Cinema's royalty loses another of its crown jewels APPRECIATION

January 21, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Audrey Hepburn.

The world's only unanimously beloved woman died yesterday of colon cancer at the age of 63 near Lausanne, Switzerland, after a long illness. And today the world seems bereft of another substantial portion of its increasingly depleted stock of charm and class and style.

Miss Hepburn first burst to wide public attention with her Oscar-winning performance in "Roman Holiday" in 1953, but her special quality of almost childlike innocence entwined with bewitching and delicate feminity was obvious from a very young age. The French novelist Colette met her on the Riviera in 1951, where Miss Hepburn was appearing in a French film, and then insisted that the ingenue appear in a Broadway production of "Gigi." It was that starring role that led to the part in "Roman Holiday."

Miss Hepburn was born Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston on May 4, 1929, in Belgium of cosmopolitan heritage. She was the daughter of an English banker and a Dutch baroness. She attended a British boarding school, but was vacationing in the Netherlands when the Germans invaded, and she spent the war years in Arnhem under a harrowing German occupation. After the war, she studied ballet in London, but her almost porcelain-fragile beauty soon made her an international model. The acting career happened almost accidentally soon thereafter.

"I was just sort of launched on this career. I went from one picture to the other, really, trying to sort of catch up with myself. I was totally unaware of the great significance of doing my first [Hollywood] movie," she said in 1985.

But Miss Hepburn was one of those sublimely gifted freaks of beauty who simply could not be photographed from a bad angle; at the same time, such was the power of her radiant personality that she simply could not appear less than sincere and wholly spontaneous. It was a potent combination. She may have been the most natural film actress of her generation, as five Oscar nominations over a relatively short 20-movie American film career testify.

Her first husband, Mel Ferrer, observed: "Working with her is like working with someone with a heightened sense of personality -- and that's the hardest thing to convey in acting. Audrey possesses this in the highest degree, largely because of her complete concentration."

Many of her parts called for exactly the sort of ethereal, spectral aura that she was so expert at conveying: as Rima, the bird girl, in "Green Mansions"; as Sabrina, in "Sabrina," in 1954; as Princess Natasha in "War and Peace" in 1956; as Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in 1961.

In other words, she had what some Tin Pan Alley songwriter has dubbed "a certain something," and the paradox exactly expresses the contradictions of her presence: as elusive as mercury, quicksilver as the sunlight, and butterfly-beautiful and quick.

Her performances in films brilliant and callow are amazingly uniform; she was never less than good, even in something as oafish and ill-conceived as her last film, Steven Spielberg's "Always" (1989), a role designed entirely to profit from her screen magic and having no other reason to exist.

Her only true dud was the big-budget "My Fair Lady," where Marni Nixon sang her songs and the poor actress was overwhelmed by the saurian-scale of Hollywood movie making. A natural aristocrat, she just couldn't play the working class. Her Eliza Doolittle didn't do a thing: She was surprisingly inert for the first and last time in her career.

It's not coincidental that her screen presence will form the core of her memory, not the films she was in, for she was in no truly great movies. She usually chose solidly crafted professional entertainment -- light comedy, semi-serious mainstream drama, romantic intrigue -- that played well with her special qualities. She rarely took professional chances. She could be elfin and cosmopolitan, a kind of thin Simone Signoret, as in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," or she could be virtuous and noble, a kind of thin Deborah Kerr, as in "The Nun's Story." She could be resilient, as in "Wait Until Dark," but never brutal, never coarse, never angry, never crazy.

Her beauty was weirdly asexual: Few men dreamed of knowing her as a lover while many men dreamed of knowing her as a wife or a sister; she was so well-scrubbed and virtuous, and she had almost no interesting dark corners to her soul.

But her core work will last forever. In "Two for the Road," she was simply adorable, an admirable foil for Albert Finney. The two played an older couple remembering the chaos and spontaneity of their original courtship, when he was a young architecture student and she an art student and they were wandering across Europe in the romantic '50s.

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