Two for the Hepburn Road

Two for the Hepburn Road

Posted by Mike Finnegan on May 4th 2018

To mark what would have been the 89th birthday of the beautiful Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), Turner Classic Movies airs seven of her films today, among them a couple that earned her Best Actress Academy Award® nominations (1959’s The Nun’s Story and 1967’s Wait Until Dark).Seeing as how any day with a Hepburn performance in it is a cause for celebration, Twilight Time offers its own pair of Hepburn gems in glistening widescreen Panavision high-definition, each marking her third collaboration with monumentally talented directors who instinctively knew how to present her to maximum advantage, even as she was paired, unlike some previous projects, with leading men younger than she, yet made for terrific chemistry and cinematic sparkle on beautiful Paris and French Riviera locations. 

Reteaming with her Roman Holiday and The Children’s Hour director William Wyler, she plays the chicly dressed, game-for-adventure daughter of a roguish art forger drawn by desperate circumstances into a high-stakes museum heist with canny detective Peter O’Toole in the breezy How to Steal a Million (1966). It fit her like a velvet glove; as biographer Donald Spoto wrote in his 2006 Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn: “[Agent] Kurt Frings had negotiated with Wyler and Twentieth Century Fox to ensure that Audrey would be supported by her now customary and loyal allies: Givenchy clothed her (in no less than two-dozen outfits); Grazia De Rossi styled her hair and Alberto De Rossi her makeup; and Charles Lang was the cinematographer – all of whom made it possible for Audrey to look considerably younger than her 36 years. This team, and the amiable, relaxed working style of O’Toole, made for an agreeable summer’s employment, and Audrey’s performance in the film – nothing so demanding as My Fair Lady – was impressively unfussy, which was exactly what the script required. Gregory Peck had been on the mark when he said that she should have done much more comedy during her career. For Wyler and O’Toole, much of the pleasure of making How to Steal a Million was their casual punctuation of the dialogue with improvised jokes that reward the casual listener. At one point in their plot to steal a fake statue, O’Toole dresses Audrey in the drab garb of a museum cleaning servant. That will do just fine, he says, looking at the unflattering outfit. For what? Audrey wants to know – and O’Toole replies quietly, ‘Well, it gives Givenchy a night off.’ Delivered as a throwaway remark of no special significance, it was but one of several inside jokes relished by the cast and crew.” 

However, her next trifecta-concluding venture, for her Funny Face and Charade director Stanley Donen, veered sharply out of her comfort zone: Two for the Road (1967), written by Darling and Far from the Madding Crowd scribe Frederic Raphael. Spoto recounted: “The screenplay covered a 12-year period in a marriage threatened by routine, infidelity, remorse, mistaken cues, fallow hopes – and occasionally buoyed by shared satisfaction, warm memories and indelible moments of love, support and empathetic understanding. The story was not told in strict chronology, but rather by bending backward and forward in time, interlocking episodes as they are evoked by one or another event or recollection – all of it supporting the notion that relationships do indeed proceed along an uncertain road with unforeseen curves and turns. The road itself was in fact a character in the script, present in every sequence. When she read the script, Audrey was wary of the content and protective of her mage. The seriocomic dialogue was acerbic, often cynical, and the character of Joanna, the wife who changes and matures – not always admirably – was not at all prettified from Raphael’s primary idea. Perhaps the most unsettling element for her was not the character’s infidelity, or even the frank bedroom scenes, but rather the disturbing parallels of the couple to her own marriage [to actor/director/producer Mel Ferrer], then in its 12th year.” Ferrer nonetheless urged her to do it, and the care exerted by Donen and her camaraderie with screen partner Albert Finney won her over. Donen established a challenging ground rule; according to Audrey Hepburn: A Charmed Life author Robyn Karney, “Donen was adamant that there was to be no Givenchy. Nervous of the significant, albeit necessary, change of image that the film was to bring for her, this caused her some distress. However, freed of the constraints of the ‘hautest’ of haute couture by the then fashionable, off-the-peg clothes of Ken Scott, Michèle Rosier, Paco Rabanne, Mary Quant, Foale and Tuffin and others, she exhibits an uninhibited physicality that is immensely attractive. The film also has her playing the clown, capitalizing on her sense of fun and her generally underused comic gifts. Always a great giggler, with a penchant for making jokes and funny faces, she found a soul-mate in Finney. They adored each other, often causing havoc on the set as they dissolved into helpless laughter. Many who worked with her on that film commented that, in life as well as on the screen, a new Audrey emerged – freer, more extrovert, ‘one of the gang’ – although there was no mistaking the underlying sadness. Frederic Raphael said of her, ‘Audrey’s capacity to give a number of variant readings to the dialogue, even of unimportant phrases, from which you could select the most suitable, was remarkable. She monitored herself, as a speaker of lines, with singular accuracy…she combined naturalism with a sort of stylized reticence to a rare degree.’ He also said of her finished performance, ‘I don’t think I have ever seen a performance more manifestly worthy of the Oscar®, if that matters, than Audrey’s in Two for the Road.” As the twists and turns of 1967 dictated, Academy Award® attention would focus on Hepburn’s other 1967 performance in the more conventional Wait Until Dark, and Two for the Road would have to travel a bit of distance in time and reevaluation to be more thoughtfully assessed and embraced. However, birthday lady Hepburn is for all time anytime, never more appealing than in How to Steal a Million and Two for the Road on TT Blu-ray.