There are many films starring Audrey Hepburn, and sadly I won’t talk about them all. Some retain some grace despite their lack of good directing (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) or casting mistakes (Sabrina, My Fair Lady, War and Peace). Hepburn, always perfect, is the light that pervades and that makes these films classics that will be remembered. Among these flawed films, one of them is particularly endearing. Though time has taken its toll on Mel Ferrer’s Green Mansions (1959), the picture remains charming to watch. Seeing Hepburn through the eyes of her husband triggers some emotion. But, most of all, this film has brought us Bob Willoughby’s best work. The famous photographer has immortalized Audrey in the role of Rima, a young girl living in the forest in complete harmony with nature. These photographs are amongst the most beautiful taken of Audrey, the light illuminating her Madonna-like face, her slender body blending into the landscape. This film is also the occasion to see Hepburn acting with one of the greatest actors of her generation, Anthony Perkins. Romantic as ever, Perkins is perfectly suited for the part of Abel, and their love scenes together are enough to make the movie interesting. Willoughby captured the great relationship that existed between the two actors, twins in loneliness, fragility and poetry.
Audrey Hepburn in Green Mansions, photograph by Bob Willoughby
Anthony Perkins and Audrey Hepburn on the shooting of Green Mansions, photograph by Bob Willoughby
In this final part of my comments on Hepburn’s films I would like to mention two dark films, which place Hepburn in the position of a victim, subjected and prone to violence.
One of the many reasons I love Audrey Hepburn so much is that she appeared to be devoid of aggressiveness or violence. Yet these two films place her in that position, and the result is strangely awkward, in a very poetic way.
THE UNFORGIVEN(1960) by John Huston
Hepburn dazzles as Rachel Zachary, youngest of a family of three brothers and a widowed mother (the eternal Lillian Gish). The love that binds the family together is shaken by allegations that Rachel was stolen from an Indian tribe and that, as she is not white, she belongs with her own kind. Rachel is thus subjected to the violence of her racist neighbors, to the violence of Indians who come to reclaim her, to the rejection of one of her brothers, and to her own distress when she discovers the truth. All this will lead her to an incredible act of violence: the killing of her biological brother. The scene is startling as the act is done without hatred; Hepburn, it seems, cannot hate, and if her character kills, it is out of a necessity for survival. Rachel must remain with her real family, the one that raised her, loved her through the years. Lillian Gish delivers a heartbreaking performance as the strong (and yet so fragile) mother of the Zacharys. Burt Lancaster plays the elder brother, the one with whom Rachel entertains a troubling relationship. The two obviously love each other with more than brotherly love and that is the most disturbing aspect of the story. The revelation of Rachel’s true origins allows them to become what brotherhood forbids: lovers. This ending makes of the film a strange object, filled with a strong view against racism, arguing that love is what defines a family, not blood, and yet denies that argument by having the two stars married at the end. It is possible that this ending was required at the time, when having two majors stars in the same film demanded a love story between them. That is where the writers and the producers made their mistake: the film was not about that sort of love. It dealt with a much bigger issue: the eternal and unbreakable love created in the family unit.

Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven

Hepburn delivers a magnificent performance, filled with angst and confusion. During the extremely violent confrontation with the neighbors, Hepburn appears as a small bird, a perfect prey for the hating wolves that surround her. Her most glorious scene, she performs alone. Rachel is in her bedroom after finding out the truth. And bluntly, without looking away, she paints herself as an Indian would. Rachel’s first act of violence is against herself.
ROBIN AND MARIAN (1976) by Richard Lester
After a nine-year break, Audrey Hepburn returned for this magnificent picture. An aging Robin returns form the Crusades and finds that his longtime love, Maid Marian, has become an abbess in a priory. The reunion is difficult after the passing of so many years. Marian resents Robin for choosing his king over her, and Robin, despite his elder years, is still the same restless and impetuous man he was. Trouble arrives with Robin’s old foe, the Sheriff of Nottingham. The film is filled with melancholy as it reflects on a love that hasn’t had enough time to live and on the inescapable workings of Time on humankind. Hepburn builds a Marian that is strong in her beliefs, her love and resolutions. More than ever, her body suggests a woman in dire need of protection. In a touching scene, Marian reveals to Robin that she tried to end her life when he left. Hepburn doesn’t give into an easy pathos, she delivers her lines in a disarmingly natural way, thus remaining true to the chaste and modest nature of her character. And it is her character that prevails above her flesh, for in the end, it is Robin who needs help. Badly wounded, Robin, still blind to his own mortality, convinced of his legendary nature, believes he can live. The clear-sighted Marian knows that all life comes to an end. So, help she provides, in the most daring and violent manner. Thus, in the fashion of tragic lovers, Robin and Marian die together, poisoned by her hand. Here again, violence is exerted and diverted, as it is a gentle one. To explain her gesture, Marian delivers a beautiful and poignant speech: “I love you. More than all you know. I love you more than children. More than fields I’ve planted with my hands. I love you more than morning prayers or peace or food to eat. I love you more than sunlight, more than flesh or joy, or one more day. I love you… more than God.”

Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever” wrote John Keats in Endymion. “Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness”.  Words that apply all too well to the exceptional Audrey Hepburn, whose filmography will forever remain like “an endless fountain of immortal drink, Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.” 

Viddy Well. 


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