Saturday, January 21, 2012

Audrey Hepburn

Vaud, Switzerland. Visited May 2007

I realize I may be taking a bit of a risk to my masculine reputation (such as it is) by including a post on Audrey Hepburn, one of the great gay icons of the 20th Century. But I have two motivating reasons. One is that my wife Jill and I saw her grave while we were visiting with my brother in Switzerland. And this month he is moving back to the States. The second is that I have kind of a ‘six degrees of separation’ thing with Hepburn that I explain below. And, my reputation notwithstanding, at least three of her movies would make it into my personal top 100 favorite films of all time.

Audrey Hepburn (her given name was Audrey Rustin) was born in May 1929, in a small town in Belgium. During the 30’s her father became enamored with the growing Nazi party in Germany, which played a part in him eventually leaving the family. Audrey’s mother moved her children to Arnhem, Holland where they lived through the 1930’s, and then to England. They moved back to Arnhem hoping that the Netherlands’ historic neutrality would provide a safe haven for them as the clouds of war darkened. However with the German invasion of the Netherlands the family fell under the oppression of Nazi occupation. Along with her family, Audrey secretly supported the resistance; a brother was shipped to a concentration camp and an uncle executed by the Nazi’s for resisting the occupation. Audrey suffered malnutrition due to the harsh conditions that affected her the rest of her life.

With Oscar for "Roman Holiday"
at age 24

After the war she found her way to England and the London stage where she achieved sufficient success to work in movies; eventually ending up in Hollywood. Her first lead role was in Roman Holiday, (probably in the 60’s on my favorites list) opposite Gregory Peck in 1953. She won her only Academy Award for best actress for her role, launching her into a career among the first rank of film stars. Another favorite of mine is Charade (1963) with Cary Grant - somewhere in the 80’s on my list.

But my favorite Hepburn movie is My Fair Lady (1964), a top 20 on my list and, in my mind, the second best musical ever after Les Miz. She was actually a surprise for the role, selected instead of Julie Andrews (who had created the role on Broadway) even though her voice had to be dubbed for the singing. MFL raked in a ton of Academy Awards, including best picture, but Hepburn lost out on the best actress award to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins.

Audrey Hepburn remained a star through the Sixties into the Seventies, but gradually began to leave acting and public life for involvement with UNICEF. The last part of her life was almost entirely devoted to humanitarian causes around the world focused on hunger and famine relief. Her last trip was a tour of Somalia just four months before she died. Hepburn passed away in her sleep of cancer, on the evening of 20 January 1993, at her home in Tolochenaz, Vaud, Switzerland.

What is my personal connection with Audrey Hepburn? I can get there in four degrees of separation. As mentioned above, Hepburn starred in My Fair Lady. Also in that movie was a character actor by the name of John McLiam.  McLiam is a distant cousin to my mom.  John McLiam played Harry, one of the busker pals of Alfred P. Doolittle.  McLiam had a long and moderately successful career in movies and TV before passing away in 1994. I actually met him once when I was a teenager at a family reunion in North Carolina.  A complete list of his film and TV credits (including movies from 'Cool Hand Luke' to 'Rambo-First Blood' and TV classics like Gunsmoke and MASH) can be accessed here.  

John McLiam as Harry in My Fair Lady.  See him
singing "With a Little Bit of Luck" here

So here’s the connection:

Audrey Hepburn > John McLiam > Faye Farmer > Your Blogger

This remains probably my greatest claim to fame. Audrey Hepburn is buried in a beautiful country church cemetery in the wine country of French speaking Switzerland overlooking Lake Geneva. This blog is being written on the 18th anniversary of her death.

Unnerving statue of Audrey in Morges,
Switzerland.  Have been there several
times but never saw it in person

Jill and me at Hepburn grave in Vaud, Switzerland