My fascination with Audrey Hepburn began in my late childhood. Although I was intrigued by the lithe beauty I had seen in My Fair Lady (a staple in my household growing up) I had never approved of the way that man yelled at her. But one day I went to the video rental store and saw her decked in bright diamonds, holding the longest cigarette holder I had ever seen. No one better yell at her in this one, I hoped. After watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s I devoured Hepburn’s filmography quickly. I couldn’t explain what was this strange hold she had on me, but it remains, to the point where I have a tattoo of her as Holly Golightly on my left upper arm.
The spell she cast on film lovers is evident in her work, but the spell has never been better dissected than in Audrey, the documentary by Helena Coan, where her career and legacy are examined through the work she left behind, and the effect it’s had on millions of fans since.
Hepburn’s magic was inexplicable even to her. Throughout the years she commented on her own surprise at finding herself a movie star. “I probably hold the distinction of being one movie star who, by all laws of logic, should never have made it. At each stage of my career, I lacked the experience,” she said once. And although she’s regarded as one of the most recognized icons of beauty in all of cinema history, she once exclaimed “I never thought I’d land in pictures with a face like mine.”
In Audrey, she contributes to the narration of her own life story, complemented by interviews with friends, collaborators, and family members including her son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, who in addition to participating in the film, also co-wrote the children’s book Little Audrey’s Daydream: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, with his wife Karin. Appropriate, given that when I think of Audrey Hepburn I think about family as well.
Not too long ago, a few years after my grandmother had passed away, my father called me to share the most touching story. Knowing my love for Tiffany’s, he had sung “Moon River” with a band at his half brother’s wedding. The song reminded him of me. He was shocked to see his uncle, whom I have met once, reduced to tears. “Of course you chose the song your mother and father fell in love to,” he said. Although my grandmother had been in the room with me when I watched the movie myriad times, she never made me privy to this secret. I like to think this shows how the art we love becomes part of the fabric of our soul, and how we can inherit this to our descendants.
I began my conversation with Sean Hepburn Ferrer by sharing that anecdote, showing him my tattoo, and asking…
When did you first realize you were sharing your mother with the world and complete strangers like me would one day share personal stories about what she means to us?
I think it happened in stages. When I was a kid, I visited the set when I was very little, and by the time I had to go to school she basically gave up her career to be a full-time mom, which is one of the biggest present any parent can give you. To put you ahead of their own needs. And a rare gift of that in our world. Hollywood adores a circus family, as I call it. With time, people would sometimes call me––I’m gonna date myself now––but when I was a kid, there were only two channels and they were both black and white. So people would call me in the room. “Look, your mother is on TV” okay, fair enough.
In those days, we didn’t have VHS or DVDs or Blu-rays, let alone downloads, so when actors made a film, they got a 16mm copy of the movies. As I became a teenager, we had a projector in the attic. We would stretch a sheet out, and I started watching her films with that flickering and that sound, you know, the sprockets. I even had a little tiny thing in case the film broke, so I could repair it with Scotch tape on the little editing table. It was then I realized she was an actress. I realized she was a pretty good actress.
But I don’t think any of us really fully comprehended to what point she had touched the world, until she passed away, and our little village of 600 inhabitants was filled with over 25,000 people along the streets. Behind our house there was the main road and then the fields and vineyards. And in Switzerland they are very organized obviously, they make the roads and the vineyards like prefabs so on these long slabs of cement as far as your eye could see there were people.
While she was ill, we received so much mail that the lady who used to deliver it on a little moped had to go to the town next door and borrow the truck because she’d come with bags. By the time we were done, we had received maybe 30 of those big lawn and leaf condominium size bags full of “get wells,” books on cancer, shark cartilage, origami from Japan, I mean, you name it, we received it.
So I think that experience really connected us. And I think that experience, though, is all inclusive of her as an actress, of her as a symbol of elegance, both inner and outer elegance, because that’s where it starts on the inside. And of course, this third chapter of her career––second career she called it and most important career––which was her humanitarian legacy, which only lasted five years, you know, but she started this kind of new fad. If you may even know she was the third UNICEF celebrity ambassador in their history. After Danny Kaye and Peter use Ustinov, who had joined a few months before her. I guess she’s the best remembered today. Danny Kaye is too far away for younger generations to remember. That’s a long-winded answer to sort of respond to your pretty straightforward.
I think it’s a great answer. Does it ever get old though? Having strangers talk about your mother?
You have to consider that for the past 28 years now, I have been curating and protecting her image, creating a series of nonprofits all over the world, creating exhibitions, editing footage. So at any given year, I hear her voice almost every day. At the risk of sounding pretentious, we play this game with the kids when we travel. They’re grown up now. But we used to play a game called, “You have three minutes to find grandma.” And sometimes if you can’t find her right away, you look for a hairdressing salon and of course, the Roman Holiday short haircut’s gonna be in there. You can walk through a station, you can walk into a hotel room in Tokyo turn on the TV, and there she is, you can walk through the shopping mall, airport, news and industry selling fake handbags. I mean, she’s everywhere. So I think I’ve learned to separate the woman I love, my mother who died on January 20 1993, at eight o’clock at night. And this extraordinary legacy that she left us like a parent who leaves their children a shoe shop or a cafe or some kind of a business. She left us with this and it’s lovely because it’s organic. And it sort of makes up for the fact that she’s not here.
I watched the documentary several times, and was so touched by how both the film and Little Audrey’s Daydream, are able to distil her wisdom and worldview. They seem almost spiritual in a way.
You’re talking about essential Audrey Hepburn in a way, the essence, they both arrive at the same place, but from very different directions. Let’s start with a simple one, which is the book. It’s like a wonderful play, that’s been performed a million times. So I’m one of the players and I know the dialogue of every part. And I know the story. And so over time, these milestones start to emerge, and I put them down. My wife is a philosopher, I studied philosophy and complex systems science, which are sort of very polar approaches to arrive at the same place. Karin helps me to really curate each of these milestones, so that they have depth and meaning.
Of course, we had no idea that the pandemic was coming. But today a little girl in bed waiting for better times is closer to home than we ever could have imagined. And so together, we curate this thing, and then find these two extraordinary illustrators to do the work.
The film is a different story, because the film is more like location scouting. Apart from those few scenes with the little girl and the dances, it’s a process of elimination. So they come to me and say we’d like to make this documentary. I said, “I’ll help you in any way I can.” And they’re just sifting through, edit, after edit, cut after cut, trying her story to new life. It’s like a collage, you can make a piece of art with old photographs, and pretty soon, you do it in such a way so that the piece of art becomes more important. Or you’ve seen those drawings made with lots of little photographs, and then they all come together to create another image. That’s what this documentary is.
I think that the secret of this success from my point of view is that Helena found this interview, which was not video, it was a voice interview. And so because she spent her life in front of the camera, and because she, her persona, had to step up to be Audrey Hepburn the way we expect her to be is the way she was when the cameras were on. But there is a quality about this, this voice in the interview that is very different and very low key and very relaxed and very sort of unfiltered. She is not trying to be at her best visual, she’s just being herself. Helena used that as sort of the cradle to build upon.
I think it was very clever and wonderful that she found that and then I just helped them. I can’t describe the reasons for why and each and every case. But in this case I tried to help them to hone in as much as I could. So in the end, I think what you get is the magic. The magic is not magic. It’s real. It feels legitimate, you’re brought back to the time when you were a child, and you had to rely on your instincts and your instincts are telling you this is real.
Probably the reason why so many children today are still so enamored and touched by my mother is because they feel that genuine, real quality, and for adults, as I’ve said quite a bit over this last year, I think we perceive her as one of us, rather than one of them. Elizabeth Taylor is in the Parthenon of Hollywood. She’s the Cleopatra right? She’s definitely one of them. My mother is a girl from across the landing, who goes out into the world and we are rooting for her. She has this little black dress and she’s not perfect. As I like to say, she’s a perfect package of imperfections.
For fans of her work, something like a recently discovered interview is of course a cause of celebration. Do you still get that opportunity where you discover new things that you wish you could have talked to your mom about?
I’ll back into a question that I was asked a while back: how would your mother feel about social media, Instagram and all that? So let me take you back. Because we can only understand history, if we put our minds back then. So it’s the 60s and and when you take a photograph, you need to light it, you need makeup and hair, you need wardrobe, then, you take a Polaroid, just check the light, then you change the back of the camera, then you put the film, whether it’s the big format and the regular 35 and you shoot it.
Then you have to have it developed, then you have to have contact sheets with all of the film on there. And the people who have approval, use grease pens to make notes on it, and then that gets mailed and mailed back. Then from that, you print out the photographs that will go in the press kit for a film for example. And some of them get touched up if there’s a need for it. And then it gets mailed to the four corners of the earth. That makes the cost of one photograph in those days, present valuing the dollar, probably close to your average smartphone today. And yet, as you just asked me, I still today find not one photograph, but an actual shoot that I have never seen before.
Still, after 30 years of curating her image, I can still run into something and say, “I don’t have this, I’ve never seen it before.” There are people who drill and drill and drill until they find these things. So as one of the most photographed women of the 20th century, there is no doubt that she understood that, as did my father, the power of photography or the message of the support. And she invested greatly in that.
Not just on the set of the film standing by the camera, but by doing the fashion things by sort of going outside the box and leaving that. Why did she do it? First of all, because she knew how to do it. And secondly, because she hated getting on a plane and having to go to the premiere and talk to the press and all that. So she said if we give them images and things it might make it easier to communicate. So she was the queen of the 20th century and the queen even of Instagram, before it existed.
I love that so much. I wonder if there’s a performance of hers that you wish people paid more attention to?
I don’t, there’s not that many films. She made 17 really good movies. I’m not talking about the little bit parts but the lead roles. From those 17 feature films, only one didn’t really work. Mostly because like every other film about Hollywood or about filmmaking, they mostly don’t work. There’s been a handful, The Artist is one of them, and so forth. But typically making stories about Hollywood, because you’re basically undressing the geisha, you’re telling people how the magic has people in it. With your film you need suspended disbelief. Hitchcock said, “I’m going to scare them, but not enough so that they have to look away from the screen,” because he didn’t want you to disconnect from them.
The minute you bring the public into the off screen, there’s something that happens chemically, that doesn’t work. But I think that the alternative parts that she played like The Nun’s Story where she had to play this very difficult part without using any physical language or any body language; there are several films that she made, which were a contrast to the normal sort of romantic comedy that she’s known for, which are very valuable, I think.
But I think it’s important to say, she didn’t hold our hand, not with respect to her career, not respect to ideology, or religion or anything. And I don’t think we should do that to the public, either. I think there’s enough there to connect with that, if you’re interested, you dig and find and there’s nothing like a song that’s liked and that you learn because you like it, rather than having to learn it.
You’re making me think a lot about The Wizard of Oz and seeing the man behind the curtain, but I wonder if there’s perhaps a moment for you that still retains that inexplicable quality that magic has from when you were little. Something that happened on set maybe?
No, I think when Lena Olin did The Unbearable Lightness of Being, she was different from any other film that she made for the simple reason that she was pregnant. She was just glowing from every pore, and she had a power that illuminated the screen. And I think that my mother had that in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because she just had me. Not because it was me, that was because she wanted to have a child, and something happens chemically to a woman, she’s at her most radiant, and so forth.
As far as the magic of cinema, as she often used to say, “It’s not the nicest films to make that are the most successful.” And it’s not the worst films to make that are not, you know. It can be actually the other way around, when it’s a pleasure to make flops. And the one that’s a nightmare to make is a huge success. So all I know is that she had to fight for every little bit of everything that you see up there, whether it was with the studios, the people that were making it, what she believed and the way she should look, even with Hubert de Givenchy whom she adored and loved dearly, but he wanted to put fashion on the screen, and she wanted to put wardrobe on the screen.
She knew how much the camera would increase in size. There’s no bows, there’s no extra nothing, everything that wasn’t nailed down, she got rid of. But in the end, we have the most memorable little black dress because of that. We have a look throughout her film career, you know, those little coats and things, which is a look that she maintains over time. When she’s up on screen, it’s not just the actress, it’s Audrey Hepburn, because she has that unique look.
I really was taken aback by how at the end of the film, even you go back to what she says in the film, how despite the suffering, despite the horror, life is all about love. That sentiment is also in the book and I wonder if you can talk a little bit about distilling that specifically for children who probably have never seen one of her movies.
The beauty why she wanted to protect children is because children know that instinctively. Okay, children are very precious and very delicate. And they’re very tough in some respects. But we have to be very careful what we tell them and what we try and put in their minds, which is why I am deeply at war with ideology, whether it’s political or religious, or any other kind of ideology. Because we start and we do that, because children’s minds are open to it, and we start to put those thoughts in their mind when they’re young.
We don’t talk about that because there’s enough horrors everywhere else to talk about. You come from Honduras, you know, what your country has been through and the horrors and you understand when you see news about Dreamers, about families at the border, about refugee camps, or 500 kids without their parents, and they’re saying, “Well, why should we reunite them? They probably don’t even remember their parents anymore.”
You know, we’re talking about a widely distributed Sophie’s Choice, permitted by law. I mean, we are living in extraordinary times, which if before this administration, I had said that to anyone, they would have thought I was crazy. I probably would have been, to think that in a country where democracy is supposed to be. I think through this, we’re realizing that democracy is a precious thing, like she used to always say, and it requires education, culture, more than education.
You know, a great French philosopher said that culture is what’s left when we’ve forgotten everything. And he’s right, it’s like those smooth stones at the bottom of a river. The water may be gone but it’s washed and around those pebbles, those smooth stones are there. We need to learn from this because we have no choice. And look, “lo que no te mata engorda.” (“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” in Spanish) You know this expression from your grandma.
I want to end on a very silly question and I apologize, but one of the reasons I love Audrey Hepburn more and more is because of how much she loved her dogs. Did you inherit your mom’s love for dogs. Are you more of a cat person?
No, I have dogs. I loved her dogs. I’ve always had a bit larger dogs she’s always went for the Jack Russell Terrier or Yorkshire Terriers. I’ve always had a little bit bigger dogs, but I’ve always gone for the dog that looks you in the eye and tries to understand what you want. We’ve always loved the dogs and the dogs slept at the end, you know, throughout her illness, they slept at the bottom of the bed inside the bed, keeping her feet warm, and she loved them.
Holly Golightly would be perfect if she had a dog instead of the cat. I get that the cat works better for the purpose of the film though.
Yeah, because the cat is sort of the emblem of who she is. It’s easier to project the “I don’t care” or “I love you to death” with the cat on whom you can sort of imprint whatever you want. While a dog is always there with his tongue hanging out. There’s no contrast. There’s no secret. There’s no mystery.