(On Cable TV, January 2019) The premise of The Nun’s Story doesn’t sound like a good mix: Audrey Hepburn playing a noviciate nun? Her better-known screen roles aren’t anywhere near that type of character, and yet she successfully delivered an intense dramatic performance here, solidifying her ingénue superstar status with several accolades for her acting talent. Coming almost exactly in the middle of her film career, some have called the movie Hepburn’s finest dramatic performance, and that sounds about right even if you think that comic performances are often more challenging. At first, The Nun’s Story does feel like a wandering procedural about the life of a noviciate, going through the somewhat dull process of the apprenticeship required for a young woman to take her vows. For a rather long time, the film navigates a fine line between being boring and interesting, as it doesn’t hurry through its protagonist’s apprenticeship even after taking her vows. But The Nun’s Story does become far more interesting—and relevant to Hepburn’s life—once the last act rolls around and suddenly the Nazis invade the movie. That’s the point when we can understand Hepburn’s interest for the role (after all, she did serve in the Dutch Resistance as a teenager), and the film becomes far more interesting in opposing obedience versus the moral imperative to resist the occupation. The conclusion feels very appropriate to the character. The direction and cinematography could have been a bit stronger, but even in their current state they do carry the film to a satisfying conclusion. Anyone who feels restless during the first half of The Nun’s Story should stick around—it’s laying down the groundwork for later moral choices, and the film sharply improves in time for its conclusion just as Hepburn herself comes back to the fore.
(In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) If you want to understand why so many people love Audrey Hepburn as an actress, as a style icon or even as a person, you can start with Breakfast at Tiffany’s … or you can start with Sabrina. I know which one I’d pick: Despite Breakfast at Tiffany’s little black dress, Sabrina has Hepburn in a far more suitable role, avoids many of the unpleasant edges of the other film, and showcases Hepburn at the very beginning of her long association with high fashion. It’s also, to put it bluntly, a better movie. Here we have Humphrey Bogart, certainly too old for Hepburn at thirty years her senior but playing a fascinating deviation on his usual persona as a sophisticated businessman thrown in a romantic role. Plot-wise, Sabrina is filled with tricky material—the acknowledged age difference, the class issues, the messy familial romantic entanglements, heck the opening scene’s suicide attempt—but it succeeds largely because of writer/director Billy Wilder’s typically light touch on difficult material. The intriguing glimpse at the life of New York’s upper-class set is window dressing for a romance that’s not as clear-cut as in many other movies of the period, and that’s the territory in which Wilder excelled. Still, for most, Sabrina will be enjoyable on a purely aesthetic level: This is the movie that first paired Audrey Hepburn with Paris (even if only in studio shots), and also the film that launched her lifelong association with Givenchy. Sabrina is far less sappy and mindless than you’d expect from a mid-1950s romance, and that’s what gives it enduring power—plus Bogart and Hepburn, of course.
(On Cable TV, January 2019) On paper, Funny Face looks like a perfect combination: A musical comedy with Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn and Paris. Thankfully, the film lives up to expectations: Fred Astaire dances as well as he can, and while Hepburn isn’t quite as much of a dancer as some of Astaire’s other screen partners, she did have dancing (and singing!) chops and couldn’t possibly be cuter as an intellectual bookseller—even Hollywood’s idea of an intellectual bookseller. Paris and Hepburn were a regular item (“Bonjour, Paris !”), but they look great together and the film doesn’t miss a chance to use a French stereotype when it can. (I had to laugh at the spat between two bohemian Parisians: “Salaud ! Dégueulasse ! *Slap* *Kiss*”) Unlike some musicals, Funny Face does have strong comic elements: The look at a fashion magazine—Astaire plays a fashion photographer—is amusing, and seeing both Astaire and Hepburn as black-clad undercover beatniks is hilarious especially as they skewer the philosophical excesses of Left-Bank thinkers. (Alas, Funny Face does have an anti-intellectual bent, but so it goes in musicals.) The romantic ending is more conventional and not as interesting, but as usual the fun is getting there. Less fortunately, you do have to get over the usual Astaire romantic issues in liking the film: His characters are often written as having revolting ideas about consent in the face of romantic persistence (“No” usually means “try again later with more charm” in his movies) and there’s a thirty-year difference between Astaire and Hepburn. That last item used to infuriate me, but then I recently realized that very few people could keep up with Astaire as a dancer—younger actresses at least had a chance to move as quickly and gracefully as he did. (It’s not much of an excuse, but it’s the one I cling to.) If you can manage to get past that, Funny Face is a perfectly charming and enjoyable musical, somewhere between a classic and a strong representative entry in the genre. (While technically a Paramount production, a number of key crewmembers such as director Stanley Donen were from MGM’s legendary Freed unit.) Plus, of course, it’s an essential piece of Hepburn’s filmography by showcasing her at her best.
(On TV, October 2018) I wasn’t expecting much from mid-1960s comedy How to Steal a Million except that it starred Audrey Hepburn, but I quickly grew charmed by the result. Hepburn plays the daughter of an art counterfeiter, trying her best to avoid her father’s handiwork from being discovered by appraisal experts. To this end, she befriends a burglar and quickly finds herself planning a museum heist. The plot is good enough to allow Hepburn to play her ingenue best (in her mid-thirties!), bouncing off Peter O’Toole’s charm and the fatherly attention of Hugh Griffith. Hepburn being her usual lovable self, the film unfolds at a pleasantly breezy pace, once again reuniting her with Paris and haute couture. It’s not necessarily one of Hepburn’s best movies, but she delivers here a quintessential performance: Funny, charming, intensely likable and more than cute. As a result, How to Steal a Million is the kind of film that isn’t necessarily listed as an essential 1960s film but packs a lot of entertainment. It’s perhaps best approached as a happy discovery.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) It does take a while before Charade comes into focus. It begins strangely, with a contrived meet-cute at a ski resort in the Alps that turns into an even stranger succession of events once the heroine comes back to Paris to find out that her husband has died, a large amount of money is missing, and three strangers really hated her ex-husband. The artificiality of the setup is almost overpowering, and even the comforting presences of Audrey Hepburn as the widow and Cary Grant as a mysterious free agent aren’t quite enough to unpack the heavy-handed setup. But as the deaths and double-crosses being to pile up, Charade does acquire a nice velocity, and even answers the questions raised in the first act. Hepburn is adorable as the endangered heroine, despite being too young for the role. Meanwhile, Grant is terrific as someone who may or may not be friendly—he’s occasionally very funny (ha, that shower scene!), and his last grimace of self-revelation at the very end is like seeing a split-second callback to the classic comedies early in his career. Also noteworthy as supporting roles for Walter Matthau, George Kennedy and James Coburn. Great scores and visual design by Henry Mancini and Saul Bass round up an impressive crew. Surprisingly not directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Charade is increasingly endearing the longer it goes on, and satisfyingly blends romance, comedy and suspense. It’s well worth watching. Just make sure to give it more than thirty minutes to make sense.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My issues with big Hollywood musicals (especially in their classic pre-seventies period) are simple. They feel interminable, often because (being frequently adapted from endless Broadway musicals) they take narrative breaks during their songs. The song starts and unless it’s a toe-tapper, it’s just as possible to go get a snack and come back in time for the conclusion of the song, at which point nothing will have changed. When the musical is good, it usually gets better toward the end as there is (finally!) some dramatic movement. So it is that much of My Fair Lady is underwhelming, especially at first. The Pygmalion plot being presented piece by piece, we frequently have to stop in order to let the characters have their say and present themselves. Audrey Hepburn is cuteness personified as a coarse commoner being groomed into becoming a passable member of London’s high society, while Rex Harrison is his own brand of fun as a highly self-confident phonetics professor. The film’s big insight that manners make the woman is cogently put, but it does take a while to get there. The film does get better midway through, as the comedy of manners training finally takes off and the female lead is tested in her introduction to high society. The subplot about her family does drag, and My Fair Lady becomes less interesting the more it remembers that it had to deliver a romance in addition to the class comedy. But ultimately, the charm of the lead actors eventually wins out on the way to a predictable conclusion. The film can be watched today and only feel slightly stuffy—the period setting does help a lot in breaking the film out of its production date. While I’m reasonably satisfied with the end result, I still wish it would have been shorter.
(On Cable TV, July 2013) The problem with not having seen some classic movies is that after finally watching them, you wonder what took you so long. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is essential viewing for at least two reasons: First up would be Audrey Hepburn, as beautiful and lively in this film as she has been in 1961. Photos of her in her “little black dress” may be iconic, but you have to see the film to understand what made her a star. The second reason to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s would be her character, Holly Golightly: As the incarnation of a newly-created character in American culture (the single young girl, enjoying life in the city), Holly would end up being the template for decades of similar characters all the way to Sex and the City’s lead characters. The impact of the film is considerable even today, and that’s partly why it can’t be missed even today. (The showcase party sequence still feels surprisingly modern.) Ironically, the film also deserves to be seen for the ways in which it undermines its own cultural legacy: Golightly may have been made an object of admiration and imitation by latter generations of single women, but the film fairly clearly underlines the desperation of her life, meddling with the mob and borderline-prostitution in order to make ends meet, her bubbly facade barely concealing a child-like mind barely able to cope with her current situation. A read of Truman Capote original bittersweet novella only serves to highlight the very thin veneer of fun that the film puts over a rather sad situation: it’s hard to watch the film’s happy ending and feel that it won’t last very long. (It’s also hard to watch the film and not cringe at Mickey Rooney’s crudely stereotypical portrayal of a Japanese character: While that kind of thing may have been acceptable half a century ago, it’s the one single thing that most damages and dates the film.) For all of these reasons, and probably a few more than I’m forgetting, Breakfast at Tiffany’s remains essential viewing well into the twenty-first century.