By Maureen Lee Lenker
Audrey Hepburn -- to this day, she remains one of the most beloved icons of the silver screen. A gamine fashion plate and an enduring symbol of grace and beauty, Hepburn brought a unique look and charm to Hollywood. Her sprightly grace and deep intelligence combined with an underlying vulnerability honed in war-era Europe made her an enduring screen presence. She was a rare talent whose persona, statements, and appearance have remained etched in pop culture apart from her films. Hepburn is a star whose entire being symbolizes something to us, regardless of whether we’ve seen a single one of her movies. The signifiers of Audrey’s image are so readily recognizable -- her chic style, her dedication to happiness and kindness, and her blend of strength and femininity. We know what she’s meant to convey purely from her static image.
In addition to that she left a tremendous body of work. It’s difficult to select a favorite Hepburn film. There is of course, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. -The image of Audrey in a little black dress, draped in jewelry, pastry in hand, gazing in the window at Tiffany’s is one of the most memorable in movie history. But Hepburn was so much more than the vivacious and slightly lost Holly Golightly. She perfected screen terror in Wait Until Dark, probed the difficulties of a troubled marriage in Two for the Road, and tackled classic literature in War and Peace. She was a rare talent who always brought her unique je ne sais quoi to the screen while also fully embodying every character she tackled. While this is by no means a definitive list, here’s five of our favorite Hepburn films, featuring a mix of favorites and some lesser known gems.
5. The Children’s Hour (1961)
Based on the 1934 play of the same name, The Children’s Hour (by Lillian Hellman), it took Hollywood decades to bring this shocking drama to the screen. It stunned audiences with its themes of homosexuality between two women who run a girl’s school. Hellman had originally adapted her play into the 1936 film These Three, but shifted the central rumor to one of infidelity rather than lesbianism. This 1961 version tackled the topic head-on, leaving the play and its horrifying turn of events intact. Hepburn gives perhaps her finest dramatic performance here as Karen Wright, a schoolteacher undone by the rumor that she and Shirley MacLaine’s Martha are lovers. When things unravel, Hepburn bestows Karen with a heartbreaking blend of genuine feeling and her survival tactic of blatant denial.
4. Sabrina (1954)
In only her second film, Hepburn cemented her screen image as a gamine figure of romance, grace, and charm with Sabrina. While Breakfast at Tiffany’s may have enshrined Hepburn’s image, Sabrina crafted and honed it. Portraying a young chauffeur's daughter who finds herself in the midst of a Cinderella story after acquiring life experience in Paris, Hepburn took a direct role in shaping her part in the film. To mark her transformation from young innocent to experienced woman of the world, Hepburn knew she needed to make a sartorial transformation as well. She recruited up-and-coming designer Hubert Givenchy to design her post-Paris clothes. In the process, she began a partnership that would define her own image, on and off-screen. Hepburn is part of the memorable and delightful love triangle with Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, but it’s her own coming-of-age as a screen star that makes this film an indelible part of her filmography.
3. Roman Holiday (1953)
It’s rare to see an actor burst onto the screen the way Audrey Hepburn did with Roman Holiday. Though she’d appeared in small roles in several U.K. and European films, this film marked her debut as a Hollywood leading lady and director William Wyler was often credited with discovering her. At only twenty-four Hepburn displayed a self-possession and regality that were a natural fit for the film’s Princess Ann -- so much so, that she won an Oscar for the role. Winning an Oscar for playing a princess in her first Hollywood film marked an auspicious beginning for the fairy-tale existence Hepburn would craft in her star persona (though tragedy she suffered in her own life was often anything but). Hepburn actually cut her hair into her signature pixie cut for this role, laying the groundwork for today’s archetype of the “manic pixie dream girl.” The film was also a stunner for being part of string of post-War films that shot at Cinecitta studios in Rome and on surrounding locations. Hepburn and her co-star Gregory Peck made destinations like the “mouth of truth” and the Spanish Steps unmissable destinations for cinematically-minded tourists visiting Italy.
2. Funny Face (1957)
When it comes to musicals, Audrey Hepburn is perhaps best remembered for her take on Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, for which the studios decided to dub her. She actually has a delightful, if not slightly reedy, singing voice, showcased on “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But her most stirring musical performance comes in Funny Face. More beatnik than beauty queen, Hepburn’s Jo Stockton is a bookstore clerk who finds herself whisked off to Paris when a fashion photographer and editor discover her. Hepburn gets to showcase her unique voice on Gershwin standards “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “S’Wonderful,” as well as put her years of ballet training to good use alongside Fred Astaire. In addition to these lovely duets, she executes a bohemian-style dance solo, which is a choreographic embodiment of her mystique as a star. Alongside her expression of her more boho style, she also features in a stunning montage of fashion photography at famous Parisian sites -- another example of how clothing, high fashion, and Hepburn’s persona created an iconic blend onscreen.
1. Charade (1963)
Charade is perhaps the film that makes the most extensive use of Audrey Hepburn’s talents. As Reggie Lampert, she gets to veer from bored housewife to suspect and victim in a suspense thriller to leading lady in a romantic comedy. She is given the ideal match in the king of the witty rom-com, Cary Grant. As Lampert, Hepburn drives the action and is the romantic aggressor, pursuing Grant’s Peter Joshua in spite of his protestations that he’s too old for her. It’s a thrill to watch her traversing Paris in a race to uncover a mystery and a joy to be privy to her jovial and hilarious attempts to romance Grant. They have such delightful chemistry (it’s a shame they only made one film together) and it’s made all the more wonderful by the Parisian location filming. For us, this is the ultimate Hepburn film because it showcases all the tools in her arsenal -- her grace and elegant fashion sense, her gamine charm, her palpable vulnerability mixed with a streak of courage, her undeniable sense of romance, her skill as a serious actress, and her talents as a witty comedienne.
Hepburn was an unforgettable onscreen presence. Offscreen, she also made an indelible impression, working as an ambassador for UNICEF and fighting for a world where no child would have to endure the horrors she faced growing up in war-torn Europe. It’s hard to pick a bad film when it comes to Hepburn, but we find these five particularly delightful.