In her first major starring role, Audrey Hepburn burst onto the world stage with an Oscar-winning performance as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. She is most famous for these fairy tale roles, but she proved, from the very start, that she was a serious actress with enormous talent. The evolution of her career and her screen persona can be traced throughout three films – Roman Holiday, The Nun’s Story, and Two for the Road. In Roman Holiday, she defined the role of the gamine. The Nun’s Story, a very subdued drama in which she plays a nun struggling with her faith, marked a drastic departure. While Two for the Road was not her last film, it represents the peak of her career. It is her best and most mature performance. She plays Joanna, a very real woman with flaws dealing with the breakdown of her marriage. The sections on the individual films focus on detailed descriptions of her performances, as well as the differences in the personas. There is also biographical research and analysis, as these films point to and often parallel aspects of her personal life, such as her not-so-innocent childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, her charity work, and her own children and relationships, including a marriage that was falling apart while she was making Two for the Road. Roman Holiday, The Nun’s Story, and Two for the Road are arguably the three most significant achievements in a tremendous career and display her growth as an actress and a person. Her influence, as a movie star and as a human being, is simply unmatched.
On the surface, Roman Holiday might appear to be the quintessential lighthearted romance, but in fact, it “may have been the first romantic comedy with an unhappy ending” (Harris 91). It was also her first major introduction to the world in an American film. Under the skilled direction of William Wyler, Hepburn deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actress. Tired of her responsibilities, Princess Ann asserts her independence by venturing out into Rome alone. Unfortunately, this outing is hampered by the effects of a tranquilizer given to her by her doctor after she throws a tantrum in defiance of duty. When reporter Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, meets Ann, she is lying face down on a bench. Nearly catatonic, she still remembers her manners. Almost falling off the bench, Joe catches her, and she spouts the pleasantries, “Thank you very much. Delighted. No, thank you. Charmed.” Looking up at him, Hepburn nods slightly in assessment and flicks her hand in a casual, yet assertive, way. “You may sit down,” she mumbles dismissively. Hepburn convincingly conveys the debilitating effects of a tranquilizer while at the same time showing how ingrained Ann’s royal duties are in her.
By the end of their magical day together, Joe and Ann have, of course, fallen in love, but Princess Ann grimly chooses her life of duty over love. In the presence of her advisers, she stiffens, her jaw set firmly, and crisply spits at them, her voice somber with emotion, “Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and my country, I would not have come back tonight. Or, indeed, ever again.” This is a completely different Ann from the wide-eyed, spoiled girl who jumps around on her bed and throws tantrums at the start of the film. She has grown up, and that naiveté is gone. Duty has a high price, but she accepts her fate with cool resolve. Hepburn expresses Ann’s radical transformation and pain with her cynical tone, firm expression, and watery eyes. At a press interview the next day, where Ann discovers Joe’s true identity as a reporter (his love has, naturally, caused him to abandon his scoop on her), she is asked which city she enjoyed the most. She starts to reply diplomatically, but her true feelings come out, “Rome. By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.” A smile crosses her face as she says this confidently, looking right at Joe. Hepburn’s voice is deliberate and full of emotion, and her face brightens as Ann vocalizes her love in veiled terms.
In addition to her fragile home life, Hepburn contended with World War II firsthand while living in Holland. “For five long and appalling years, from the time she was eleven until she was sixteen, Audrey lived under the Nazi occupation of Arnhem in conditions of terror, poverty, and deprivation…” (Morley 18). The war inflicted emotional trauma on Hepburn, but it took a toll on her physically, as well. “The malnutrition that Audrey suffered throughout the war also permanently affected her metabolism…Just keeping herself from becoming too thin was a lifelong struggle” (Harris 45). All of these experiences forced Hepburn to grow up fast, and the sweet innocence she portrays so convincingly in her films conceals maturity and wisdom. Despite these hard times, she managed to retain a fabulous sense of humor. While in an elevator with ex-fiancé James Hanson, two women were speaking Dutch about Hepburn, and they figured they were safe since no one else could possibly understand Dutch. “`We didn’t say a word to each other, but just before we got out, she rattled a stream of Dutch at me as if I was just as much a native speaker as she. They had been talking about her in a rather bitchy way, and they were in shock as we got out’” (qtd. in Paris 74). This example demonstrates her uncanny ability to make the best out of any situation.
With The Nun’s Story, Audrey Hepburn dramatically altered her screen persona. “Having played mostly ingenues and Cinderellas to date, Hepburn decided it was time to prove herself as a serious dramatic actress in a part that submerged her own sunny personality beneath a much deeper set of emotions” (Paris 142). Directed by Fred Zinnemann, Hepburn delivers a remarkably restrained performance, but that restraint makes it more powerful. She relies on her voice, gestures, and facial expressions to convey a raging inner struggle. The character of Sister Luke (originally Gabrielle van der Mal) possesses independence in a vocation that requires blind obedience. Right away, it is obvious that Sister Luke is not the typical nun. While prostrating herself on the floor, Hepburn peeks up at her superior over her folded arms, while all of the other nuns-in-training are looking at the ground. Upon eye contact, Sister Luke hastily places her head down. With her tentative and curious expression, Hepburn captures Sister Luke’s true spirit.
When her father visits her after she returns from the Congo, he expresses concern over her emotional well-being. He asks how she is “in here,” indicating his heart. Her tired face plastered with a peaceful smile, she pauses and averts her eyes before countering, “How are you in there?” With this question, she playfully touches his chest. Hepburn makes Sister Luke’s coy dismissal effective with a very powerful gesture, one of the best in the entire film. World War II continues to strain Sister Luke’s faith, but when her father is killed by Nazis, that is her final breaking point. She can no longer deny who she is, and she decides that she will be more useful helping the war effort. In the final poignant shot of the film, after Sister Luke changes out of her religious garments and becomes Gabrielle again, Hepburn slowly walks out of the open door into the world. The camera remains steady as she walks, and each step feels heavy with meaning. At the end of the street, Hepburn hesitates briefly, but then she confidently turns right and walks away, expressing Gabrielle’s defiant approval of her choice. In The Nun’s Story, Audrey Hepburn’s performance is all about control and restraint. While it is probably her most subdued role, it is certainly one of her most powerful, because she expresses so much with so little.
In Two for the Road, Audrey Hepburn delivers the most complex performance of her career. Director Stanley Donen “calls Two for the Road the first Audrey Hepburn movie to deal with the aftermath rather than the initial euphoria of falling in love” (Paris 234). The film spans twelve years in the marriage of Mark (Albert Finney) and Joanna Wallace, but their story is cleverly told out of sequence, leaping around in time and space. The audience receives clues in the form of hair, clothing, and car models, but it really forces the viewer to pay close attention and make connections, creating a rewarding viewing experience. As Joanna Wallace, Hepburn shows off her skill and range. After she meets Mark, all of her traveling companions have come down with chicken pox, and when the final unaffected one starts to scratch, Hepburn teases her. She just says the girl’s name, Jackie, but she draws it out in a mocking, accusatory tone. Then, she starts to make clucking noises like a chicken, getting shriller with every cluck. Finally, her clucks trail off into laughter. This scene wonderfully highlights her playfulness.
When Joanna returns to Mark after having an affair, Hepburn creates a heartbreaking portrait of a truly repentant woman. He is stubborn at first, so she keeps trying. Her face contorted with pain, she insists in a choked voice, “Mark, I’m back!” He tells her that she has returned after humiliating him. She stares at him intensely, pleading, and then she nods her head, beginning to cry. Through her tears, she practically gasps, “That’s right.” Just when everything seems okay, Mark makes a snide comment the way husbands do, and Joanna runs outside. When he follows her, he ends up tripping and falling into the pool. As this happens, Hepburn expresses so much with facial expressions. She looks at him, furrows her brow, bites her lip, and cocks her head to the side, smiling. In addition to looking apologetic, her face is a mixture of love, adoration, and pity that the poor jerk fell into the pool. Hepburn is astounding in her ability to convey such a wide range of emotions in such a short period of time.
At the end of the film, Joanna and Mark have basically realized that their marriage may not be perfect, but they are perfect for each other. In the final scene, Mark frantically searches for his passport in the car. As he looks in the trunk, Joanna calmly places it on the steering wheel. When he sees it, it prompts one of the most poignant and appropriate endings in film history. He challenges, “Bitch.” She replies, with a note of amusement in her voice, “Bastard.” These words, the perfect terms of endearment for them, are said very affectionately, almost like foreplay. Actually, the fact that she always has his passport (this is not the first time he misplaced it in the film) sums up their relationship, because marriage is about the little things just like that. Almost forty years after its release, Two for the Road is still relevant and incredibly truthful. Everyone who has been in a serious relationship has gone through the same euphoria, uncertainty, and pointless arguments. In this film, Hepburn wears a bathing suit, talks about sex, has an affair, and even swears, quite a contrast from a princess and a nun. However, her biggest achievement in Two for the Road is portraying the most realistic character of her career, complete with human vulnerabilities, in a truly mature and sincere performance. In fact, even though it was not her last film, Two for the Road represents the culmination of the evolution of her screen persona.
In one of her most uninhibited moments in a film, Audrey Hepburn, as Joanna Wallace, blasts Albert Finney with water from the shower head and demands to know, “Do you love me? Do you? Do you?” How can the answer be anything but a resounding yes?