Audrey and Her Sisters

Wayne Koestenbaum

  • Audrey Hepburn by Barry Paris
    Weidenfeld, 454 pp, £20.00, February 1997, ISBN 0 297 81728 0

I read star biographies to find out how stars see themselves and how they see each other. Though I am interested in their behaviour, I am more interested in the curves and austerities of their cognition. Huge gulfs divide a star in daily life from a star on screen; the style in which a star executes an action (film role, household chore, errand, ambassadorial mission) is not the style in which she secretly contemplates her colleagues. Few writers have tried to describe ineffable instances of stars perceiving other stars and stars perceiving their own stardom. Such moments dominate a certain 20th century, and so it is a mistake to consider a star biography as merely the linear tale of a performing life’s progress. Rather, we may use star chronicles as springboards for philosophical investigations, however careless and impromptu, into our own sightlines.

The new biography of Audrey Hepburn, by Barry Paris, a writer already praised for his books on Louise Brooks and Garbo, is an acute, tender-hearted and entertaining dish of Hepburn facts – he interviewed friends and family, and has a sharp eye for her film-work’s idiosyncrasies; more important, he offers a grid for dream inquiries into star consciousness. The pulse points that most fascinate me are relations between Hepburn and other female luminaries, including Colette, Edith Head, Deborah Kerr, Leslie Caron, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Marni Nixon, Julie Andrews, Mia Farrow, Jeanne Moreau, Merle Oberon, Capucine and Cher. I could advance a lesbian interpretation of Audrey Hepburn’s oeuvre, though that is not my present aim: instead, I wish to inquire into reverberations between Audrey’s consciousness and the interiors of other stars.

Is it sufficiently well-known that Colette discovered Audrey Hepburn? Paris’s amusing account of the event is worth quoting in full:

Colette, 78, was being propelled through the hotel lobby – sipping a liqueur and resplendent in her red corkscrew curls – when her wheelchair was blocked by a group of actors, technicians and their film equipment. The chair got tangled in some wires, and director Jean Boyer was cross about the interruption. But he fell respectfully silent when he recognised Colette, and shooting was halted while he went over to pay his respects. During that interaction and the time it took to get her chair sorted out, Colette studied the activity with her usual curiosity ... A girl in the background, oblivious to Colette, was taking advantage of the unplanned break to frolic with two of the musicians off to the side. She was dancing around them in playful fashion; she seemed graceful and awkward at the same time; she was extremely pretty. The old author’s eyes narrowed. Suddenly she announced: ‘Voilà! There is my Gigi!’

Here we have the origin of Hepburn’s 1951 Broadway debut as Gigi, itself the catalyst for the beginning of her American film career in Roman Holiday (1953). After her Gigi lost Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Actress to Julie Harris (for Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera), Colette sent the loser a photo inscribed, ‘For Audrey Hepburn, a treasure which I found on the sands.’ That a major French writer should have helped launch an American film actress (whose weird thin androgynous beauty is a non-literary treasure) invites me to imagine Colette’s gaze, across the text/film divide, toward Hepburn, and to imagine Hepburn’s reciprocal Orphean gaze toward literature and toward France, as well as toward wheelchair-bound plumpness and grandmotherly Sapphism. This Monte Carlo hotel anecdote authorises us to see onscreen Hepburn as if through Colette’s desiring, fairy-godmother eyes.

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