Audrey Hepburn. The name conjures up so much. Elegance, glamour, grace. She’s become a symbol of all that is refined and stylish. But to watch her onscreen is to watch a real woman, glittering magic, all warmth and brightness.
It’s easy to forget that, among the little black dresses, sunglasses, and diamonds dripping from her neck, that she was an accomplished dramatic actress. But that fact isn’t so much forgotten as it is ignored. She won her first Oscar for her very first film; a comedy with deft dramatic touches. And even before then she had dazzled audiences, this beguiling newcomer with the mesmerizing eyes and royal bearing. She must have been a princess.
Audrey would play the ingenue throughout her brief but successful career, until she couldn’t. She was never interested in being the perpetual gamine offscreen either.
Today I’m offering a look at the two films in which she starred as a religious sister. I chose each of them because they’re so distinctive and sometimes, overlooked.
The Nun’s Story (1959)
Audrey donned a habit for the first time under Fred Zinnemann’s polished direction. The film begins with Audrey as a young woman named Gabrielle. Gabrielle is reserved, but unlike Audrey’s other introverted characters, Sabrina Fairchild and Jo Stockton, Gabrielle’s reticence belies a subtle confidence. She is sure of what she wants, and what she wants is to be a nun. In the opening scenes, there’s a real sense of self assured tranquility about this girl who is willing to sacrifice her life for God.
Gabrielle says that she’s happy twice. Her family is distraught having to say goodbye, but she is only looking forward to her new life. Gabrielle’s interior life, her quiet joy, is effectively communicated through Audrey’s body language and her own serene air. No wonder this was her favorite film and Gabrielle the character she felt closest to.
Because this film is about a very strict kind of cloistered life, it is impenetrably solemn. These are unsmiling nuns. The slightest mistakes must be confessed in order to receive penance; slamming a door, spilling milk, and talking to another sister during the grand silence, which lasts for hours. Self perfection is the ultimate goal, forged with humility, love of Christ, and obedience. But even their thoughts aren’t hidden. Every slight imperfection, internal and external, must be proclaimed (I accuse myself) before the group and the Reverend Mother.
Gabrielle’s dream is to work as a nurse in the Congo, though before she entered the convent, her father warned her that she would need to abandon her desires. The demands of the habit wear Gabrielle down. She constantly finds herself imperfect, but she still perseveres enough to make her vows. She is rechristened Sister Luke and eventually reaches the Congo after many trials.
The Nun’s Story really is quite extraordinary, and Audrey’s performance is just one of its many strengths. She radiates vulnerability but there’s a steeliness to her that’s unobtrusive. What I find most impressive is how she articulates Sister Luke’s inner struggles, which break through an already troubled surface.
Robin and Marian (1976)
This was Audrey’s first film after a nine year hiatus that followed Wait Until Dark (1967). Now, truth be told, I wasn’t actually looking forward to revisiting this film. But I knew I had to write about it because it’s an interesting entry in Audrey’s filmography. She’s luminous in it; certainly as much as she is in her more beloved films. And I don’t just mean how she looked but her performance too. I realized while re-watching it how wondrously offbeat Robin and Marian is, blending farce with tragedy.
In this version of the Robin Hood tale, Robin (Sean Connery) is reunited with his great love, Maid Marian, after years spent apart. Robin has returned from the crusades to find Marian is now the abbess (leader, or like a mother superior) of an abbey.
You don’t really need to be knowledgeable about the voluminous Robin Hood lore to appreciate what this film does. The legend is stripped back to an intimate, more human scale. Robin Hood is no longer the young and dashing hero, though he still clings to his glory days and believes he can relive them. Marian, like Sister Luke, possesses firm interiority, but she’s much saucier. See how she demands “What the hell do you want?” when Robin first shows up, how they spar with one another. She’s angry with him still, at first. But the anger (and her habit!) lift when they rekindle their passion. It’s lost love recovered; delicate, yet heavy with ache and longing. Audrey and Sean Connery make a dazzling couple out in the woods in their plain, dirty clothes. Their chemistry is impressive.
Audrey was as beautiful as ever at 46. And with all of Marian’s spirit and personality, it’s a shame this role of hers isn’t as celebrated as others. She is so tough, funny, and tender.
I hope more people seek these films out, to see just how multidimensional Audrey was onscreen and of course, to delight in her singular presence.
I wrote this post for Sister Celluloid’s Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn blogathon. Click the banner below for more posts celebrating 90 years of our huckleberry friend!