The Amazing Range Of Audrey Hepburn
The much-loved actress and ambassador served her roles well
NEW YORK — AUDREY HEPBURN, who died Jan. 20, was among the versatile people - not only on the Hollywood screen, where she dazzled moviegoers for decades, but in the least glamorous places of the world, where she worked to aid the poor and starving as a special ambassador for the United Nations agency UNICEF.
A look at her Academy Award nominations is all it takes to confirm Ms. Hepburn's amazing range as an actress. She won an Oscar for her first major role, in the 1953 comedy "Roman Holiday," where she played a princess who tires of her royal life and has a fling with Gregory Peck who plays a handsome reporter.
Although a second Oscar never came Hepburn's way - which means little, given the notorious gaps and omissions in that award's history - she was nominated four more times. In the Billy Wilder comedy "Sabrina," made the year after "Roman Holiday," she played a chauffeur's daughter wooed by an older and richer man (Humphrey Bogart) who's determined to keep her from his ne'er-do-well brother (William Holden).
Half a decade later, "The Nun's Story" found her as a complex heroine who helps humanity in Africa and finally asserts her freedom from the traditional ways of her religious life. "Breakfast at Tiffany's," a hit in 1961, made Hepburn a loose-living young woman turning from small-town roots to big-city sophistication. And the thriller "Wait Until Dark" capped her relationship with Oscar in 1967, earning her a fifth nomination as a blind woman - played with true and desperate realism - being terrorized by vicious criminals.
Not that her Oscar-nominated roles exhausted the range or the charm of her talent. She improved weak pictures, like the 1963 comedy-thriller "Charade," and made good ones even better, like the quick-tongued British romance "Two for the Road," which blazed new trails in mid-'60s movie hipness.
She played with skill and confidence against the biggest stars of her day, from Rex Harrison in the 1964 screen version of "My Fair Lady" to Fred Astaire in the 1957 musical "Funny Face," where she went from beatnik to cover girl in less than two hours.
Some consider the Hollywood version of "War and Peace," made in 1956, better than the all-stops-out Soviet version, made in 1968, simply because her Natasha is so unforgettably radiant.
Hepburn's colleagues liked her every bit as much as her fans did. This was demonstrated by a tribute to her at New York's elegant Lincoln Center two years ago, where performers traveled from far and wide to speak of her warmth, intelligence, and professionalism.
The most amusing anecdote that evening came from Mr. Peck, her "Roman Holiday" costar, who recalled the famous moment when his character sticks a hand into an ancient carving and pulls back what appears to be an empty sleeve, jolting his young companion into surprise, anger, and hilarity, all at the same time. Hepburn wasn't acting in this scene, Peck revealed - he pulled the joke on Hepburn with the camera rolling, and it worked so well that the shot was used in the final film.
IN her later years, Hepburn continued to work in less imposing pictures, from Peter Bogdanovich's comedy "They All Laughed" to Richard Lester's revisionist "Robin Hood" adventure, "Robin and Marian," in which she played the aging rogue's aging lover.
She made a solid impression in "Always," an otherwise negligible Steven Spielberg fantasy-drama where she played an angel as convincingly as anyone imaginably could.
She also worked hard in her UNICEF position as a helper and public voice for those who need attention in places far from Hollywood's illusions. Concern for others ran deep in her personality, according to Wendy Keys, executive producer for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who worked with Hepburn on the recent tribute to her.
"It wasn't a role," Ms. Keys said when I asked her about Hepburn's different sides.
"Even in her last days she worked to make things cheerful and raise other people's spirits. It was very genuine and very important to her."
Hepburn served memorably in the very different realms of acting and action. She will be fondly remembered in both.