Audrey Hepburn Stands for Loners Everywhere
How one of Hollywood’s greatest stars helped me get through high school.
By Rebecca Deczynski
Published on December 20, 2016 on Snapchat Discover
In popular consciousness, the image of Audrey Hepburn remains pretty constant: black dress, pile of pearls, tiara-topped coif, dark sunglasses, and a long-stemmed cigarette holder held precariously between elegantly gloved fingers. It’s an image that’s become synonymous with high glamour and luxury, and also an image that, oddly enough, put me at ease as a quiet suburban teen. For many, Audrey Hepburn is no more than a borderline-basic movie star. But she helped me come to terms with feeling like an outsider.
The Instant Allure of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
Like many people, I was introduced to Audrey Hepburn through her most iconic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a film that, aesthetically, has inspired weddings and birthday parties, and has led countless black dress-clad women to Fifth Avenue, where they pose in front of the flagship Tiffany’s. Inspirational shots aside, the movie has real depth, especially when it’s revealed close to the end of the film that Hepburn’s character, the highlighted, jewel-strewn Holly Golightly, is really just a simple runaway farm girl named Lulamae Barnes.
The film, marketed as a glamorized version of Truman Capote’s novella of the same name, is flecked with tinges of melancholy, from Hepburn’s acoustic rendition of “Moon River,” which she performs sitting sad-eyed on a fire escape, to her speech about anxiety: “The blues are because you're getting fat and maybe it's been raining too long. You're just sad, that's all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you're afraid, and you don't know what you're afraid of.”
The roots of Golightly’s problems are traced, by the end of the film, to her inability to cope with herself. “No matter where you run,” George Peppard’s character, writer Paul Varjack, says to her, “you just end up running into yourself.” When, as an adolescent, I was constantly fighting doubts about my own abilities, questioning who I wanted to be, and having identity crises on the regular (which all still happen even in young adulthood, mind you), nothing could be more relatable.
Holly Golightly wasn’t the sophisticated but flighty call girl people made her out to be—she was just someone who wanted more than she was given in life. And Audrey Hepburn embodied her like no one else could. I was captivated.
The Ambitious Ingenue in “Roman Holiday”
Diving deeper into Hepburn’s repertoire, I picked up a DVD of Roman Holiday, which was actually her first film and the one that led to her only Oscar win. Hepburn played Princess Ann, a member of some unspecified royal family on tour in Rome. She escapes from her guarded confines and sets about exploring the city, trying her hand at living a normal life.
While the Disney Renaissance of the ’80s and ’90s has led a generation of girls to dream of becoming princesses, this 1953 film exists at the other end of the spectrum: here is a princess who wants to be normal. She decides to spend her whole day “doing whatever she’d like”—things she can’t typically do in her position, like ride the motorbike of a handsome American journalist, get an impulsive haircut, and, of course, eat plenty of ice cream.
It’s not that she wants more, it’s just that she wishes she had been given a different lot in life—and she does her best to at least get a taste of what might have been. She wants what she doesn’t have, but makes the most of it, anyway.
Getting Serious With “Sabrina”
Perhaps the most relatable of Hepburn’s films is Sabrina, in which she plays the titular daughter of a chauffeur, desperately in love with a man who hardly knows she exists. “I might as well be reaching for the moon,” she sighs, in a scene that’s been reblogged thousands of times on Tumblr, echoing the cries of unrequited lovelorn teens everywhere.
But at its core, this is really a film about a woman growing up. Sabrina goes to Paris for culinary school and returns more mature, more stylish, and, suddenly, attractive to the man who ignored her—but she turns away from him when she realizes he’s probably not the best guy, after all. Sabrina shows Hepburn coming into her own (and her Givenchy wardrobe is a nice bonus).
This blossoming, positioned against a backdrop of an unhappy love life, struck a particular chord in my largely self-deprecating and self-pitying teen years, which I embraced a “forever alone” philosophy. My crushes were unrequited, and I was too shy to do anything about that. I saw myself in the pre-amazing Sabrina, hiding away and resigning myself, quoting her heartbreaking line, “He doesn’t even know I exist.” But Sabrina doesn’t stay lovelorn and hopeless forever. She learns how to grow up—and so did I.
Finding Gratification in “Funny Face”
Finally, in Funny Face, Hepburn creates a fantasy that’s all too wished for, even in the modern day: she’s scooped out of the bookshop where she works, put on a plane, and sent to Paris to become the new It Girl model. Her character, Jo Stockton, hardly buys it—she wears the lush gowns and breathtaking accessories, but her real passion is philosophy.
While wearing fancy clothing (Givenchy, again), Stockton brings her authentic self into her modeling. When she poses, she channels the characters that she reads about in her books. Next to a steaming train, she’s Anna Karenina, with tears in her eyes. In Hepburn’s greatest characters, empowerment comes with accepting oneself and the world—a phenomenon that can really happen, as evidenced by the career success of Audrey Hepburn herself.
I uprooted myself from suburbia and moved to New York, where I attended an ardently feminist liberal arts college. I met people who appreciated my personal style and had different personal styles themselves. I realized that the world is much bigger than my small hometown—and it can be a lot more accepting of eccentricities than it might immediately seem.
Looking at Audrey, the Woman Herself
Audrey Hepburn did not have an easy upbringing. During World War II, she was not able to get enough food, leaving her physically weak, forcing her to give up her dreams of being a ballet dancer and affecting her metabolism forever. By the time Hepburn was in her late teens, Elizabeth Taylor was the peak of Hollywood’s beauty standards—a curvy image that Hepburn could not hope to grow into. In the ’50s and ’60s, Hepburn stood as an outlier. “I have no illusions about my looks,” she says in Funny Face. “I think my face is funny.”
We mold Old Hollywood stars into whatever we’d like them to be. To many people, Audrey Hepburn was a manic pixie dream girl with a funny accent and doe-eyed look—when, really, she and the characters she played were constantly reaching, trying, and nearly bursting with unrivaled desire to see, be, and learn. They were the outcasts who always managed to become something more, if only for a little while.
Audrey Hepburn wasn’t just a girl stationed inside of Tiffany’s, ogling diamonds and pearls for their sheer beauty. She was a woman searching and singing about the endless desire to press forward and grow: “Two drifters, off to see the world, there's such a lot of world to see. We're after that same rainbow's end, waiting ’round the bend, my Huckleberry friend, Moon River, and me.”
Audrey Hepburn taught me that it’s possible to become someone new—and that there will always be fellow drifters just like me, off to see exactly what the world has to offer.