Ready for My deMille: Profiles in Excellence - Audrey Hepburn, 1990

by Philip Berk November 4, 2019
Actress Audrey Hepburn, Golden Globe winner, Cecil B. deMille award recipient

hfpa archives

Beginning in 1952 when the Cecil B. deMille Award was presented to its namesake visionary director, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has awarded its most prestigious prize 66 times. From Walt Disney to Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor to Steven Spielberg and 62 others, the deMille has gone to luminaries – actors, directors, producers – who have left an indelible mark on Hollywood. Sometimes mistaken with a career achievement award,  per HFPA statute, the deMille is more precisely bestowed for  “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment”. In this series, HFPA cognoscente and former president Philip Berk profiles deMille laureates through the years.

She was a pinup girl in the late 1940s, looking uncomfortable in a bathing suit. Three years later she was Hollywood's biggest star. Cecil B. deMille honoree Audrey Hepburn started out playing bit roles in now-forgotten British movies. (The one exception: Alec Guinness’s Lavender Hill Mob, but if you blink you might miss her.) Although famous for her distinctive British accent, she was not really English. Born in Belgium, she spent her formative years in Holland. Her father was a Hungarian-born naturalized British subject and her mother a Dutch noblewoman.

Before the war, her family were active fascists, and disturbing details have emerged about their wartime experience, although there is evidence now that Audrey herself worked for the resistance.

After the war, she studied ballet, but when told she’d never make prima ballerina, she switched to acting, appearing in the chorus of West End musicals. To overcome her Dutch accent, she took elocution lessons from famed Shakespearian actor Felix Aylmer. Her appearance in an Anglo-French movie, Monte Carlo Baby, brought her to the attention of famed writer Colette, who recommended her for the lead in the upcoming Broadway production of “Gigi”, adapted from her memoir, and the rest is history.

Hepburn won unanimous critical acclaim for her performance. A Theatre World Award followed, and she was spotted by director William Wyler who was looking for an actress to play opposite Gregory Peck in Roman HolidayAudrey got the role, above the title billing (thanks to Peck’s generosity), won the Academy Award and Golden Globe as Best Actress, and immediately became Hollywood’s most sought-after actress.

Signed to a four-picture deal by Paramount (she had director approval rights) she chose to work in quick succession with Billy Wilder on Sabrina (opposite Humphrey Bogart and William Holden) with King Vidor on War and Peace (billed above Henry Fonda and José Ferrer) and with Stanley Donen on Funny Face (top-billed over Fred Astaire), all minor classics. But then on her own, she made Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon, uncomfortably playing opposite Gary Cooper, 30 years her senior, for which she earned her third Golden Globe nomination, followed by Green Mansions, directed by the man she would fall in love with and eventually marry, actor Mel Ferrer.

Neither film had much traction, but she followed it with Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story for which she earned her second Oscar and fourth Golden Globe nominations. The film was enormously successful but she followed it with an embarrassing misstep playing a Native American (with her accent) in John Huston’s The Unforgiven.

Her next film, however, was the one everyone associates her with, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which she immortalized Holly Golightly. It was the year’s biggest box office success and earned her her fifth Golden Globe nomination.

She then worked again with Wyler on The Children’s Hour, a remake of his These Three, which dealt head-on with lesbianism, but which failed to earn critical or public acceptance. After that, she chose to live in Switzerland, the tax haven for so many highly paid actors. Stanley Donen’s Charade was filmed in Paris, as was Richard Quine’s Paris When It Sizzles; the first with Cary Grant was a hit and earned her a sixth Golden Globe nomination, the second with William Holden, a resounding flop.

But then she was summoned to Hollywood to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. The film went on to win numerous Golden Globes and Oscars but none for Audrey. She became a pariah for having taken the role away from Julie Andrews who originated the part on Broadway. (Ironically Andrews won that year for Mary Poppins) and because much of her singing was dubbed. In retrospect, Audrey is magical in the film and gives a peerless performance. But the experience soured her, and she returned to Europe where she made two of her most delightful films, William Wyler’s How tho Steal a Million opposite Peter O’Toole and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road opposite Albert Finney, for which she received her seventh Golden Globe nomination.

Neither were huge hits, but then playing a blind woman in Wait Until Dark she earned her eighth and final Golden Globe and fourth Oscar nomination, and the film became a surprise hit. But it was also to be her swansong.

She came out of retirement to play opposite Sean Connery in Robin and Marian a revisionist reworking of the Robin Hood legend, but it failed at the box office.

Her last films are best forgotten, although she did make a comeback of sorts in a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s Always, but the film itself was one of his few missteps. After that she devoted most of her time to her work as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, working in some of the poorest communities in Africa, South America, and Asia. In December 1992, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her work. A month later, at the age of 63. she died of appendiceal cancer at her home in Switzerland.

As for her personal life, she and Ferrer were together on and off for 14 years. After they divorced she married Italian psychiatrist Andrea Dotti. That marriage lasted thirteen years. Eventually, she found happiness with Dutch TV actor Robert Wolders, Merle Oberon’s widower.  She called those last nine years with him the happiest of her life. Her two sons, one by Ferrer and the other by Dotti, were co-equal heirs to her estate.

Among her many honors besides the Cecil B. deMille award, she received a tribute from the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 1991, the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, and the 1993 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Even today her legacy lives on.  Her gamine quality has never found an equal, and as a style icon, she still reigns supreme. Among her classic movies, Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady.

Interesting footnote: she worked multiple times with three of  Hollywood’s greatest directors, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, and Stanley Donen; obviously like the public, they adored her.