Today in 1929, a fairy’s laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the birth of Audrey Kathleen Hepburn-Ruston. May 4th is honestly my favorite day. Audrey was born right on the cusp of spring, her favorite season, and my favorite too. Audrey once said that if she ever wrote an autobiography, it would start out like this:
“I was born in Brussels, Belgium, on May 4th, 1929, and I died six weeks later.”
She’d gotten an attack of whooping cough. Her formidable mother, the Baroness Ella van Heemstra, was a strict Christian Scientist who didn’t believe in modern medicine. So, after Audrey stopped breathing, she was revived the old fashioned way: prayer and smacks on her bottom.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that one of the world’s most famous and beguiling people began life with a miracle. It does make me shudder to think that little Audrey might not have survived. I can’t imagine a world without Audrey. It’s like trying to imagine a world without the moon.
Audrey made her Hollywood debut in 1953, enchanting audiences as Princess Ann in Roman Holiday. She had already appeared in a couple of films and even acted the part of Gigi on Broadway after being discovered by the author Colette in France. As the story goes, when Colette spotted Audrey cavorting on the beach, she exclaimed: “Voila! I have found my Gigi.”
Whether it was her mother’s faith and tenacity saving her from death, or catching such a break as that one, Audrey would be the first to say that her life was marked by luck. I agree, but plenty of talent and shrewdness played a part too.
Audrey’s film career was charmed, perhaps because she played such lovely, down to earth girls. She became one of the most recognizable icons of the 1950s. Here was a girl with cropped hair and a scrawny, tomboyish shape, so unlike the busty blonde bombshells of the era. Audrey’s look was revolutionary because it wasn’t cooked up by some publicity machine and offered a new take on femininity. As Cecil Beaton declared: “Nobody ever looked like her before WWII.” It took years before Audrey would finally be comfortable in her skin, but she was confident in how she looked and dressed. She was always acutely aware of what her strengths were and played those up.
This post however, is not about any of Audrey’s most ionic roles or fashions, or even her life, which fascinates and inspires me endlessly. Instead, it’s about an obscure TV movie called Mayerling (1957), costarring her first husband, Mel Ferrer. Why this movie? Because it’s one of the few in Audrey’s filmography that hasn’t been readily available until recently, and I relish the opportunity to write about one of her lesser known works.
|via Rare Audrey Hepburn|
Audrey and Mel had appeared together in King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956), and also on Broadway, in Ondine. Audrey fittingly played the title role of Ondine, a water sprite who tragically falls in love with a soldier. Mayerling is another tragic love story, this time between Prince Rudolf of Austria and Baroness Mary Vetsera. I’ve read Ondine, but had to imagine the newlyweds onstage. This film therefore, gave me a chance to finally see Audrey & Mel in another fraught love affair.
Mayerling was released right at the midpoint of Audrey’s career. In 1957, she had also starred in Funny Face and Love in the Afternoon. She and Mel had been married for three years when they appeared on television together. Directed by Kirk Browning, Mayerling was produced by Anatole Litvack, who had directed an earlier version in 1936 starring Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux. The TV premiere from 1957 is divided into three acts and aired only once on NBC.
The Third Man offered a glimpse of postwar Vienna, devoid of glamor and charm. Mayerling, which is based on true events, offers a glimpse of Vienna’s vanished empire.
Prince Rudolf is a playboy who resents his father, the emperor. His friends are political dissenters as well. With the backdrop of political unrest, personal turmoil also plagues the crown prince. Rudolf is forced into an arranged marriage but it matters not because he’s a shameless womanizer. He masks his deep unhappiness with alcohol and cynicism. After his marriage, he remarks: “I hope to never find real love.”
When he first sees Baroness Mary Vetsera, he’s enchanted immediately. It’s love at first sight. And this, right after he declared that there was no more innocence left in the world. Mary is so good. Yet Rudolf demands to know what she wants from him. But he’s all she does want. As the two see more of each other and fall deeper in love, there are whispers of scandal. And of course, they need to give each other up.
If you’re a dedicated fan of Audrey and/or doomed to love romantic melodramas like I am, Mayerling is worth seeing. It’s not the strongest film – the print is of low quality and the sound design leaves a lot to be desired. But there’s something compelling about it. Mel Ferrer’s performance is sometimes uneven. Though his haughty good looks and imposing stature are well suited to period drama, he overacts in some places and is stiff in others. But ultimately, he pulls off a convincing portrayal of a cynical and wounded man, the perfect foil to Audrey’s winsome Mary.
Audrey is absolutely luminous. She’s like a deer in the headlights, which is pulled off to its greatest effect. She’s a canvas of emotion, all big eyes and breathless, radiant. Her face is so hauntingly pristine. Not to mention how passionate and raw her performance is.
Mary Vetsera was only 17 when she fell for Prince Rudolf, and Audrey was 28. But her looks and demeanor make her a believable teenager. Mary is standing on a precipice, and yawning below her is a great chasm of forbidden love. She’s young and foolish, and flings herself over the edge. Her innocence is even more striking against Rudolf’s hard edged cynicism.
Audrey’s irresistible quality of innocence characterized all of her films in the 1950s.
Princess Ann (Smitty), Sabrina Fairchild, Jo Stockton, Ariane Chavasse, Rima, and Gabrielle van der Mal (later Sister Luke) are teenagers and young women who maintain this bright eyed innocence or else see it dim as they’re thrust from the security of their worlds into parts unknown.
In Roman Holiday, Ann leaves the oppressive comfort of royal protocol for a regular day among “common folk.” She’s Cinderella in reverse, right down to transforming into a pumpkin and driving away in her glass slipper. In Sabrina, the eponymous heroine leaves for Paris, dons rose colored glasses, and comes back to find the moon in her orbit. In Love in the Afternoon, Ariane is a virginal young woman who flirts and finds love with an incorrigible, aging playboy. Jo Stockton also goes to Paris in Funny Face, leaving her self contained world of books and philosophy to seek more knowledge. That she does find, along with love and a new career as a high fashion model.
As Rima the bird girl in Green Mansions (directed by Mel Ferrer coincidentally), Audrey is most in her element, despite the fact that the film is not very good. She’s a forest girl, the quintessential magical woodland creature, ethereal in beauty and movement. Rima’s tranquil world is shattered by violence and strange newfound feelings of love that her innocent state can’t comprehend initially. When Gabrielle takes her vows to become Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story, she learns that her path to serving God and the poor will not be simple. Cloistered life is far more challenging than she realized.
And then there’s young Marie, who has no prior experience of love. What match is a vulnerable girl like her for this heady, dangerous love affair?
|This girl was a pro at anguished cries.|
Happy birthday, Audrey deer.
“She was an enchantress, inspiring love and beauty. And fairies never disappear altogether.” –Hubert De Givenchy