A few months ago, my wife and I did a rare thing for us—we went out to see a movie. A documentary about Audrey Hepburn was playing at the arthouse cinema across town, and, as a movie theater had been out of the question during the Covid years, we jumped at the chance to see a film about one of our favorite actresses. The documentary, a 2020 release titled, appropriately enough, Audrey, is a tasteful and sensitive look at the public and private lives of one of the most recognizable women of the past century.
It’s that face that most of us know. The piercing gaze. Those impossibly kind and yet mysterious eyes peering out from under girlish bangs. And often, the impossibly large sunglasses that shielded her eyes from our view. Audrey Hepburn—the living image of stardom, the portrait of a modern icon.
Indeed, the directors and designers and critics and fellow actors and family members and friends who sat down to remember Audrey Hepburn for the documentary often used “iconic” to describe her. Many others have done the same. Hepburn had an iconic look in films that are themselves, we are often told, iconic. She wore iconic outfits designed for her unique body by Hubert de Givenchy. Her iconic status in the history of the silver screen is assured, we learn. Her iconic image as a humanitarian later in her life, stooping down to hug the poorest of the poor in countries wracked by famine, disease, and war, is within living memory even for those who were, like myself, too young to watch her movies when they were released.
And yet, the face, known by surely hundreds of millions worldwide, does not begin to reveal the woman. The film’s unofficial subtitle declares that she who dazzled in Roman Holiday, My Fair Lady, Funny Face, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s was “more than an icon.” Was she more than that to most of us, though?
One of the sad themes of the documentary, inescapable in any biographical treatment of Audrey Hepburn, is her unluckiness in love. Many men fell for her over the course of her life. Studios made major investments to ensure that the moviegoing public would do just that, of course. But even other big-name actors weren’t immune. Mel Ferrer—a Hollywood royal in the ’50s and ’60s—was her first husband. She threw in her lot with other high-rollers, too, like the rich Italian psychiatrist she married in early 1969. She was fame itself. She had more money than she needed and moved in the company of the biggest names on the planet.
But she was terribly lonely. She wanted to have many children; she had two, a son with each of her husbands. It seems she could have been content to live out her life on a secluded Italian estate, tending to her garden, throwing birthday parties for her kids. But the world, and the worldly men who alone could win her, apparently preferred Holly Golightly—the icon, the two-dimensional movie poster, the dramatically posed celebrity. As Audrey’s granddaughter, Emma Katherine Hepburn Ferrer, says in the documentary, “The best-kept secret about Audrey was that she wanted to be loved.”
Perhaps Hepburn’s humanitarian work, her UNICEF tours spent embracing some of the poorest children in the world, was a way for her to hold on to a dream that never quite came true. In her later years, in the dignified philanthropist with the age-burnished visage, we perhaps get a glimpse of who Audrey Hepburn always was behind the photographs, the sunglasses, the haute couture: a woman whose adored father, a Nazi sympathizer, abandoned her when she was seven, a woman who had known almost unimaginable hardship during World War II. Audrey tried to make amends with her father later in her life, but he was, it seems, always aloof with her. Although she had the support of close friends—including Robert Wolders, a man the film portrays as having been very kind to her in her mature years as her lover and de facto last husband—she was isolated, unable to clutch to herself the life she had longed for.
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When I was younger, I loved collecting baseball cards. My brother and I would save our allowance to buy a vintage Nolan Ryan card, a Carl Yastrzemski. We loved Frank White, too, and Ryne Sandberg, and Ken Griffey, Jr. The high point of our young lives was meeting right-fielder Reggie Sanders at a Lookouts game when he was playing for the Cincinnati Reds’ farm team in Chattanooga. Although I can’t believe it in retrospect, our interaction with him consisted of our asking him to sign our Reggie Sanders baseball card. He very kindly obliged.
We should have asked to shake his hand. We should have patted him on the back and congratulated him on his play. But that didn’t occur to us. He was an icon, after all. And so, his signature on a mass-reproduced image of his face was somehow more important than learning about who Reggie Sanders was as a person. Or any of the other players we idolized, for that matter. We knew all their stats, could recite all their accomplishments on the field. But were any of them married? Did they have children? Did they have a favorite kind of ice cream, a favorite memory from long ago? No idea. Don Mattingly was larger than life to us, but, ironically, we had no clue about what kind of life he led. Behind the icons, there was nothing at all.
This flatness of the celebrity image only intensified with time. As I got older, the word “iconoclastic” came to be used more often than “iconic” to describe the people whose names were known by all. The trend was toward destroying the mold rather than fitting into it. One was to be edgy, not elegant as Audrey Hepburn had been. One was to be rough and abrupt, vulgar even, a passionate artist with no time for convention. Grunge took over from hair-band stage acts, realism hit the theaters where once all had been costume and polish. To be an iconoclast somehow came to rank above being an icon. I grew up in an age of breakage, of wanton insubordination. But even that gets us no closer to the men and women whom the world holds up as worthy of note. Iconoclast is just as remote as icon.
Iconography originally entailed portraits of saints. Icons are windows into heaven, images of the person granted eternal life with God. One kisses icons in an Orthodox church. One longs to meet the real deal among the blessed someday. But secular iconography is the opposite. It’s a fake and cheap knock-off, a dead end. Seeing Audrey Hepburn’s face tells us little—nothing, really—about the woman who wore it. It’s not supposed to, in fact. It’s supposed to lead us astray, to instill in us a desire that only the next movie, the next magazine cover, can, we are told, fulfill. By no means are we to be satisfied with Audrey Hepburn the person.
As my wife and I watched the Audrey Hepburn documentary, I twinged a little with remorse. I had done my part to build Audrey up into the cinematic and fashion icon she remains. I had seen her in Roman Holiday, had seen her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and had bought into the make-believe that was being sold. I saw a celluloid offprint, not even a millimeter thick, and called it by a person’s name. But I had no idea who the real person was underneath.
What I saw on the big screen as fetching coquettishness, as a polished Hollywood pose, perhaps felt, to Audrey Hepburn, like loose gauze over an ugly scar. I try putting myself in her place for a moment, and I suddenly stop seeing all of the bright lights and the accolades. I see, instead, someone looking to be appreciated for who she really is, but forever being mistaken for a movie star. Her father’s abandonment of her, the terror and deprivation she had experienced during the war years in Europe, the harsh words of critics and producers that could cut to the quick—on the outside Audrey was a poised and elegant lady, but things must have felt very different on the inside.
It never even occurred to me that there was an inside. She was Audrey Hepburn, icon, and never Audrey Hepburn, fellow human being. I did the same with Reggie Sanders, mutatis mutandis. I did the same with singers and guitar players, too. Even with politicians. Everyone an icon, or an iconoclast. Nobody a flesh-and-blood person. I do the same with people I see on the Internet today, with news stories online, with staged shots on Instagram. Just a few electrons stacked on one another, thinner still than the old-style film, much thinner than the cardboard our baseball cards were printed on.
For modern-day icons, being unrecognized is, paradoxically, the only way to be appreciated. There is a big lesson in this for our celebrity-obsessed culture, for a world in which even the mundane is turned into an online photo shoot. People on social media strive after worldwide notoriety—everyone his or her own paparazzi, scattering iconic images to the corners of the earth with the tap of a button on a screen. But behind the iconography is always a person, imperfect, struggling, longing to be understood.
How often I have forgotten this. I go through each day failing to find the human person behind the staged and stage-lit simulacra flooding Facebook and Twitter. The Audrey Hepburn documentary showed me the unbridgeable divide between the icon, made for mass consumption, and the person whom the icon obscures. The real iconoclasm today, I have begun to think, is in seeking out the human underneath the relentless iconography of the modern age.