Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, and How to Steal a Million are the first that come to mind as some of Audrey Hepburn’s most successful and memorable films. As her figure gracefully dances across the television screen in Funny Face, one perfectly sees that Hepburn marches to the beat of her own drum. According to Billy Wilder, a man regarded as one of the most remarkable filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Hepburn “broke the mold” of other actresses, setting herself apart from them with her authenticity. Her candid photos allow us into the realm of innocence and honesty by which Hepburn lived, creating a real person different from the glammed up, unrelatable women we saw in Hollywood before her.
Audrey Hepburn initially hoped to find a career in ballet, and was a star pupil at each of the ballet schools she attended. She realized, however, she could never be a ballerina full-time due to her tall height, her lack of professional training in comparison to other pupils, and most of all her weakened physical strength from malnourishment as a child during World War II. She ended up earning extra money through modeling for pictures on the weekends, and the camera, as well as her photographers, fell in love with her. She would move on to bit parts in numerous other films before landing the starring role in Broadway’s Gigi. Hepburn was noticed by the filmmakers of Roman Holiday, who were in the process of casting and looking for a new face for the Hollywood industry. Hepburn enchanted her audience and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. She began breaking the stereotype that only sexy women were attractive by incorporating a variation of feminine and boyish hints in her wardrobe. Hepburn’s feminist ideas influenced her to create a more casual, “working” look for women. Along with flowery midi skirts and ballet flats, she also sported loafers, pleated trousers, and button-down shirts, all the while setting a classy, attainable style. Thus began Hepburn’s rise to stardom, eventually becoming an award-winning actress and ageless icon to the world for many years to come.
On and off the screen, she became widely known for her genuine thoughtfulness, compassion, and uplifting persona. She, however, had many obstacles to face before she reached unexpected fame. When Hepburn was six, her British father left her family in Belgium, an experience she called as “the most traumatic event of [her] life.” This family separation resulted from Hitler’s rise to power, and soon after Hepburn and her mother fled to Holland. The Nazis soon invaded and prevented food supplies from entering the country. Many children died from starvation, but Audrey’s creative mind helped her to survive on tulip bulbs and the bread she made from grass. Her intelligence was illuminated through the days of the war when Hepburn, just 14-years-old, helped raise money for the Dutch Resistance by organizing secret dance recitals where she herself performed. She later commented, “The best audience I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performances.” She also passed along secret messages and leaflets for the Resistance by storing them in her shoes, an act that would have resulted in execution if caught.
As much as she helped others, Hepburn would never forget the day she and the other children received food relief from the United Nations during the Dutch Famine in 1944. Hepburn herself developed anemia, edema, and a respiratory illness during the Famine, and these health problems would affect her for the rest of her life. She demonstrated her eternal gratitude by her countless endeavors to improve the lives of children around the world as the Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Her fluency in English, Dutch, Spanish, Italian and French helped her to communicate amongst people of many cultures, and her unique warmth of character would assist in these interactions as well. She believed there was no such thing as a Third World country, saying “The ‘Third World’ is a term I don’t like very much, because we’re all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering.” This quotation alone, even without the support of her humanitarian actions, illustrate how Hepburn’s beliefs about others were unified. Race nor ethnicity created a stereotype in her mind, and her goal was to aid others and relieve them of their suffering by providing food, water, medical care, and above all, compassion and kindness.
Audrey Hepburn was not solely an incredibly influential actress, but she exceeded the limitations set forth for women by contributing to humankind in ways many of us could only dream of. She inspired women to become active in their world, rather than just observers, and helped to create a society that allowed people to be natural. Describing her in one word would be an incredibly difficult task, as she was classy, quirky, iconic, confident, compassionate, and much more. Hepburn’s life journey is not solely encompassed in her films or her actions, but in the multitude of people whose hearts she has touched, forever, including mine.
This article is published in honor of Women’s History Month.