My top three Audrey Hepburn films
Mar 3, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Hard to believe Spring is upon us and the pandemic has been with us for a full year. I think about how I’ve read more, painted more, and reclaimed the indoors more than ever before. Socially distanced walks with friends every Saturday has become a lifeline. But during this year that has felt isolated, escaping to a world of cinematic perfection has also been like a salve for my weary soul. I’ve rediscovered familiar favorites and found new gems during this year of binge-watching. While it’s hard to pick one vintage actor or actress that I gravitate to the most, without a doubt Audrey Hepburn always has a place on this list. Allow me to share my top three Audrey Hepburn films and tell me about your favorites in the comments!
Whenever I need a toe-tapping, smile-inducing film – this is my choice. With a talented cast, drool-worthy fashion, and Gershwin tunes, Funny Face is a delight from start to finish. Scenes and songs seem to flow together perfectly and yet this movie’s backstory is just as chaotic as Jo Stockton’s rocky road from bookworm to model. To my modern eyes, I see the film as an instant classic. The Gershwin’s songs give it a perennial appeal, but in every other aspect the film is like opening up a time capsule from the late 1950s. You have Jo, the beatnik intellectual; Dick Avery, the Richard Avedon who captures a moment’s beauty; Maggie Prescott, who embodies that post-war consumerism and glamour; and you have the city of Paris itself bursting with hope. For me the movie works on a few levels: first as a top-notch musical, next as a commentary on the role of superficial beauty standards, and lastly as a romance. But “funnily” enough, when it was originally released in 1957, the film was largely panned by audiences and critics alike. How could this happen? Well, let’s start at the beginning of things…
Funny Face’s road to Hollywood started about three decades earlier as a play starring Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. The first iteration of the story (named Smarty) was met with harsh reviews. Over the course of four weeks the entire play was re-written and it was re-titled as Funny Face. Having watched enough “behind-the-scenes” documentaries about the creative process, I can’t imagine the frenzy that was happening during that month of re-writes! The hard work paid off as the updated play became a Broadway hit and went on to tour in London. Fun fact: this play was the first time Fred donned his signature top hat and tails on stage.
The movie we know and love is actually a combination of two plays, taking some of the music and name from the Astaire play and borrowing plot points from the musical Wedding Bells. The recipe takes its next turn by casting Kay Thompson as powerhouse editor Maggie Prescott. While usually behind the scenes as a musical director, Kay lends her amazing pipes and dancing skills to the role. I am so thankful they convinced her to step into the spotlight, because her duet with Fred is one of my favorite moments in the movie.
For seven years Funny Face seemed destined for the cinematic graveyard, but then in 1964 My Fair Lady debuted to stellar reviews and this plucky Parisian flick got a second chance at proving itself. The box-office juggernaut that was My Fair Lady gave the studio a chance to reintroduce audiences to Audrey’s first musical (and, in fact, the musical where she actually did the singing!). As the calendar turned to 1965, Funny Face had finally turned a profit. What a journey – from the stage to the movie theater and back again. I encourage you, dear reader, if you haven’t given Funny Face a second glance to do so soon!
How To Steal A Million
On the heels of My Fair Lady came How To Steal A Million in 1966. This charming caper / art heist / romantic comedy pairs Audrey with the dreamy Peter O’Toole. Paris, once again, serves as the posh backdrop. While critics found the movie’s plot far-fetched, they also didn’t find the absurdity a distraction. Audiences didn’t exactly see it that way and this film, like Funny Face before it, was a box-office dud. I remain perplexed!
Directed by the incomparable William Wyler (who also directed Audrey’s first film Roman Holiday), the film centers on the eccentric forger Charles Bonnet and his cautious daughter Nicole. Charles’ shenanigans are not widely known – in fact he is seen as a bit of an artistic philanthropist in Parisian society. But a simple act of benevolence might in fact be his undoing when he promises to loan his “Cellini” statue. The museum, in an effort to keep the statue secure, announces it will undergo new-fangled forensic testing to ascertain a value for the museum’s insurance policy. Who knew bureaucratic drudgery would set the stage for a hilarious heist??
Enter Peter O’Toole, who unbeknownst to Nicole is a forgery expert hot on the trail, who arranges to help her steal the statue and keep her father from jail. The scenes of the two of them annoying the museum guards with a boomerang will leave you in stitches. Every time I watch these scenes I am convinced Peter Sellers had to be involved in this project. As with any major creative undertaking, How To Steal A Million was not without its off-screen drama. The main protagonist in this realm was Hugh Griffith, who played Charles. Given those wacky and captivating eyebrows, I’m not surprised to learn he was quite the character in real life! How To Steal A Million is a great selection when you’re in a goofy mood and looking for some hearty laughs…
While I love the plot of this movie, I have to admit I may like the soundtrack even more. Henry Mancini’s songs can set the tone for an entire film (sometimes even more than other cinematic elements!). It’s hard to imagine Hatari! without “Baby Elephant Walk” and his work on Charade was the perfect companion for every twist and turn. Like Funny Face, this movie has an interesting past. When the screenwriters first shopped it around Hollywood no one was interested. So they renamed it, made it into a novel, and published snippets of it in Redbook magazine. The national buzz got the attention of studio executives and Charade finally got its red carpet chance.
It’s hard to summarize these sorts of whodunit movies because the foundation feels like it’s on quicksand. As soon as you think you know whom the protagonist can trust, you’re presented with a conundrum and you lose confidence. Regina Lampert, played by Audrey, is on vacation in the French Alps, gathering her strength as she prepares to divorce her husband. There is something about her betrothed, Charles, that doesn’t sit well with her – something she can’t put her finger on. While at the lodge she meets a dashing American, Peter Joshua (played by Cary Grant). Regina returns home to Paris to find her apartment hauntingly empty and she’s told her husband is dead. Her only clues are a travel bag filled with fake passports and a funeral attended by suspicious characters. During this tumult and confusion, Peter re-enters her life and she meets a CIA administrator, played by Walter Matthau. But which one of these men is the hero and which is the villain? One critic summarized this film best, describing it as “the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made.” If you want a thriller with a soundtrack you’ll be humming days later, then this is the pick for you!
As I reflect on this trio, I realize each movie was filmed in Paris – a city that isn’t just a backdrop but a co-star in its own right. Perhaps these three films speak to me because we’re in a season of limited travel and it’s nice to be reminded of the many dimensions found in a big city. So dear reader, I invite you to escape with Audrey to France and get ready for adventures!