Emma vs. Audrey

Posted by · 2:24 pm · August 10th, 2010

British papers have probably made more of Emma Thompson’s recent dismissal of Audrey Hepburn than her slightly flip comments warranted, but it has prompted an interesting amount of side-taking over the merits of one of Old Hollywood’s most beloved (or so we thought) icons. If you’re new to this story, Thompson’s jabs at Hepburn were made with specific reference to her performance in “My Fair Lady,” for which Thompson herself is scripting the upcoming big-screen remake:

[T]here needs to be a new version. I’m not hugely fond of the film. I find Audrey Hepburn fantastically twee. Twee is whimsy without wit. It’s mimsy-mumsy sweetness without any kind of bite. And that’s not for me. She can’t sing and she can’t really act, I’m afraid. I’m sure she was a delightful woman – and perhaps if I had known her I would have enjoyed her acting more, but I don’t and I didn’t, so that’s all there is to it, really.

It was Cecil Beaton’s designs and Rex Harrison that gave it its extraordinary quality. I don’t do Audrey Hepburn. I think that she’s a guy thing… It’s high time that the extraordinary role of Eliza was reinterpreted, because it’s a very fantastic part for a woman.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that anyone responsible for creating “Nanny McPhee” should think carefully before accusing others of “mimsy-mumsy sweetness without bite.” Thompson is an imposingly great actress, blessed with more range, nuance and assorted technical gifts than Hepburn herself would have admitted to possessing; if anyone’s entitled to pass judgment on actorly worth, it’s the woman capable of spinning gold from candyfloss in “Love Actually.”

I know a number of people who share Thompson’s vexation with Hepburn, who find her wide-eyed naïveté affected and inhibiting, calculatedly artless, even. I am not among them. Hepburn may or may not have been a great actress — she was certainly one canny enough to know her limitations. But she was plainly a great movie star, one with more innate charisma than the legions of subsequent starlets who, at one point or another, have been declared “the new Hepburn,” and one who maintained an expertly constructed screen persona over two decades while subtly tweaking it to the demands of the era.

The fresh-faced gamine of “Roman Holiday” and “Sabrina” gave way to something a little more guarded in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; many, particularly loyalists of Truman Capote’s source novella, find her inappropriately winsome as Holly Golightly, but the performance works for me because her Holly seems to be so effortfully, even fearfully, playing that very winsomeness to the outside world. If her work in “My Fair Lady” is less smart, it’s because the screen treatments of the material demands little of her but relentless loveliness; three years later, she was challenging herself by tailoring that charm to the thornier late-60s cool of “Two for the Road.”

Thompson (and many others) would be quite welcome to contest every word of this. Everyone has at least one or two revered screen legends that they simply don’t get: I’m writing this from my lonely corner in the Jimmy Stewart Un-Fanclub, for example. But I feel compelled to stick up for Hepburn, since the latter-day commodification of her image (usually via that over-exposed “Tiffany’s” poster) into a kind of universal, ubiquitous symbol of retro-chic has rather eclipsed her actual performances — many of which merit more discussion, in praise or otherwise. (As for Thompson’s “can’t sing” claim, I invite her to look past the studio-enforced dubbing of “My Fair Lady” and rewatch Hepburn’s modest but technically deft mastery of the tricky Gershwin melodies of “Funny Face.”)

Finally, I do wonder whether Thompson has seen the film that has turned many a Hepburn agnostic round to her skills. In “The Nun’s Story,” in which she plays an inexperienced Belgian nun struggling with the personal and professional demands of her faith, her fey mannerisms and swannish physicality are stringently denied her, forcing her to act from the face outwards. It’s an arrestingly still, stark performance that ranks with the best of Streep, Ullmann or, well, Emma Thompson. It’s still unconfirmed which actress will fill Hepburn’s shoes as Eliza Doolittle — Carey Mulligan is the current favorite, taking over from Keira Knightley — but if the producers find someone with a performance that heavyweight already under her belt, they’ll be doing very well indeed.

[Photo: Doctormacro.com]

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34 responses so far

  • 1 8-10-2010 at 2:41 pm

    Patryk said...

    I have to agree with Guy’s appraisal of Hepburn’s work in “The Nun’s Story.” Too bad the film isn’t more often talked about. Fred Zinneman directed many Oscar nominees and winners, but Audrey’s work here is my favorite from any of his films. Simone Signoret was a deserving winner that year, but if Hepburn hadn’t already won, it might have been a closer race.

  • 2 8-10-2010 at 2:45 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Between Hepburn, Signoret (one of my favourite Best Actress wins) and the “Suddenly, Last Summer” ladies, the 1959 Best Actress race would be one for the ages … were it not for the tragic inclusion of Doris Day in “Pillow Talk.” Oh well.

  • 3 8-10-2010 at 2:57 pm

    timr said...

    Well said. As a long-time Unfan who would have nodded heartily along to Thompson’s comments mere months ago, I am far more receptive to Hepburn’s talents, even her charms, after seeing The Nun’s Story than I was before it. I doubt I’ll ever come round to her in Tiffanys, frankly — but that’s more the film’s fault for being so vapid and self-regarding. And she’s so uneven in My Fair Lady: glorious bouncing around in “I Could Have Danced All Night”, but often amateurish and squawky in ways that go far beyond necessity for playing a squawking amateur. I don’t think Cukor directs her very well or finds sensitive ways to use her, there. Partly the problem is that so many of her films (I include that dim postcard Roman Holiday too, I’m afraid) failed to challenge or push her so much as serve up her established appeal on a plate, which just leaves her looking gormless and exposed. But this is what makes The Nun’s Story so exceptional, right? Who knew she was capable of that pensive austerity?

  • 4 8-10-2010 at 2:59 pm

    Patryk said...

    And the win for Best Original Screenplay….

  • 5 8-10-2010 at 3:07 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Over “The 400 Blows,” “Wild Strawberries” and “North by Northwest.” We shall speak no more of this. It hurts too much.

    Tim: So glad to have your sympathy — if not your entire agreement — on this one. I didn’t mention “Wait Until Dark,” which is probably the most considered work she did post-“Nun’s Story,” though obviously neither film nor performance is in the same league. I’ve forgotten where you stand on that one.

  • 6 8-10-2010 at 3:09 pm

    Aaron said...

    Well, this remake is going to be a mishap if they cast Carey Mulligan in the leading role. She is the most extraordinarly boring new actress out there right now. I’d definitely go for Knightley over her.

  • 7 8-10-2010 at 3:14 pm

    timr said...

    It was the first thing I ever saw her in. I’d notch it round about The Children’s Hour as sound, diligent work hampered by a slight prissiness — but I think she’s certainly better in those chamber drama/thriller contexts than big studio fluff.

  • 8 8-10-2010 at 3:15 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I’d very much like to see Kristen Stewart performing “I Could Have Danced All Night,” actually. I’m sure she could pull off that giddy joy.

  • 9 8-10-2010 at 4:12 pm

    med said...

    Why, why another remake.? Leave it alone Emma. It is a classic movie and no one wants to see a remake. Do something original Emma.

  • 10 8-10-2010 at 5:05 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Harsh but her honest opinion which of course is never respected when one is giving it about a sacred Hollywood icon of the golden era – I think Meryl Streep is a Christmas ham!

    Emma’s Howard’s End Oscar win is so richly deserved. I love that movie.

  • 11 8-10-2010 at 5:07 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Harsh but her honest opinion which of course is never respected when she’s giving it about a sacred Hollywood icon of the golden era; I think Meryl Streep is a Christmas ham!

    Emma’s Howard’s End Oscar win is so richly deserved. I love that movie.

  • 12 8-10-2010 at 5:07 pm

    McAllister said...

    Guy, I love every word you wrote… because I agree in full and because you have worded everything so beautifully (not unusual for you). Maybe you and Thompson (though questionable things she has to say as of late) should team up for a screenplay.

  • 13 8-10-2010 at 9:43 pm

    Bing147 said...

    Agree strongly with you Guy, she’s not an amazing actress but she was a great star and she showed at times that she was at least a very good actress. Great work in Nun’s Story but also Two for the Road and in Wait Until Dark (though Arkin steals that one a bit). Also VERY good in Charade and insanely charming in Sabrina.

  • 14 8-10-2010 at 10:56 pm

    Ligaya said...

    I don’t remember where I first read about this, maybe the feminist celebrity blog jezebel. I don’t want to sully a purely film-centric blog with another celebrity blog reference, BUT I agree with the blogger’s defense: Emma has a right to her P.O.V., she qualifies her statements & backs them up, it’s never personal, it’s about the work, etc. The interview is really about the Pygmalion Emma Thompson wants to make as a film, not a remake of My Fair Lady – but of course the shytestorm is all about Audrey (whom I love, btw, in everything)

    AND subsequent discussions about this often leave some crucial things out, such as:

    “I’m sure (fans will be upset). Fans of the original won’t want another one to be made — and honestly, one has to just cope with that. The central relationship between Eliza and Higgins is a fascinating one: Do we have a man who is fantastically dysfunctional and hasn’t been able to create a relationship with any woman except this one? Or is it, as I suspect, that she, actually, is the one who turns around and creates him, in the sense that she excavates in him an emotional center?”

    I’d love to see Emma’s vision come to fruition – it is so much more satisfying.

  • 15 8-10-2010 at 11:18 pm

    Sebastian said...

    I love Hepburn in My Fair Lady. I can not believe the great Emma is trashing her down. I have always thought she deserved at least a nomination for her work in the movie. I love the part where she arrives at Higgins house demanding some classes and the professor frightens her. She’s so funny in that scene. I think she’s great in the whole movie. It’s classic. Im so mad at Emma. How she dares? She does not need to say those things about Hepburns performance when she’s making a remake. I think that looks bad. It’s not humble.

  • 16 8-11-2010 at 1:15 am

    Alex in Movieland said...

    how is Doris Day not completely charming and funny and sweet in Pillow Talk?!

    Elizabeth Taylor’s performance in S,LS on the other hand is debatable to say the least

  • 17 8-11-2010 at 1:54 am

    jackal said...

    oh my god!! she looks like Penelope cruz.

  • 18 8-11-2010 at 4:11 am

    Dominik said...

    I love Audrey Hepburn, but have no problems with Thompson´s bashing. She is probably not her cup of tea, that´s it.
    And while Guy Lodge admits he is in the Un-Jimmy Stewart-Fanclub (I´m not a member of it), I admit I find Meryl Streep often extremly over-rated and full of acting mannerism (see “Doubt”, for excample).
    And Audrey Hepburn: she had the rare quality to touch you deep inside without doing that much in front of the camera. Very much low-key, I like that!

  • 19 8-11-2010 at 5:50 am

    Hero said...

    I don’t actually have anything to add–I just want to post so I get the emails so I can follow the comments more easily.

    (Great post as always, Guy.)

  • 20 8-11-2010 at 7:57 am

    Mike said...

    Give me Hepburn’s charisma over Thompson talent any time of day. Talent means nothing if you bore me to tears.

  • 21 8-11-2010 at 8:21 am

    Sawyer said...

    I don’t understand how anyone could call Emma Thompson boring. She has one of the most commanding screen presences of all time. I could watch her read the phone book.

  • 22 8-11-2010 at 9:22 am

    John H. Foote said...

    Love Thompson, liked Hepburn — “My Fair Lady” is however one of her least efforts in terms of performance — she was exquisite in “The Nun’s Story” and “Two for the Road” — agree that was not a great actress, but was a genuinely great movie star — from a different era — as for the comments about remakes, why not? It’s time for some of the classics to get a re-thinking and re-do.

  • 23 8-11-2010 at 9:47 am

    RJNeb2 said...

    Having watched “My Fair Lady” only last week, I have to admit that Thompson’s comments are not without merit. Hepburn’s Cockney accent is arch and artificial in the extreme (it gives Dick van Dyke’s effort in another 1964 Best Picture nominee a run for its money). While in the latter parts of the film – after the transformation – she simply has nothing to do but stand around looking decorative.

    Having said that, however, she was every inch the movie star and – faults aside – it’s hard to envision anyone else playing Eliza Doolittle. The film itself has a stuffy artificiality about it that seems to suit Hepburn’s rather self-conscious efforts.

    But I also give full kudos to Thompson for unabashedly taking on one of cinema’s – for want of a better term – sacred cows. She must have known that an off-hand comment like this would stir up all sorts of trouble, and it’s a debate that we welcome. “My Fair Lady” (1964) was a work of its time and should be appreciated for what it is. Reworking it for more jaded modern audiences is a job I would not relish at all. Good luck with that, Emma.

  • 24 8-11-2010 at 9:47 am

    The Other James D. said...

    I actually despise Harrison’s Oscar win. He cannot sing either–he basically spat out the lyrics, and his character, while distinct, was not Oscar-worthy. How he beat Sellers or Quinn (for Dr. Strangelove and Zorba the Greek, respectively) is baffling, particularly Sellers as at least Quinn already won twice. What a shame. Best of cast in My Fair Lady is Stanley Holloway, anyhow.

    But I agree she is way to dismissive of Hepburn. That’s one of her worst performances. But she was excellent in The Nun’s Story and I’m so glad you mentioned Two for the Road–it’s an outstanding, and too-often-overlooked film. Love it. I need to see Wait Until Dark, as my mom loved her in that one.

    Also, re: Pillow Talk–yeah, Day was better off with a nod for Love Me or Leave Me. There was someone I thought was snubbed, but I forgot. However, Thelma Ritter is love, and she was robbed. Still pissed she never won….

  • 25 8-11-2010 at 9:48 am

    The Other James D. said...


  • 26 8-11-2010 at 9:53 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    “Thelma Ritter is love, and she was robbed.”

    For “Pillow Talk?” Nuh-uh.

  • 27 8-11-2010 at 10:33 am

    Silencio said...

    I’m just pleased that you included Ullman among the greats. So good.

  • 28 8-11-2010 at 11:11 am

    evelyn garver said...

    I’m surprised by Thompson’s comments. I admire her and Audrey. It’s actually the other Hepburn I never warmed up to. [except in comedies] By the time ON GOLDEN POND was racking up Oscar wins, I sought comfort in Pauline Kael’s quip that the film was not about family but “about owning property.” Adored Hank Fonda, though.

  • 29 8-11-2010 at 11:13 am

    The Other James D. said...

    For Pickup on South Street, more so, but she wasn’t beating Donna Reed. 1959 would’ve been the only feasible alternative, as Winters would go on to win again–that’s how I perceive it =P.

  • 30 8-11-2010 at 1:04 pm

    a-mad said...

    Guy, I take exception to questioning the credibility of Thompson’s arguments of “mimsy-mumsy sweetness without bite” based on her involvement in Nanny McPhee.

    Have you seen Nanny McPhee? If you have, and still feel the same way, I will retract my criticism, but having seen it several times with my kids… I think it certainly has a bit of “bite” to it rarely seen in children’s films these days. Sure its a fairy tale with a message, but it continually maintains a somewhat off-kilter, subverse and unconventional tone at the same time. Personally, I found it refreshing…

    That said, I don’t entirely agree with Thompson’s arguments… although my main problem with Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady has less to do with her performance and more to do with the fact that Julie Andrews should have been cast instead.

    Still, count me among those who thought her performance in Wait Until Dark was terrif, however.

  • 31 8-11-2010 at 1:41 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I have seen “Nanny McPhee” — though not the sequel — and found it harmless enough, but pretty much the definition of “twee.” I only meant it as a flip aside, so don’t take it too much to heart.

    As for Andrews, I’ve only heard her performance on record and I’m sure she would have been terrific — but I understand the decision to cast Hepburn. On camera, for me, the role requires a kind of gobsmacking beauty for which Andrews, unfair as it is, couldn’t quite match Hepburn. Anyway, had she been cast in the film, she wouldn’t have done “Mary Poppins,” and we’d all be poorer for that.

  • 32 8-11-2010 at 2:10 pm

    a-mad said...

    Hadn’t thought of the Mary Poppins affect… and an Oscar to boot! Good point.

    I think Andrews was as striking a film presence (in beauty… no less) than Hepburn, and would have been able to convey the cockney-ness(?) a tad more realistically than the impossibly beautiful Ms. Hepburn (who looked basically like a fashion model with a dollop of ash on her cheeks…) while still providing an enthralling transformation to elegance throughout the course of the film.

    Still… as you point out – all’s well that end’s well.

  • 33 8-11-2010 at 2:50 pm

    billybil said...

    Dear Guy – I’m glad you brought up all this muck here. And I’m glad that many of “us” are admitting that Audrey was a tremendous movie star – unique, startling in her appearance, and so very graceful in many things. I LOVE Two for the Road – find the movie still cutting and both Hepburn and Finney marvelously entertaining. (My God, Finney was a hunk!). Wait Until Dark is fine work by an extremely experienced, professional film actress, but not amazingly so. (Has anyone seen the clip of Audrey waiting offstage at the Oscars when Best Actress that year was announced. Her face showed such vulnerability, I believe – it would have placed her in the realm of two!!). It is important to remember that styles change, however, so I’m quite eager to see what a modern My Fair Lady will be. That, to me, is justification for some remakes. We’ll see. And, of course, Ms. Thompson is a powerful actress and I quite liked Nanny McPhee #1 – but then I can get into twee quite easily, I’m afraid. But there is a part of me that wishes Thompson had not taken the trouble to trash Audrey in any context. Of course, she’s gotten all kinds of people “talking” but that seems a cheap way to do it.

  • 34 8-11-2010 at 11:46 pm

    Ligaya said...

    I found these passages from the Daily Mail article very interesting & telling about Emma’s approach to the adaptation of Pygmalion she’s writing – the heart of the interview – which no one mentions in the blogosphere at all, instead focusing on Emma’s frank assessment of Audrey’s performance in “My Fair Lady” alone & specifically – not Audrey’s whole career. (My favorite bit is Emma “admits to being a feminist.”)

    Daily Mail:

    Thompson says: ‘The central relationship between Eliza and Higgins is a fascinating one.’
    She calls him ‘dysfunctional’ and even accuses Doolittle’s father, dustman Alfred of selling his daughter into slavery.

    ‘He’s more brutal,’ says Thompson who admits to being a feminist.

    ‘It’s a very terrible thing he does, selling his daughter into sexual slavery for a fiver.

    ‘I suppose my cheekiness is in saying: ‘This is a very serious story about the usage of women at a particular time in our history.

    ‘And it’s still going on today’.

    ‘Yes, OK, it’s a wonderful musical, but let’s also look at what it’s really saying about the world.’