You’ll have seen today’s Google doodle, commemorating Audrey Hepburn‘s 85th birthday. The artist, Jennifer Hom, has posted earlier drafts and notes that the final version is based on Yousuf Karsh‘s iconic portrait from 1956. And Google’s Sean Hepburn Ferrer writes: “While she is still remembered as a film actor, she also remains a symbol of both inner and outer elegance for many, her last chapter as a humanitarian forever intertwined with her Hollywood and style legacies.”
Four months before she died in 1993 at the age of 63, Hepburn, who’d been appointed Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF in 1989, traveled to Somalia and declared, “I walked into a nightmare. I have seen famine in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, but I have seen nothing like this… Taking care of children has nothing to do with politics. I think perhaps with time, instead of there being a politicization of humanitarian aid, there will be a humanization of politics.”
As Alex Cox writes for the Guardian today, “the story of Audrey Hepburn’s early life really does have a legendary, movie-like quality.” Her parents “were an English banker and a Dutch baroness. Both were fascists, who split up before the second world war began. Her mother took her from their home in Belgium to the Netherlands, seeking to avoid the fighting.” There, she “suffered from malnutrition, which led to acute anaemia and respiratory problems.” Young Audrey “danced to raise money for the Dutch resistance.” Stage roles followed, and eventually, the breakthrough, Roman Holiday (1953). The producers originally wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play the incognito European princess, but director William Wyler was won over by the screen test conducted in London in 1951—and the BFI‘s posted Wyler’s enthusiastic response.
For Cox, Hepburn on screen was “a woman visually striking and possessed of a certain quality of unhappiness. Being slight and vulnerable, Hepburn could have made a career as one of cinema’s perpetual victims—a leading lady for Alfred Hitchcock, maybe. But she was too thoughtful, and too smart in her choice of roles, to let that happen.”
“In the 40 years between Hollywood’s make-believe headlines and the horrifying reality of Somalia, Hepburn as actress and woman seemed an emissary from a finer world than ours,” wrote Time‘s Richard Corliss in 2007. “She taught, by example, what a lady was: a vessel of grace and gravity, ready wit, eldritch charm: a woman whose greatest discretion was to hide her awareness of her splendor. She refused to be tyrannized by her own beauty.”
“She was a diminutive powerhouse who repeatedly struggled against patriarchy,” argues Monika Bartyzel, walking us through the filmography in The Week. “Roman Holiday holds the first sparks of her feminist struggle.” Sabrina (1954) “might be able to escape, learn a trade, and delight in some measure of freedom—but she’s ultimately under the control of the men who have power around her. Three years after Sabrina’s release, her starring turn in Funny Face  challenged those same power structures…. In many ways, the narrative of Funny Face is the cinematic embodiment of what would happen to its star: an obsession with style masking the struggle behind her glamor.”
For the full biography, turn to Matthew Grimm at TCM. The New York Post‘s Lou Lumenick highlights four performances, while the BFI selects a few choice quotes and Vanity Fair revisits some favorite photos.