By José Abeto Zaide
POSTSCRIPT. A 1960s cover of Time Magazine had a sculpture of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner gritting a pipe, with another in hand. An allegory of what he had in life to excess. Hef was a shooting star, the envy of many for his sybaritic life and his Bunnies. But he tarried awhile, which extended to 91 years. Like an old Madison Avenue ad said of a brand of a king-size cigarette, “It’s not how long you make it, but how you make it long.”
Differently, from another dimension, a British actress, model, dancer, and humanitarian. Audrey Hepburn (4 May 1929 – 20 January 1993) was to the manor born. She didn’t have a happy childhood. Her parents, Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch baroness, and Joseph Hepburn-Ruston, a wealthy British banker, sent their daughter, age five, to boarding school in England. They divorced, and while her father was allowed visitation rights, he never exercised it. (She described his departure as “the most traumatic event in my life.”)
She studied ballet with Sonia Gaskell before moving to London in 1948, continuing her ballet training with Marie Rambert. After minor appearances in several films, the ingénue Audrey Hepburn starred in the 1951 Broadway play Gigi. She followed this with a lead role in Roman Holiday (1953), becoming the first actress to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for a single performance.
Film and fashion icon Hepburn was at the right time at Hollywood’s Golden Age. She was ranked by the American Film Institute as the third-greatest female screen legend and inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
She starred in classic films opposite heavyweights – Sabrina (opposite Humprey Bogart), War and Peace (Henry Fonda) Funny Face (Fred Astaire), Paris When It Sizzles (William Holden), Love in the Afternoon (Maurice Chevalier and Gary Cooper), Green Meadows (Antony Perkins), The Unforgiven (Burt Lancaster), The Nun’s Story (Peter Finch), The Children’s Hour (Shirley MacLaine), Breakfast at Tiffany (George Peppard), Charade (Cary Grant), My Fair Lady (Rex Harrison), How to Steal a Million (Peter O’Toole), and Robin and Marian (Sean Connery).
For the film Wait Until Dark (opposite Alan Arkin), a 1967 psychological horror thriller, she won an Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA. Hepburn won a record three BAFTA awards for Best British Actress in a Leading Role. She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by BAFTA, the Golden Globe Cecil B. de Mille Award, the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and the Special Tony Award. She is one of 12 people who have won Academy, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Awards.
FOOTNOTE. For her Sabrina wardrobe, she was sent to Givenchy, an upcoming designer. Givenchy expected to see Katherine Hepburn, only to be disappointed to see a young Audrey Hepburn. He said he didn’t have time for her; but she pressed him for just a few minutes to pick out a few pieces for her Sabrina role. Givenchy and the younger Hepburn would develop a lifelong partnership.
In 2006, the black Givenchy dress she wore as the eccentric socialite Holly Golightly pressing nose to the windowpane while munching breakfast out of brown bag in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) sold at a London auction for US$900,000. (Proceeds went to the charity City of Joy Aid for the poor in India. French author Dominic Lapierre, who runs the charity named after his bestselling book , was, well, overjoyed: “I am absolutely dumbfounded to believe that a piece of cloth which belonged to such a magical actress will now enable me to buy bricks and cement to put the most destitute children in the world into schools.”)
Hepburn appeared in fewer films as the years wore on, devoting her later life to UNICEF, to which she first contributed since 1954. (Her final film appearance was a cameo as an angel in Steven Spielberg’s 1989 film, Always.) She worked in some of the poorest communities of Africa, South America, and Asia from 1988 to 1992. As UNICEF ambassador, she went to drought-and famine-afflicted Ethiopia, led a polio vaccine project in Turkey, training for women in Venezuela, street children in Ecuador, drinking water for Guatemala and Honduras, radio literacy projects in El Salvador, schools for Bangladesh, projects for impoverished children in Thailand, nutrition for Viet Nam and camps for displaced children in Sudan. (Hollywood ga-ga Manila didn’t have a chance to claim equal time.)
She was making her rounds in a primitive Southern Sudan hospital and came upon a malnourished boy of 14, lying on the earthen floor with acute anaemia, respiratory problems, and oedema (swelling of the limbs). Exactly the same three conditions she was afflicted with at the end of the war at that age due to malnutrition. Unicef saved Audrey Hepburn’s life as a child in Holland at the end of the war, just as it would save the Sudanese boy’s life. This is why she is so proud to be a Unicef ambassador. It is her way of repaying a very personal debt, many times over.
There is a deeper connection with the war years, one which brought her to London, not only to raise money for Unicef, but to pay tribute to the unquenchable spirit of one individual. Like Anne Frank hiding in Holland, Audrey Hepburn lived the terror of the Nazi occupation and her own family tragedies. Anne Frank found an outlet in her diary; Audrey Hepburn found the wellspring of the emotional energy she drew on in her film career. They were both 10 when war broke out and 15 when the war ended. She read Anne Frank’s diary, “It destroyed me. It does this to many people when they first read it but I was not reading it as a book, as printed pages. This was my life. I didn’t know what I was going to read. I’ve never been the same again, it affected me so deeply… I have memories. More than once I was at the station seeing trainloads of Jews being transported, seeing all these faces over the top of the wagon. I remember, very sharply, one little boy standing with his parents on the platform, very pale, very blond, wearing a coat that was much too big for him, and he stepped onto the train. I was a child observing a child. I don’t know how much longer it was before we knew what was happening – sooner than you did in Britain. Then I realized what would have happened to him. And reading Anne Frank’s diary, it all came back to me.”
As a young actress, Audrey Hepburn, with her natural exuberance and dark, animated looks, was a natural to play Anne Frank. But she couldn’t do it. She was offered the film; but she re-read the diary, and fell apart. She had a deep instinct that she couldn’t exploit Anne Frank’s life to further her own career. But her devotion to Anne Frank found a proper outlet, a way to raise funds for Unicef which didn’t involve Audrey Hepburn in yet another gala dinner in elegant Givenchy. Audrey Hepburn would read as commentator the words of Anne Frank’s diary, accompanied by Michael Tilson Thomas music and conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra.
We had our own Pinoy version of Audrey Hepburn in Barbara Perez. Which, as usual, seems to have missed the point.
In December, 1992, Audrey Hepburn was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. A month later, she died of appendiceal cancer at her home in Switzerland at age 63.