'The best kept secret about Audrey was that she was sad': New Hepburn doc looks at both triumphs and tragedies of late icon's life

Kevin Polowy
·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
·6 min read

Audrey Hepburn is one of the most beloved film stars of all time, a radiant and beguiling screen presence who began captivating audiences seven decades ago and continues to draw new fans nearly 27 years after her death. Just refer to the number of Holly Golightly posters that regularly adorn college dorm walls.

“She's one of the most famous people that's ever lived. She's one of the most photographed and filmed people that's ever lived,” says Helena Coan, director of Audrey, an illuminating and rewarding new documentary about the late acting, fashion and humanitarian icon, in a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment.

But while the fact that her characters were often looked at as frivolous in feel-good films she was best known for — Roman Holiday (1953), Sabrina (1954), Funny Face (1957), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and My Fair Lady (1964) — and gave Hepburn an aura of blithesomeness in the public eye, the actress dealt with significant darkness and tragedy in her life.

“The best kept secret about Audrey was that she was sad,” her granddaughter Emma Ferrer Hepburn says through tears, quoting her father, in a profound and poignant moment from Audrey. “That really makes me sad to think about. I think she just wanted love and to be loved… For the woman who's most loved in the world to have such a lack of love is so sad."

“I think people will be surprised to know how much she struggled in her life,” Coan (Chasing Perfect) tells us. “She was not a carefree person. She had a great sense of humor and she had a lot of very happy times in her life. I don't want to just paint her as this figure who was sad all the time, because she wasn't, as none of us are. But we all go through horrible things and she she's no exception to that rule.”

Many of the film’s most surprising and jarring revelations deal with the strife that Hepburn endured, which began all-too early. The Belgian born actress’s father abandoned her family when she was only 6, which she would later say was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to her. Hepburn’s family later lived in German-occupied Holland during World War II, where her uncle was executed by the SS. Hepburn also had to reconcile that both of her parents were Nazi sympathizers prior to WWII, and her estranged father, who she later struggled to reconnect with, was a longtime member of the Fascist Party.

Hepburn turned to ballet as a teenager, which ultimately lead her to acting. Her career exploded after her enchanting role as an undercover princess opposite Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday, which won her an Academy Award. The actress entered iconoclastic status eight years later with the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which she played the magnetic socialite Holly Golightly.

One anecdote from the making of that adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella alights another popular misconception about Hepburn in showing how forcefully she used her voice and her clout to assure the famous “Moon River” sequence not be cut from the film.

“She was a petite, very polite, softly spoken woman, but she was, as her son says, a lioness,” Coan says. “She fought for what she believed in. And I think she's definitely been misjudged over the years because she's been seen as this kind of gamine, waif, pixie-like figure who didn't have much power. But for me, she's a powerhouse of a woman. She survived the studio system in the golden age of Hollywood, which was hard to do.”

Even her film performances were more layered than often credited. “I think she added a real depth to the characters that she played and she always played characters that transformed,” Coan says, pointing to the Pygmalion plot of My Fair Lady as “one of the most famous examples of a story about transformation and change.

“In her films, you see that, you see that depth to her and her vulnerability. And you see she has this wonderful combination of vulnerability and strength that I think makes her so appealing to people.”

Audrey Hepburn's son Sean Hepburn Ferrer and granddaughter Emma Ferrer Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn's son Sean Hepburn Ferrer and granddaughter Emma Ferrer Hepburn in Audrey. (Photo: Salon Pictures)

Beyond her formative scars, Hepburn dealt with deep trauma and insecurities in her personal life even as she became one of the most famous women on the planet. Though she had two sons — Sean Hepburn Ferrer with first husband Mel Ferrer and Luca Dotti with second husband Andrea Dotti — she suffered several miscarriages. Her marriage with the actor Ferrer ended civilly after 14 years, but her relationship with the psychiatrist Dotti was destroyed by adultery. At one point in the documentary it’s noted the philandering Dotti was photographed with over 200 women while they were together. (Hepburn was also regularly stalked by the paparazzi during that time.)

“It was devastating, totally devastating,” Hepburn’s friend, Out of Africa producer Anna Cataldi, reveals in Audrey. “She was publicly humiliated by him,” Coan says. By the time Hepburn made They All Laughed with Peter Bogdanovich in 1981, the director described her as “anxious” and “fragile” when the cameras weren’t rolling.

UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn joins students at the doorway of their classroom. (Photo credit: John Isaac)
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Audrey Hepburn joins students at the doorway of their classroom. (Photo credit: John Isaac)

Hepburn ultimately drifted from acting in the 1980s, making only two films: They All Laughed and Steven Spielberg’s Always (1989). She moved to a farmhouse in Switzerland and instead devoted herself to humanitarian efforts, becoming an ambassador and spokeswoman for UNICEF, regularly touring poverty stricken and war-torn pockets around the world to lend her support to children in need. And though she never married again, she also entered into a warm romance with actor Robert Wolders from 1980 until her death in 1993 from appendiceal cancer at the age of 63.

She was a pioneer for her humanitarian work, Coan says, referencing one instance in which Hepburn raised $60 million for UNICEF from U.S. congress after a one-hour appearance on Capitol Hill. “She was the first kind of real major celebrity or public figure to join UNICEF,” Coan notes. “It shows you the prevailing power that she had.”

Despite the sadness and lack of love that Hepburn endured, Coan sees her legacy as uplifting.

Beyond fashion and film, “I think her deeper legacy is this message of love and the power of love to transform the world. And she really believed in it,” the filmmakers says. “She believed in things like the power of educating children and the fact that that can change the world. And just to be a grateful and giving person. I think that's why she's so loved to this day. She stood for love, which is timeless and will never go out of fashion.”

Audrey is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, and releases on VOD Jan. 5. Get it on Amazon.

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