In 1957, a Hollywood princess and a legendary director went to Paris and created a Technicolor dream of a musical. In 1963, they revisited Paris to play a thrillingly dangerous game of cat and mouse. Finally, in 1967, they made southern France their backdrop to the bittersweet journey of a crumbling marriage. For three unforgettable films, Audrey Hepburn and Stanley Donen experienced a magical meeting of the minds. Meanwhile, off the screen, they enjoyed a great friendship that lasted until Hepburn’s untimely death at the age of 63.
Like Billy Wilder and William Wyler, Donen understood Hepburn as a performer: “Film was her medium. It could detect her subtle feelings as well as her bursts of joy and sadness, and all the shades in between.” Over the course of ten years, Hepburn and Donen delved into those shades, and the outcome was a stellar collection of mesmerizing work.
“This is grand, this is great! I’m in such a lovely state…”
The pair’s first film, Funny Face, is really something special and timeless. Hepburn and Fred Astaire glide through the world of high fashion only to find themselves falling in love amidst the charms of Paris. The result is a fairy tale wrapped in stunning couture and set to the incredibly sweet music of the Gershwin brothers (with additions from Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe). For both Hepburn and Donen, working with Astaire was a childhood fantasy come true. In every frame of Funny Face, their immense adoration of the legend is evident. And yet, the film also functions as an ode to its sublime leading lady.
Whether she is twirling around a bookstore in a romantic haze, learning “how to be lovely” from Kay Thompson, or dancing out her frustrations in a smoky club, Hepburn makes the screen sparkle. Donen’s camera worships her, making every close-up enough to take your breath away. Although she would make another full-blown musical later in her career that called more on her dramatic skills rather than her musical ability (1964’s My Fair Lady), it could be argued that Funny Face is the more complete representation of what Hepburn could do because it embraces her delightfully imperfect singing and her quirky, elegant dancing as well as her wonderful acting.
“I’m beginning to think women make the best spies.”
Often called the best Hitchcock film Hitchcock never made, Hepburn and Donen’s next effort, Charade, is far from an imitation of North by Northwest or To Catch a Thief. Donen’s stylish stamp is all over the movie, with its pointed use of zoom-ins, musical beats, and color. Whereas Funny Face‘s Paris was filled with romantic innocence and spontaneously joyous musical numbers, Charade‘s Paris is brimming with cavernous echoes, shifting identities, and unknown terror. Every time Hepburn walks into a room, the air is thick with the possibility that she could be attacked or threatened. Even when she is with Cary Grant, the man who is supposed to be her protector, we recognize that there is a thin line between love and betrayal being straddled. It isn’t until the film’s final seconds that we, and Hepburn, truly understand his character.
As Reggie Lampert, the confused widow whose world is turned upside down after the murder of her duplicitous husband, Hepburn is a marvel. Reggie is rarely in control of her circumstances, but that doesn’t stop her from making the best of her situation — and it certainly doesn’t prevent her from relentlessly chasing after Grant. Hepburn is the film’s soul, a wide-eyed, flirtatious woman who, despite claiming at one point that she is having a nervous breakdown, proves to have the guts required to survive the unexpected turn her life has taken. And Donen is right there to capture Reggie’s strength in all its Givenchy-clad glory.
“I thought I was gonna last a lifetime.”
While Funny Face and Charade were illustrations of love at its most sophisticated and wittiest peak, Two for the Road is an angst-ridden portrayal of what could happen after the credits roll and the leading couple rides off into the sunset. It is also, in my opinion, a concentrated effort by Donen to better understand just who Audrey Hepburn was. Although they were close, the filmmaker would admit,
“With all her manners, she kept me from getting totally intimate. So I longed to get closer, to get behind whatever was the invisible, but decidedly present, barrier between her and the rest of us mere mortal human beings. … I don’t mean to imply that I thought she was playing a game with me. But she always kept a little part of herself in reserve, which was hers alone, and I couldn’t ever find out what it was, let alone share it with her.”
Ever since she stole everyone’s hearts in 1953’s Roman Holiday, Hepburn was considered the quintessential gamine, an irresistible mixture of chic regalness and sincere virtue. Although this image of her has been fixed in our heads for decades, the actress tried to challenge it somewhat with such films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, My Fair Lady, and Wait Until Dark, but it was Two for the Road that really showed audiences a different side to Hepburn. The film not only had her curse and, in one scene, suggestively wear only a sheet, it forced her to give one of her most emotionally complex performances.
As Joanna Wallace, Hepburn is prickly, cold, and jaded, but also funny, tender, and sympathetic. Donen and Frederic Raphael’s Oscar-nominated script play with the story’s structure, cleverly weaving in flashbacks and flashforwards that explain and explore the complicated twelve-year relationship between Joanna and Albert Finney’s Mark. Infused with equal parts vinegar and honey, Two for the Road makes you question if the road the couple is on ends with destruction or reconciliation.
For Donen, the end of the Wallaces’ journey also meant the end of his collaborations with Hepburn. Although primarily considered a director of musicals, one look at Donen’s work with Hepburn demonstrates how gifted he could be at handling other genres. As for Audrey, her films with Donen confirm that she isn’t an empty icon, a pretty image to adorn college dorm walls. She was able to craft three performances unlike anything else she did, with Joanna as her crowning achievement. Although Donen felt like he never got to fully know Hepburn the Woman, because of him audiences got to fully appreciate Hepburn the Actress, proving that she was more than just a sunny, funny face.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.