Audrey Hepburn: ‘The more I learn, the better actress I shall be’
The actress was by no means an accidental star, as Meredith Etherington-Smith discovered while going through her personal collection — which includes a series of her highly important, minutely annotated film scripts
After she was told she would never succeed as a ballerina, Audrey Hepburn worked extremely hard at developing her acting skills. She danced in the back row of chorus lines in various London reviews as well as in after-hours cabarets to pay for voice coaching from Felix Aylmer, an English character actor who had played Polonius in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet, and who would go on to become a dear friend.
The contract below, dated 19 November 1948 and offered in Audrey Hepburn: The Personal Collection on 27 September in London, sets out an agreement for the young actress to be paid £9 a week for two nightly shows of the Jule Styne musical, High Button Shoes.
Aylmer was a great friend of Alec Guinness, who helped Hepburn get a tiny part in the 1951 comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob. She plays Chiquita in a scene in an airport lounge, which sees Guinness call her over and hand her a wad of bills. ‘Oh how sweet of you,’ she coos, and deposits a kiss on his forehead.
It was enough to make a strong impression on Guinness. ‘She only had half a line to say and I don’t think she said it in any particular or interesting way,’ he later recalled, ‘but her faun-like beauty and presence were remarkable.’
From playing air hostesses and waitresses in bit parts, which often ended up on the cutting-room floor, Hepburn’s parts in British post-war films began to get bigger. It was while filming on location at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo that the French novelist Colette spotted her and instantly declared, ‘She is my Gigi’.
Gigi, US tour, 1952-1953 George Shimmon, Audrey Hepburn with a poodle, Palace Hotel, San Francisco, circa 1953. Sold for £3,750 on 27 September 2017 at Christie’s in London
This was the precise moment at which her star began to rise, and Audrey Hepburn’s annotated Gigi script for the Broadway production of 1951-52 is among the historic lots in the sale. The production made her an instant Broadway star. Her first starring film role, in Roman Holiday two years later, did the same for her in the movies.
Roman Holiday, 1953 Tommy Weber, Audrey Hepburn holding her Academy Award for Best Actress for Roman Holiday with presenter Jean Hersholt at the 26th Academy Awards, New York, 25 March, 1954. Sold for £4,375 on 27 September 2017 at Christie’s in London
Other scripts, all annotated in her favourite turquoise ink, trace Audrey Hepburn’s rapid success, most notably the Breakfast at Tiffany's script. Hepburn herself said that the film was ‘the one I feel least uncomfortable watching,’ even though, ‘Truman Capote really wanted Marilyn Monroe for the part.’ She also described it as ‘the best thing I have ever done because it was the hardest’. A letter from Truman Capote is included in the sale.
Other annotated scripts being offered at Christie’s historic sale include original pages from Sabrina (1954), War and Peace (1956), The Nun’s Story (1959), My Fair Lady and Paris When It Sizzles (both 1964). There is also a script for Charade, in which Hepburn starred alongside Cary Grant in 1963. Grant famously said afterwards that all he wanted for Christmas was another movie with Audrey Hepburn; a charming letter in the sale (above), written by Grant almost two decades later, reveals his enduring affection for her.
Reflecting on her career, the star said, ‘I was asked to act when I couldn’t act, to sing in Funny Face when I couldn’t sing, to dance with Fred Astaire when I couldn’t dance, and to do all kinds of things I was not expecting and was not prepared for. Then I tried like mad to cope with it.’ And cope she did, thanks to her readiness to ‘accept life unconditionally’, as she phrased it, combined with a remarkable capacity for hard work.
Funny Face, 1957, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire in the 1957 Paramount production Funny Face. Sold for £11,250 on 27 September 2017 at Christie’s in London
Hepburn wanted everything she did to look effortless, but as these scripts show, the reality was quite different. ‘Success is like reaching an important birthday,’ she said in later life. ‘You find you are exactly the same. All I feel is responsibility to live up to success and, with luck to survive it. The more I learn, the better actress I shall be.’
Audrey Hepburn never stopped learning her craft, and remained humble about her global fame. ‘I don’t have a huge talent,’ she maintained. ‘I am not Laurence Olivier or Meryl Streep. I landed in this business because I had to earn a living.’