Documentary Review: “Audrey” reaches for the woman behind the film and fashion icon

The first words that come to mind when we think of the late Audrey Hepburn probably do her a grave disservice.

As the film critic Molly Haskell argues in the new documentary about Hepburn, “chic” and “fashion icon” and any word associated with her extraordinary appearance — the eternal Euro-gamine — might bring her instantly to mind. But “she so exceeds” mere descriptors like that, even if that’s how we remember her.

Helena Coan’s “Audrey” is a lovely gloss on a lovely, but too-short and too-troubled life, one of the last legends created in Golden Age of Hollywood studios (Paramount), an actress whose mystique outlived her and whose decade of charity work ripples ever outward, nearly 30 years after her death.

As great artists like to trace their training to this teacher who learned from Liszt or that one who studied under Stanislavsky, most famous UNICEF children’s charity ambassadors trace their involvement back to Hepburn — either directly, like her recruits Peter Ustinov and Roger Moore, or indirectly a generation later (Jolie, etc).

In her own words — generously sampled here in voice-over from radio, TV and filmed interviews — Hepburn reminds us that her great love, her first love was dance. Her realizing that World War II had taken her prima ballerina dream from her, then thinking “I was never very good” when she transitioned to musical theater, we get a hint of just how fortunate she and film fans are.

No mere dancer and few dancing actresses can make any great claim of fame. Hepburn, who danced in a few films in her time, became immortal through cinema, an actress with a dancer’s lightness and grace.

Friends, family, even descendants who barely knew her (and descendants of those who photographed her) sing her praises in “Audrey.” Colleagues such as Richard Dreyfuss (“Always”) and Peter Bogdanovich (“They All Laughed” speak glowingly of her work, and no-nonsense critic Haskell is here to state the obvious.

“You couldn’t take your eyes off of her” in person or on the screen.

Coan’s movie is most reliant on family and mid to late life connections from her personal life — her Roman and later Tolochenaz (Switzerland) neighbors. There are a lot more people who worked with her in film still around than the couple included here.

Coan’s film is more concerned with the broader strokes of her career, and the mostly-lovelorn life she experienced, from childhood until the last years before her death in 1993, when cancer took her at just 63.

So there’s no film-by-film breakdown of her movies, just the highlights — “Roman Holiday,” “Breakfast at Tiffanies,” a little “My Fair Lady ” We get instead lots of sweeping generalizations about her gift and her enduring appeal, an anecdote about saving the song “Moon River,” another about her panic at being dubbed in “My Fair Lady.”

I’ve read a biography or two about her, and don’t recall any that out and out called her parents, who split when she was six, upper class fascists — dyed-in-the-wool Nazi sympathizers.

Dutch-Belgian aristocrats, they doubled down on their beliefs when they shipped her from boarding school in London into Holland shortly before the Germans rolled through the Low Countries and occupied the continent for the next five years. Worried about what the Luftwaffe would do to Britain, they bet on the wrong horse.

She often repeated the story of how malnourished she and the other children of her Dutch generation were, and how that made her ripe for recruiting to UNICEF in the ’80s.

The film’s focus on that unloved childhood and her two marriages that turned sour underscores the ways she must have been unhappy, especially after her early retirement from films. But it also limits the film’s chance to show us the many magical moments she created on the screen.

At least we’re treated to a nice sampling of those images where the petite, pan-European, multi-lingual pixie with the elegant “line” to her frame — one that designers from Givenchy onward glorified — achieved something like onscreen perfection.

MPA Rating: TV-14

Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Richard Dreyfuss, Molly Haskell,

Emma Hepburn Ferrer, Sean Hepburn Ferrer, Peter Bogdanovich

Credits: Directed by Helena Coan. A Universal release on Netflix.

Running time: 1:40

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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