty over everything else. What stays one step ahead of her mesmerising doe-eyes, lovely smile and plethora of talent is her commitment to humanity which she will always be remembered for. She was the last of the princesses from Hollywood who smiled her way into the hearts of billions.

Rohit Sharma is an entertainment and broadcasting industry analyst

The views expressed by the author are personal