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Cinema: Princess Apparent

15 minute read

Princess Anne’s pretty, high-arched feet were tired. The endless rounds of official visits required of royalty on tour had left her toes cramped and sore. Her face showed no sign of her trouble as she stood —aloof, beautiful and dignified in flowing white brocade—to receive the distinguished noblemen and diplomats who thronged the glittering reception hall in the great palazzo. Gravely smiling, she greeted, in half-a-dozen languages, each baron and ambassador, each banker’s lady and minister of state with the correct slight nod and carefully chosen words. There seemed to be not a flaw in the well-ordered proceedings. Then the camera peeped impertinently beneath the princess’ royal skirts. It revealed the awful fact that she had slipped off one of her high-heeled shoes and, standing in perfect balance on one foot, was happily, restfully wriggling the toes of the other.

Exquisitely blending queenly dignity and bubbling mischief, a stick-slim actress with huge, limpid eyes and a heart-shaped face was teaching U.S. moviegoers last week a lesson they already knew and loved —i.e., that the life of a princess is not a happy one. Balcony bobby-soxers for years have shed pleasant tears at the plight of trapped royalty, and breathed a happy sigh of relief when at last the royal one escapes into a commoner’s arms (Olivia de Havilland and a handsome pilot in 1943’s Princess O’Rourke; Vera-Ellen and a tap-dancing reporter in 1953’s Call Me Madam). As the princess in Paramount’s new picture, Roman Holiday, the newcomer named Audrey Hepburn gives the popular old romantic nonsense a reality it has seldom had before. Amid the rhinestone glitter of Roman Holiday’s make-believe, Paramount’s new star sparkles and glows with the fire of a finely cut diamond. Impertinence, hauteur, sudden repentance, happiness, rebellion and fatigue supplant each other with lightning speed on her mobile, adolescent face.

Pathos & Dignity. When the movie princess escapes, on impulse, from dull routine and is found, drunk on a sedative, by Reporter Gregory Peck on a bench in a Roman park, Audrey makes her helplessness absolutely winning by her quiet assumption that Peck will tend to her needs just as her personal maid might. “I’ve never been alone with a man before,” she says severely a bit later in Peck’s apartment, “even with my dress on,” and her trusting innocence becomes a sure guarantee of safety. Audrey Hepburn’s princess seems never to forget her exalted station, even when she is gulping an ice cream cone, getting her hair cut or whamming a cop over the head with a guitar in a nightclub dustup. Yet to scenes where she is playing the princess proper, she brings a wistfulness that seems completely unposed. She can be infinitely appealing with her hair snarled and her dress dripping wet. In the film’s final moments, she becomes a lonely little figure of great pathos and dignity.

Bridging the Gap. The skies over Hollywood have exploded with new stars time and time again: heavily accented” femmes fatales like Pola Negri, sturdy peasants like Anna Sten, indestructible waifs like Luise Rainer or Elisabeth Bergner, calendar girls like Marilyn Monroe, dignified stars from London’s West End like Deborah Kerr. Audrey Hepburn fits none of the clichés and none of the clichés fit her. Even hard-boiled Hollywood personages who have seen new dames come & go are hard put to find words to describe Audrey. Tough Guy Humphrey Bogart calls her “elfin” and “birdlike.” Director John Huston frankly moons: “Those thin gams, those thin arms and that wonderful face …” Director Billy Wilder, who is slated to direct Audrey’s second picture (Sabrina Fair), contents himself with a prophecy: “This girl, singlehanded, may make bosoms a thing of the past.”

The truth is that the quality Audrey brings to the screen is not dependent on her figure, her face, her accent (which is neither quite British nor quite foreign) or even her talent. Belgian-born (of a Dutch mother and an Anglo-Irish father), she has, like all great actresses from Maude Adams to Greta Garbo, the magic ability to bridge the gap between herself and her audience, and to make her innermost feelings instantly known and shared.

Hollywood’s first inkling of this magic quality came when a screen test ordered by Director William Wyler was viewed by Paramount’s brass. It showed Audrey playing the princess part a little nervously, a little self-consciously. But Wyler had played a sly trick on the newcomer by ordering the British director who made her test to keep his cameras turning after the scene was over. When the word “cut” rang out, Audrey sat up in her royal bed, suddenly natural as a puppy, hugging her knees and grinning the delighted grin of a well-behaved child who has earned a cookie.

“She was absolutely delicious,” says Wyler. “We were fascinated,” says Paramount’s Production Boss Don Hartman. “It’s no credit to anyone that we signed her immediately.”

Monte Carlo Baby. Audrey’s screen test clinched Wyler’s decision to make the picture on which it was based. He had considered and rejected most of the obvious Hollywood beauties for the part. He picked Audrey not so much on the basis of her talent as on the fact that she was unknown, and could not therefore be spotted through the royal disguise. The only trouble was that Audrey refused to stay unknown.

As a London chorus girl, she had wangled some bit parts in British movies, e.g., the cigarette girl in the opening scene of Alec Guinness’ Lavender Hill Mob. Then a Paramount scout in London spotted her. One picture, called Monte Carlo Baby, called for location shots in Monaco’s Hotel de Paris. Just as Audrey stepped into the rays of the klieg lights in the lobby to run through her brief scene as a honeymooning bride, the door swung open and in rolled an old lady in a wheelchair. It was famed French Novelist Colette, one of whose many bestselling novels, Gigi, had just been dramatized in English by Anita (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) Loos. Colette held up an imperious finger to halt the wheelchair as Audrey did her bit before the camera. Then she turned to her husband. “Voila,” she whispered, indicating Audrey, “there’s your Gigi.”

That afternoon a startled young actress listened in saucer-eyed wonder as M. Maurice Goudeket explained that his wife, the great Colette, had personally picked her to play the lead in a Broadway play. A few weeks later, after an expensive exchange of cablegrams and consultations with Broadway Producer Gilbert Miller, Author Loos herself flew to London to confirm Colette’s judgment. “I tried to explain to all of them that I wasn’t ready to do a lead,” said Audrey in New York last week, “but they didn’t agree, and I certainly wasn’t going to argue with them.”

A bit-playing actress who was virtually unknown thus signed up, almost simultaneously, to star in a Broadway play and a Hollywood movie.

Dolls Aren’t Real. Audrey’s mother belonged to an ancient family in the Dutch nobility; their home was once the Castle of Doom, in which the defeated German Kaiser spent his declining years. Audrey’s grandfather, Baron Aernoud van Heemstra, onetime governor of the Dutch colony of Surinam, was a familiar figure at the court of Queen Wilhelmina.

Born in Brussels in 1929, Audrey herself was the product of a divorced mother’s second marriage, an unhappy alliance that ended in another divorce when Audrey was ten. Her father, J. A. Hepburn-Ruston, was a high-pressure business promoter and rabid anti-Communist who, after leaving Audrey’s mother, joined Sir Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts (British Union of Fascists). Audrey’s earliest companions were her two older half brothers, with whom she spent many hours in tomboy comradeship, climbing trees and racing across the green fields of their Belgian estate. Unlike most little girls, she did not care for dolls. “They never seemed real to me,” she says. She preferred instead the company of dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals with as much vitality as herself. In her quiet moments, she would dress up in the make-believe that others kept for their dolls, and wherever a bush or a tree or a spare piece of furniture formed a secret corner, she would build herself an imaginary castle and sit happily for hours drawing pictures or dreaming dreams.

Ballet in the Underground. When she was four, Audrey began spending her winters at school in England. In 1939, after her mother’s divorce and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, she went to stay at Arnhem, where the Van Heemstra family had their home. There, one day in 1940, she was taken to see a performance of Britain’s Sadler’s Wells ballet company. She went home entranced and determined to be a ballet dancer herself.

Next day the Nazis invaded The Netherlands. It was a weird, unreal world in which Audrey, the gay-grave dreamer of fairy tales, found herself: a world where terror lurked in every shadow and neighbors could disappear overnight. Audrey’s own uncle, a prominent lawyer in Arnhem, was one of the first victims of Nazi “discipline.” He was shot as one of six hostages in retaliation for a plot to blow up a German train. Audrey’s cousin, an adjutant at the royal court, was also executed.

A British subject who spoke both French and English much too fluently for comfort in the streets of Arnhem, Audrey was sent to school to learn the language of her mother’s people. In the afternoons she took drawing lessons, and once a week she went to the local conservatory of music to learn ballet. Sometimes, on her way to school, she would carry messages for the underground in her shoes. Later, when her dancing had become fairly proficient, she and a friend who played the piano gave dance recitals in private houses to collect money for the resistance. It was against

Nazi regulations for more than a handful of people to gather in any one place, but the 100 or more who dropped in to watch Audrey were circumspect, and the Nazis never found out.

As time and the war went on, money and food became scarcer. At one time Audrey’s family had nothing to eat for days but endive. “I swore I’d never eat it again as long as I lived,” she says. The hungry days in Holland gave her a taste for rich pastries and chocolate that is still unsatisfied.

When British troops finally reached Arnhem, Audrey recalls, “I stood there night & day just watching. The joy of hearing English, the incredible relief of being free. It’s something you just can’t fathom.”

Poise & Motion. After the war, Audrey went back to ballet school. She spent three years studying in Amsterdam and then moved on to London to continue her studies under Ballet Director Marie Rambert. “She was a wonderful learner,” said Madame Rambert last week. “If she had wanted to persevere, she might have become an outstanding ballerina.” But impatience and a feeling that she had lost too much time was already clawing at Audrey. Money was short for the Van Heemstras, and what little there was could not be sent out of Holland. Audrey had to make her own way in London. Starting the rounds of West End auditions, she got a job as a chorus girl in the London production of High Button Shoes.

She got other small jobs—in movies, revues and nightclubs. A commercial photographer spotted her in one show and put her picture in every drugstore in Britain advertising the benefits of Lacto-Calamine. Meanwhile she went on with her ballet lessons and filled in her spare time studying dramatics under British Character Actor Felix Aylmer. “A pretty girl is not necessarily qualified for the stage,” says Aylmer (who used to coach Charles Laughton). “What’s most important is poise and motion. She had that naturally.”

In November 1951, Audrey opened at Manhattan’s Fulton Theater in the title role of Gilbert Miller’s production of Gigi, a sophisticated Gallic story of a 16-year-old French tomboy who dreams of bourgeois marriage while her female relatives train her to become a rich man’s mistress. Next day the New York Times’s Critic Brooks Atkinson wrote: “Miss Hepburn is the one fresh element in the performance. She is an actress; and, as Gigi, she develops a full-length character from artless gaucheries in the first act to a stirring emotional climax in the last scene. [She] is spontaneous, lucid and captivating.” The rest of the New York critics heartily agreed. Paramount Pictures and William Wyler, who had decided to keep their $2,200,000 production waiting for Audrey on the hunch that her play would not run a month, were obliged to twiddle their thumbs for half a year while audiences packed the Fulton to sigh and smile at the enchantingly gawky Gigi.

Audience Authority. Despite all the glowing praise from critics and public, Audrey was still far from sure that it was deserved. Night after night, she worried and fretted over her Broadway part. “She was terribly frightened,” says Veteran Actress Cathleen Nesbitt, who was assigned by Producer Miller to take the newcomer under her protective wing. “She didn’t have much idea of phrasing. She had no idea how to project, and she would come bounding onto the stage like a gazelle. But she had that rare thing—audience authority, the thing that makes everybody look at you when you are on stage.” When things went wrong, Audrey would make her final exit crestfallen and out of breath from trying too hard. “I didn’t get my laugh,” she would say in distress to a fellow actor. “What did I do wrong?” At the end of the first week, when her name went up in lights on the Fulton marquee, Audrey darted across the street like a schoolgirl to have a look. Then, in sudden solemnity, she sighed: “Oh dear, and I’ve still got to learn how to act.”

As a Broadway celebrity, she cared little for café society. Five out of six nights, after the show was over, she would go home with Cathleen Nesbitt and gossip happily over yoghurt and milk. Seeming both more naive and more sophisticated than most girls of her age, Audrey Hepburn, at 23, was a piquante mixture of adolescent bounce and womanly dignity. She could convulse friends with a hilarious imitation of Jerry Lewis, or pay a duty call, with all the necessary grace and assurance, on visiting Queen Juliana of The Netherlands.

Roman Holiday. Audrey’s born-to-the-manner poise, her years of hard work and the months of genuine privation that forced her to grow up before her time were all apparent last week in her first starring movie. Director Wyler has given the picture charm and authenticity by filming it against the beautiful backgrounds of ancient and modern Rome, and by using real Romans in the bit parts. Gregory Peck and Eddie Albert add relaxed portraits of a newspaperman and a photographer to help the fun along. But it is Audrey Hepburn alone who makes the story come true. “Hell,” said one Hollywoodian after seeing the picture, “the princess going back to her platinum throne. That’s not so bad when you come to think of it, but it broke my heart. Just the look of that girl. It’s one of those magic things.”

“That girl,” William Wyler told a friend when the picture was done, “is going to be the biggest star in Hollywood.”

Last week, after the first vacation she had in five years, Audrey was in New York being groomed to take her place in the Western constellation. The treatment involved endless interviews, cocktail parties and personal appearances on radio and TV. To protect Paramount’s $3,000,000 investment, she was required to answer an endless series of silly questions. “How does it feel to be a star, Miss Hepburn?” “Do you think marriage and a career are compatible, Miss Hepburn?” Audrey sailed through the tiring ordeal with the grace of a princess born and the tact of a diplomat. She could speak gently of her own engagement (to James Hanson, a wealthy young British businessman), which had been broken off after Roman Holiday was finished. She could still charmingly squelch the brash reporter who tried to pry deeper. She could speak with disarming gaiety of her pleasingly irregular teeth and still not deny her obvious beauty. To the agonized gentlemen of the West Coast, whose business it often is to turn hatcheck girls into great ladies overnight with publicity gimmicks, Audrey’s artless publicity technique was a revelation—just as her camera technique had been to the cameramen, and as her flair for dress was to the studio dressmakers. “Working with Audrey is fun,” said one Hollywood expert last week. “When you’re working with her, you’re working with a fellow technician.”

As for being a great star: “It takes years,” Audrey Hepburn says simply, “to make a great star.”

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