The Bearable Lightness of Being
One way of looking at stardom in film is to see it as both prosaic and mythic: that it combines the reality of someone who lives in time appearing at a particular moment in history, and also possessing an aspect of mythology in their persona. Cary Grant was an actor especially popular in the forties and fifties – he was Archibald Leach who changed his name to Cary Grant and whose good looks, light charm and graceful movements turned him into the epitome of debonair. When someone says a friend of theirs reminds them of Cary Grant, this is quite a different thing from saying the friend reminds them of a supporting actor in a particular film. Figures like Cary Grant aren’t praised for their range, but for the capacity they possess to represent a certain type. This is why we talk of the prosaic and the mythic. Cary Grant lived from 1904 to 1986, but he lives long in the memories of viewers. If people will be watching his films in fifty years’ time and still seeing a particular figure evident in them, it rests in the prosaic becoming the mythic. Film records the reality of someone at a given moment, but they manage to transcend that moment and achieve archetypal importance.
To explain further we can think specifically of Audrey Hepburn: to see that what matters from a star is not that they possess great acting talent, but manage to convey a mode of being; perhaps a certain grace. As David Thomson says in A Biographical Dictionary of Film: “it is often preferable to have a movie actor who moves well than one who “understands” the part. A director ought to be able to explain a part, but very few men or women can move well in front of a camera.” Thomson seems to be saying not simply that the important thing is that a well-trained actor can move well through space, but that certain people happen to do so, and sometimes it is this existential fact of their own existence the director wants. The actor isn’t at their most brilliant when playing others, but in being themselves.
How does this work with Hepburn for example? She is perhaps the exemplification of the gamine as Grant is the personification of the sophisticated. Yet Hepburn wasn’t so small: taller than Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak and Catherine Deneueve, all of whom would not pass for waifs, or gamines, at all. This suggests that the fact of the actor in the world is only an aspect of their persona. Of course, Hepburn was slimmer and slighter than the other actors we mentioned, but Katharine Hepburn was just as thin and almost the same height, but we don’t think of the waif when she comes to our mind. No, it is a combination of the actor’s physical reality and the fictional creation: in Funny Face, Sabrina, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s we see a woman who often appears like she needs to be looked after. Whatever the sexual politics of this position, Hepburn would frequently play women falling in love with much older men: Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon, Fred Astaire in Funny Face, and Humphrey Bogart in Sabina. She would play the ingenue ready to be transformed: evident of course in Funny Face and My Fair Lady. Think of the scene in Funny Face where she is given a makeover; with the music swelling as the camera moves in on her dress and then her visage. But there is also a marvellous scene of bodily assertiveness, with Hepburn dancing in a jazz bar, free and in control. While the characters she plays might often seem pliable, the grace seems all her own. Someone who was easily malleable in the hands of men wouldn’t have been enough; there needed to be a counter assertiveness too, a wilful need to do her own thing. We can recall the lengthy scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where her attitude is the more the merrier as the party descends into mayhem.
Hepburn often manages to suggest being her own woman, yet someone who resists being alone. As Anthony Slide noted: “Beginning with Lilian Gish, child-women have intrigued movie audiences, and perhaps the best-known of recent memory is Audrey Hepburn, who manages to combine vulnerability and innocence with an astonishingly strong personality.” (The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Actors and Actresses) Is this partly why she frequently appeared opposite much older men? We cannot easily expect to spend our life with someone if that person happens to be half a life time ahead of us already. Gary Cooper died three year after making Love in the Afternoon; Humphrey Bogart three years after Sabrina. These are men one can love and learn from, but who will likely pass away long before the female character. This notion of an older man who will teach one the ways of the world without necesssarily being the man of one’s life is most punningly pronounced of course in My Fair Lady, a musical adaptation of G.B. Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Here she appears opposite Rex Harrison (twenty one years her senior), as a working class woman trying to master the art of becomong a lady. In Sabrina, Hepburn plays someone from lowly stock too, but in My Fair Lady Hepburn doesn’t have a natural grace the earlier film credits her with as her father is the chauffeur to a wealthy family; no, in My Fair Lady she is a girl from the East End of London that professor Higgins is determined to make into the fair lady of the film’s title. We might struggle to accept the impersonation that the film insists upon as Hepburn mangles her vowels and drops her aitches, but if we fall just short of seeing her as miscast it rests on the dynamic that we see so often in her work: playing opposite a much older man.
What we have with My Fair Lady is a film that plays up one aspect of her persona and plays down the other. It plays up the thematic element of Hepburn’s interest in playing young women with older men; but plays down the sort of natural grace Thomson discusses. The thematic can be seen in the autobiographical: Hepburn married Mel Ferrer when she was twenty four; he was a dozen years her senior. But it plays down the easy charm of a woman who seems to have come from nowehere in particular. Hepburn was born in Brussels and died in Switzerland, and in between she could have come from Paris, New York, Los Angeles or London. She was much less geographically precise a star than Marilyn Monroe, who could only have been American. Hepburn’s voice was soft and precise, less inclined to seduce than ripe to register injustice or the unfair. “Don’t you dare” she says in Funny Face to a fashion editor who wants to mention in the magazine the bookshop Hepburn works in. In Sabrina she is eating at a restaurant with Bogart and says to him the best way to enjoy Paris is to “get himself some rain, not just a drizzle but honest to goodness rain…” She talks with the innocence of a woman who always sees the funny side of things as secondary to the feelings the words contain. Of course she is talking nonense, and adds to it when telling Bogart that he is rich and clever and could easily afford the rain, but she offers it well aware that there is affective wisdom within her absurd claims, and we are not surprised to see Bogart falling in love with her. The delivery is so delicate and intimate, so aware of the absurdity she is spouting and the hidden value within that absurdity, that she seems ethereal and without geographical specificity. Bogart in contrast is the American male, afraid of foreign countries, ignorant of the French that Hepburn teaches him a few words of as she sings, and unable to admit to the feelings that are developing even to himself.
Whether it is My Fair Lady or Sabrina the ingenue meeting an older man is clear, but My Fair Lady works a reverse Pygmalionism of its own. Here we have veteran director Georges Cukor trying to turn Hepburn into the working class Eastender for the first section of the film all the better for her to flower into the demure Hepburn people know and love by the end of it. My Fair Lady was made in 1964, a decade after Sabrina, and with Funny Face in between. It wasn’t easy to take Hepburn as a woman without gracefulness and manners after she had spent a decade playing women with these qualities. She could play yet again the young woman schooled, but there was always a sense that whatever background Hepburn had come from, she had been to a decent finishing school along the way. My Fair Lady could have offended many: “You see this creature with her curbstone English?” Professor Higgins says. “The English that will keep her in the gutter till the end of her days? Well, sir, in six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. I could even get her a job as a lady’s maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English.” Yet not only those whose accent lacks polish might be offended; also those who see a Hepburn film for a sophisticated simplicity: to watch someone who seems naturally sophisticated and poised. If the film was a big hit at the time (with a domestic gross of $72 million dollars according to Box Office Mojo) but seems one of the less significant Hepburn films now, it rests perhaps on Hepburn’s impersonation for much of the film which gets in the way of the Hepburn that we conjure up in our mind: an accumulation of a number of roles where we think of the delicacy of movement and the gentle rhythm of her voice.
If we see Hepburn’s persona residing on the thematic interest in the age gap, and the embodiment of grace that she contains in her body, with My Fair Lady emphasising one and semi-eschewing the other, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it can seem the other way round: the main romantic lead here is George Peppard, only a year older than Hepburn, but there is of course her estranged husband, played by Buddy Ebsen, twenty one years Hepburn’s senior. Nevertheless, the emphasis here is on Hepburn’s poise and confidence: the learning curve is back story, nothing more. When she sits leaning out the window singing Moon River as she strums the guitar, this is a woman lost in her own thoughts, not trying to prove anything to anyone else. We might know that in the apartment above Peppard has overheard her playing as he taps away on his typewriter before listening to her out of his window. But she is oblivious to his presence until she finishes singing, looks up and offers him a smile. This is very different from the scene in Funny Face where the whole dance routine is Hepburn making a point. Fred Astaire has turned up and been harping on about traditional values, when Hepburn announces that dance is an expression of bodily energy and needn’t be constrained by such outmoded notions as waiting for the man to ask her to dance. She hits the dance floor with a fury, dressed in panther black, looking like a cat burglar. She is as kinetically charged here as she is laid-back and reflective singing Moon River, but in Breakfast at Tiffany’s she is proving nothing to no one; in Funny Face she is still perorming in the presence of an older man.
In 1986 Hepburn presented the Oscar for best costume design, and in her introduction announces how important designers have been to her career. We can think specifically of her red dress, shoes and scarf in Funny Face, her black Givenchy dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the sandals, button down white shirt and circle skirt in Roman Holiday. Hepburn wasn’t only nurtured into maturity by older men, she was also dressed very carefully and often by women. One of Hollywood’s most famous costume designers, Edith Head, worked with Hepburn several times, including on Roman Holiday, Sabrina and Funny Face. In one interview on YouTube she talks about first working with the star. Since Hepburn hadn’t worked in film before, Head says that it was necessary for the studio to film “what we call a personality test. In other words we wanted see how she could move, how she could walk, and how she would generally look on the screen.” Yet this wasn’t a one way street – with Head dictating terms to Hepburn. On the basis of the screen test Head said she was able to design costumes specfically matching Hepburn’s personality. When Hepburn filmed Sabrina in Paris, Sabina Stent notes in Sight and Sound, “Hepburn had originally hoped to secure a gown from the designer Christóbel Balenciaga for the film, but Balenciaga turned her instead to his former student Givenchy.” “Though the latter had assumed that the visiting Hepburn would be Katharine, he was enthralled by Audrey’s elegance and they formed a lifelong bond: he would refer to Hepburn as his ‘sister’ while she would call him her ‘best friend.’” Any understanding of Hepburn’s cinematic appeal shouldn’t only assume that she was muse and clothes horse for others, but also a personality who knew her own persona and knew how to cultivate it. It might have been Hepburn who had to screen test for Roman Holiday, but it was Head who would then be obliged to find costumes that worked for the actress.
If we have a problem with My Fair Lady it rests on that old notion of miscasting (that the film doesn’t indicate much agency on Hepburn’s part), and perhaps miscasting is where an obvious choice can seem subtly wrong-headed. This is quite different from casting against type, which is a surprise that works. Miscasting is often the apparently appropriate that isn’t. For example, Jeff Bridges wasn’t miscast in Jagged Edge but he probably would have been had he appeared in Taxi Driver: he was lined up to play Travis Bickle. Now superficially, Bridges’ persona would have been closer to Bickle’s than the character he plays in Jagged Edge. Bridges was known in the seventies and early eighties for his drifters and bums, in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Rancho Deluxe, Stay Hungry and Cutter’s Way. Yet there he is in Jagged Edge a suit and tie man who was married to an heiress, and who might possibly himself be a ruthless killer. He turns out to be guilty, and one of the advantages of casting Bridges in the role is that it will come as much more of a surprise than if James Woods had played the part. In Taxi Driver he would probably have been miscast; in Jagged Edge he is cast against type. In My Fair Lady, Hepburn fits the role thematically but not behaviourally. She often plays ingenue but also with a sophistication that makes clear the innocence isn’t easily separable from personal development. She plays for much of the film vulgar and crude, and hits plenty bum notes without even needing to sing a song. It is maybe why the film is now rarely invoked as one of Hepburn’s great movies: it contributes too little to the persona.
So what is this thing we happen be calling the persona, and how does it become so culturally signficant in certain instances, and of far less importance in others? We have already noted that My Fair Lady was a much bigger success financially than Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but if it had never been made would our perception of Hepburn be any different? One thinks not. But if Audrey Hepburn hadn’t appeared in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? This isn’t quite as hypothetical as we might think. Marilyn Monroe was friends with novelist Truman Capote. As Sarah Churchwell notes in the Guardian, “Blake Edwards’s film adaptation was released in 1961, a little less than a year before Monroe died. And much to her disappointment, she didn’t win the part that had been written for, and about, her. Holly could have been the performance of a lifetime – as it would have been the performance of her lifetime. Moreover Holly, despite being blonde, is decidedly not dumb, and Monroe was desperate to escape being typecast. But Hepburn won the part.”
Churchwell reckons that “Hepburn, far more than Monroe, had become indelibly associated with the transformative Cinderella makeover.” She adds “Although Holly, like Monroe – and like Capote, in fact – all sprang from a Platonic conception of themselves (in F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous phrase), for them the fissures between the earlier self and the public persona always showed, and threatened to split them apart. Hepburn was the only one whose stardom seemed to reflect her authentic self – as if she were not an actor but a true princess, an authentic queen.”
This seems consistent with our claim that Hepburn is both made over by others but making herself in the process of this makeover. We couldn’t easily imagine Hepburn in that most famous of makeover films Vertigo, while it wouldn’t have been so difficult to see Monroe in the role: she played a slightly similar one in Henry Hathaway’s Niagara, a film that could have been made by the maestro. Hepburn may often have played vulnerable but this isn’t quite the same thing as being malleable. It was as though her characters knew exactly who they were and what they were capable of. In one scene in Sabrina, Hepburn’s title character returns from Paris and the film acknowledges her transformation from a teenage chauffeur’s daughter to sophisitcated lady in a shot that moves from her feet to her face. We see her dressed in low heels, a black dress and a white hat, before the camera pulls out slowly to show her in medium long shot as she waits for her father to pick her up at the station. She ends up getting a lift from the very man she has named her dog after, her teen love from afar, David: the playboy member of the family for whom her father chauffeurs. He can’t remember her at all, and she has fun playing with the mind of a man who has been for years playing on hers. In this scene Hepburn isn’t silent in awe, but quietly in control, accepting that here is someone who has barely known of her existence; and now can’t believe he hasn’t see her before when she claims they live in the same place. Hepburn shows none of the insecurity we might expect Marilyn Monroe to show in the role: someone who was always sure of her sexuality but never very sure of herself.
This is where we might notice Hepburn was always more Cinderella than Pygmalion, and Churchwell makes much of the Cinderalla aspect to Hepburn’s persona. “Cinderella was not, originally, a poor child raised to the rank of princess. In the stories of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, Cinderella begins life in privilege and wealth – in earlier versions she’s even a princess – who is wrongly deprived of her rightful status by those who envy her power and beauty. It is less a story of metamorphosis than of revelation: the transformation only reveals the original self.” Hepburn was of Dutch aristocracy, and so the Cinderalla notion matches the biography, but we might be more intrigued by the notion that the Cinderalla myth has been around far longer than the Pygmalion story. George Bernard Shaw may have drawn on Ovid for the name of his central character, but Shaw was a 19/20th century reformer, someone along with Sydney and Beatrice Webb who was involved in the Fabian society; interested in social justice and social progress. Perrault was an advisor to Louis the XIV. The pygmalion story suggests transformation within society; Cinderella the natural order of things. In this sense we can read Hepburn’s persona as much more conservative than Monroe’s.
That is one way of looking at film and not to be ignored, but our purpose has been to muse over myth and movies: the figure outside of time and the reality of an actor living within it: aging rather like celluloid itself. That we can talk about Hepburn’s aristocratic upbringing (in contrast to Monroe’s in foster homes and orphanages) is part of the transitory nature of film and the interconnected nature of cinema. People age in front of our eyes, get immortalised by the fixity of the image, and bring to the screen lives that aren’t too far removed from that image. Cary Grant might famously have said everybody wanted to be Cary Grant, even he himself, but of course he was Cary more than most. Nobody was more Audrey Hepburn than Hepburn. This isn’t quite saying Audrey Hepburn the woman and Hepburn the star are one and the same, but they are similar enough for us to draw analogies between the roles played and the person performing it. This is evident in the remarks by Thomson about moving well, and Head’s about designing costumes that suited Hepburn’s demeanour. It is why we can talk of Hepburn’s miscasting in My Fair Lady. It is why an actor can look back on their younger self and envy the beauty, charm and innocence they believe they once possessed.
A stage actor would not have been able to do this in the past: the performance was a moment in time that could only be recollected in memory and press clippings. Theatre performances may now often be recorded and shown in cinemas, but theatre as an art form is oblivious to itself. The play is the thing as over the centuries different actors will perform as Sophocles, King Lear or Nora. But in film the recording is the thing as filmic immortality. As Stanley Cavell says in The World Viewed “recent developments in movie-making seem to me to acknowledge the a priori condition that its medium is photography and its subject reality.” He talks about Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and says, “when we watch her watching her young films, the juxtaposition of the phases of her appearance cuts the knowledge into us, of the movie’s aging and ours, with every frame.” When we read a book or even when we go to the theatre, the medium does not insist on time as an element of the art work in the manner cinema does, in the way Cavell sees it. Cavell pinpoints a nostalgic duplication that can make us feel in the viewing experience our own mortality as well as the actors’ – because their mortality makes us aware of our own. Cary Grant’s statement about wishing to be Cary Grant too has a different inflection if he makes the statement at thirty five as opposed to seventy five. He aged better than most, but aged he did, and so the gap between Archibald Leach and Cary Grant, one that emphasises the difference between the reality and the Hollywood creation, is then emphasised again between the younger self and the older self that Cavell pinpoints.
When we think of Audrey Hepburn we do not tend to have in mind the woman who appears in Robin and Marion, Bloodline and They All Laughed. It is the Hepburn of Roman Holiday, Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The young Hepburn. This isn’t the case with all actors, and we probably have in mind a middle-aged John Wayne over a younger one; Morgan Freeman as a senior figure rather than the Hendrix-like wippet in Brubaker. The scene Cavell quotes from Sunset Boulevard works with some actors; but not with others. Our point rests on cinema working with time, and generating a mythology out of a given period in an actor’s career. This is partly what makes cinema so fascinating an art form, and stardom so important not only to the public’s infatuation with film for much of the 20th century, but also to the philosophy of film: to questions of being and its various modes of division. One might seem to envy Cary Grant, but so would Cary Grant, both as the star he is and the star he was; as the young man struggling to live up to the image, and the older man looking back on the younger self he no longer happens to be. This might also give to cinema stardom a pathos missing from the transcendental and the ordinary: missing from the gods and from the mere every day mortal. The gods are outside of time, and most people have no particular mythical place within it. The star is between these two poles, trapped in an image that somehow appears outside of time (Hepburn is long since dead, but her films from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties will allow her to live far beyond her own lifespan). Just as the gods neither live nor die, so most if us simply live and die. Hepburn, though, lives ‘immortally’ as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as Princess Annne in Roman Holiday, Jo Stockton in Funny Face, the tituler Sabrina, and yes, despite the relative miscasting, as Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady. It is the pact of the image: the star lends a body to the character, and the character immortalises the actor.
From this perspective Hepburn’s first film remains one of her most fascinating. In Roman Holiday the film pointedly announces at the beginning that it was filmed on location in Rome. This can seem both a nod towards the rise of television, with films determined to shoot on exotic locations to remain one step ahead of the small screen, and also a homage to the city so important for Italian neo-realism, which was in turn so important to theories on cinem as a medium of the real. Rome Open City, Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. all utilised the city for realist ends. And the director William Wyler after all was one of the American filmmakers Andre Bazin promoted alongside the neo-realists as a director interested in realism through the use of longer takes. But it also incorporates within its diegesis the problem of a young woman who has no life outside the mediated, who steps out of this world and discovers daily living on the streets of the Italian capital. At the beginning of the film she is cooped up in her hotel room receiving the schedule for the next day, and the gifts she will be offered and will accept or refuse. She would prefer to be dead, Hepburn says, and comes to life when she escapes from the residency and ends up sleeping on the street before getting picked up by journalist Gregory Peck. It isn’t the story that interests us here, especially; more the idea of Hepburn cast in a role that asks certain questions coinciding with our own: this notion of the immortal and the mortal; the transcendent and the everyday. Anne is a figurehead, a god who steps down from her lofty position above others, and finds pleasure in becoming an ordinary mortal. By the end of the film she will return to what everyone calls her duty, but knows that everything she says is inflected with a truth that remains forever sub-textual. While at the beginning she will be expected to make statements that remain bland and neutral, by the conclusion she admits that Rome has been the most interesting place on her European tour, and offers remarks that create complicity between her and Peck at a press conference of thousands.
The scene encapsulates well the idea of a goddess coming down to earth to mingle with the mortals, and going back up to the heavens well aware that absolute values count for little unless tested in the world. Is this what we expect from stardom: a sense that while the great stars are a little like gods, we also want from them an aspect that reflects a world of which they are a part? They might be there to serve the dream factory, but only if they can incorporate some aspect of the reality principle.
There are no doubt those who have little interest in stardom, seeing it as a capitalist production system and that cinema should promote the everyday to the detriment of the celebrity. Much can be said for this, from neo-realism to cinema verite we have had films eschewing the star, but if cinema has often been interesting it hasn’t been because it has rejected stardom; more that it has expanded it beyond narrow parameters. This is one of the pleasures of kitchen sink realism, where actors like Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Alan Bates would play lead roles instead of minor suppporting ones, and of black cinema of the seventies, with Richard Roundtree, Yaphet Kotto and Pam Grier becoming stars. They became ‘elevated’ figures, suggesting a persona across a range of films. We get to know them as types: if they appeared only in one film as a non-professional this wouldn’t be possible.
Yet of course there are degrees of stardom: Pam Grier reflects a moment in time, and Finney likewise. They may have had careers stretching decades, but it is Finney’s work from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning to Charlie Bubbles, from 1960 to 1967, and Grier’s around the time of Coffy and Foxy Brown, in the early to mid seventies, that defines their celebrity. Of course we have proposed this is true also of Audrey Hepburn: her signficant roles were within a decade and a half, yet the question isn’t always one of longevity, and what we usually find is whether a star is famous for fifty years or for ten we fix in our head a particular moment. We don’t remember Chaplin as the man with grey hair in Limelight or A King in New York – it is the figure from City Lights and Modern Times. Even if Marilyn Monroe had lived till her eighties, it would almost certainly be for the roles in the fifties for which she would be remembered. Longevity is of far less importance than intensity, with even Clint Eastwood simply augmenting and modifying his image into old age. Yet Hepburn’s importance rests on a certain paradox: she was an enormous star of the time, but has become an even bigger icon in more recent years, which is why we have talked about the importance of Breakfast at Tiffany’s over My Fair Lady, even if the latter was a much bigger box-office success.
This notion of iconic status very clearly transcends time in the way that perhaps stardom initself does not. When Finney appeared opposite Hepburn in Two for the Road, this was an example of an actor of his era meeting an icon in the making in hers. Finney plays the difficult and demanding boyfriend as a sixties macho who allows Hepburn to do everything for him, and rather than seeing someone whom he needs, he instead regards himself worryingly reliant upon her. “Beware the indispensable woman” he reckons. While in Roman Holiday the romance is impossible because of Hepburn’s status as a princess who must dedicate herself to her country; the romance is impossible here because Finney plays an impossible man. He is someone who regards his autonomy as paramount, evident even in little moments. When the pair of them are hitchhiking he says: “the trouble is there’s two of us. That’s the basis of the whole trouble.” Near the end of the film, after it looks like they might be moving towards divorce in this most temporally entangled of romances, as it flashes backwards and forwards, Hepburn says: “that we’re a fixture, that we’re married.” Finney can’t quite countenance that it is two for the road and not one.
We have talked a lot about Hepburn appearing opposite older men, but here it is the reverse, with Finney eight years her junior: he is a younger man who wants to keep his options opens and his opportunities varied. This is partly Finney playing youthful, but it also the actor reflecting his moment: someone who knows that he has so many more possibilities than the prevous generation and doesn’t want to be hampered from exploring them. Hepburn in Roman Holiday is the woman encased in class and privilege (the film came out the same year as the Queen Elizabeth’s coronation); Finney in Two for the Road the Englishman escaping from class limits and exploring his freedom: Finney and Hepburn meet travelling across France.
However when we look at the film now we see that Finney’s part could have been played by numrous actors of the time; Hepburn appears much more singular. As they walk early in the film and at the beginning of their relationship, Finney does a Bogart impersonation and says he has no intention of staying with her. It makes sense that he does Bogart. As Alexander Walker says in his book Stardom, Bogart was a major influence on the modern actor – on Brando, Dean, Clift, Newman and McQueen. Someone who in Walker’s words “was committed only to himself.” When near the end he says “I love you” it is offered by the taciturn man of the sixties, socially, but by Finney the actor who cannot help but echo numerous performances before him too. When Hepburn replies saying “Oh and I love you”, the vowels are stretched with feeling, the words of a woman who wants to share her world and not keep it all to herself. It is singularly Hepburn.
It is perhaps in her capacity to breathe so much feeling into words that gives Hepburn this singularity. Just as Monroe could blow words out of her mouth with seductive force, as if every words is a kiss, Hepburn inhales and exhales as she speaks as though each word is a gesture of love. Monroe can steal hearts; Hepburn wins them. Monroe can turn on the charm; Hepburn cannot avoid offering it. In an interview on Youtube where she talks in 1963 about the differences between working in the US and Europe, Hepburn is asked if she is happy to be back in the States and she replies that “oh I’m thrilled”, a remark that we could hear from any number of other actresses who want to make it clear that she is ripe and ready to work with anyone offering her a role, but that she says with the emotional tenor of someone being asked if they are happy to see long lost friends. It is this capacity to put into a bland statement the emotional resonance of the most significant aspect that so often comes through in Hepburn’s performances. It is the ability to give one’s voice an affective force. Just as there are actors who can suggest a strong will and a difficult life in every word they utter (Richard Burton), a hurt sincerity (James Stewart), or a sour authority (John Wayne), Hepburn more than most seems to conjure up happy times with an awareness of loss when she speaks. It gives her words both weight and lightness, a very bearable lightness of being.
We opened by using as an example of stardom Cary Grant, and so we shall end it by mentioning him again, aware that one of his final films was co-starring with Hepburn in spy thriller Charade, another age-gap romance, with Grant twenty four years Hepburn’s senior. What interests us here is the closing scene, and also what these age-gap romances tell us about cinema ontologically, taking into account Cavell’s remarks earlier about the juxtaposition of phases in a life. As Hepburn discovers Cary Grant is yet again not who she thinks he is, he slips in a declaration of love. When she realises what he is saying she goes to kiss him and says “I love you Adam, Alex, Peter, Brian, whatever your name is.” The film then ends on a series of small screens showing the different aspects of Grant throughout the film. From a certain point of view this is Hepburn as conservative icon: someone for whom marriage is the be all and end all of life, even if she doesn’t strictly know who she is marrying. The whole point of the film is that she didn’t know her previous husband either: he hid under an assumed name, and here she will be marrying another man of dubious nomenclature.
Yet what interests us more is the idea that Hepburn often played opposite men both many years her senior, and also quite major figures in their own right, and in their own era. Astaire, Bogart, Grant and Cooper were not merely stars: they were bywords for grace, integrity, sophistication and masculine vulnerability respectively. But they were also in the Hepburn films, men past their prime, and watching them opposite Hepburn is a little like Swanson watching her own films in Sunset Boulevard. By quoting Cavell on other films we might feel it is equally valid to Cooper and co’s appearance in Hepburn’s: “these films are appropriate vehicles for carrying this effect of aging, because they are about returning, about making a comeback, or going back to beginnings; we are meant to remember their stars as having been there, or somewhere in the same territory, when they and we were young.”
How can we not have this in mind when watching a youthful Hepburn falling for aging men? What it makes clear is one of the main points of this piece: that cinema is both a mythic form and an existential reality. The actor is immortalised as character and fixed in celluloid, but also aging in a real world of which they cannot escape, and that certain films, as Cavell acknowledges, point up. Hepburn didn’t quite disappear from cinema as Garbo did, leaving her youthful image as the only one available to viewers, and indeed appeared in Robin and Marion as an aging version of the youthful heroine from folklore. It was a clear example of what Cavell talks about, as we watch Hepburn unavoidably commenting on her own youthful self by appearing as a mythic character who is known for that youthfulness, for being Maid Marion. Yet it is in films like Sabrina and Funny Face where we see that question of cinema as myth-making machine and at the same time an “example of death at work” (in Cocteau’s beautiful phrase). It was death at work that would take Bogart three years after Sabrina, and Cooper a couple of years after Love in the Afternoon. But it takes everyone after a while, and the best cinema can do, and in some way what cinema is best at doing, is creating little moments of immortality out of the mortality of our lives. It makes bearable the lightness of our being.