Hewitt is no Hepburn

Review: The TV waif bears a slight resemblance to the great actress, but that's all she has and it's not nearly enough for "The Audrey Hepburn Story."

March 27, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I thought that having to watch 97 hours of local television covering the hostage standoff in Dundalk was bad.

Then I found out what bad was: sitting through three hours of Jennifer Love Hewitt trying to be Audrey Hepburn.

OK, maybe I'm overstating the case a little. I admit I hate Hewitt as a television actress. Her one-note waif-ingenue act leaves me cold. I also admit to having made a big mistake in preparing for ABC's "The Audrey Hepburn Story," which airs tonight. I went out and rented a real Hepburn movie, "Love in the Afternoon," so I could make a more informed comparison and not one distorted by the haze of pleasant memory.

I put "Love in the Afternoon" on and couldn't turn it off. And when it was over at midnight, I was faced with three bleak hours of just me and the Love Hewitt child alone in a dark, empty house. Where is live, local and late-breaking coverage of Bill Toohey, the Baltimore County Police spokesman, snapping at reporters when you need it?

If you have little familiarity with Audrey Hepburn, except for the sort of "E" gossip and factoids that pass for knowledge in our culture these days, you might think "The Audrey Hepburn Story" is just fine.

It opens on the set of the 1961 film "Breakfast at Tiffany's," with Hepburn having a hard time getting her performance right. That setting frames the entire three hours, with her life from childhood to that point told in flashbacks.

According to this version, by the time she was a teen-ager in Holland, Hepburn had joined a resistance group fighting the Nazis. She served as a courier delivering messages right under the noses of the occupying German army.

After the war, she studies dance in France. And, while her dreams of a career in ballet fall by the wayside, she is quickly launched on her brilliant stage and film career.

But all she ever really wanted was the love of her father, an emotionally frigid man who also happened to be a womanizer and a Nazi sympathizer. There are a number of flashbacks to one shining moment from her early childhood when daddy dances with her in his arms as a carousel plays.

It's hard to say which is more suspect in a film like this -- the biography-as-fairy-tale or the psychology.

But that's not the big problem here. What's impossibly wrong with this film is that Hewitt has no physical grace while Hepburn was the very embodiment of it.

Clearly, Hewitt was cast -- and given the title of co-executive-producer -- because she looks a little like Hepburn. But she doesn't move like Hepburn -- not even a little. The difference between her and Hepburn is the difference between Michael Jordan and Gheorghe Mureson running a fast break.

Hewitt can handle a few model-like poses, featuring her looking over large sunglasses. But as soon as she starts to walk, it's all over.

And you have to walk before you can dance. Director Steve Robman, who worked with Hewitt on Fox's "Party of Five," has to use every trick from slow motion to shooting only legs and arms of body-doubles to make it look as though Hewitt could have been a ballerina. The one scene in which she does have to dance -- a waltz with a rich Englishman who is ga-ga over her -- she goes ah-one, ah-two, ah-clunk-clunk-clunking around the room.

The most preposterous musical moment, though, finds Hewitt singing "Moon River." The scene, which seems to be stuck onto the film like the tail on a paper donkey, serves no purpose except to indulge the star/co-executive-producer in her crazed belief that viewers can't get enough of her.

If the ratings for her Fox series, "Time of Your Life," are any indication, most viewers have had more than enough. The heavily publicized show was one of the great Fox flops last fall and got network president Doug Herzog fired last week.

The only nice thing I can say about "The Audrey Hepburn Story" is that it made me think. But what it made me think about is how little value our memory-impaired popular culture places on originals.

After World War II, the United States was awash in fabulous originals such as Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Miller, Hepburn, Presley and Monroe. Less than a half-century later, instead of remembering the essence of their originality all we remember is a bit of gossip about them or, perhaps, part of a song or a scene from one of their movies. We remember the visual or sound bite without any real sense of how their work broke the mold and shaped our lives.

It's the People magazine version of our cultural past, and ABC-TV throws another log on the bonfire of cheapened memory tonight with Jennifer Love Hewitt as Audrey Hepburn.

Tonight's TV

What: "The Audrey Hepburn Story"

When: 8 to 11 tonight

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: In your dreams, Jennifer.

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