Spotlight: Audrey Hepburn

By Morgan Roberts

May 4th marks Audrey Hepburn’s 91st birthday.  Hepburn is remembered for her many iconic roles.  From Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) to Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” (1964) to Princess Ann in “Roman Holiday” (1953), Hepburn was captivating on-screen.

My personal favourite films of hers are “Charade” (1963) and “Wait Until Dark” (1967).  “Charade” was a smart comedy.  Her banter with Cary Grant was superb.  And I appreciate that she squashed the romantic storyline of the film because of the significant age difference between her and Grant.  Iconic.  Meanwhile, “Wait Until Dark” was much, um, darker, than any other works before.  Hepburn stars as a recently blinded woman who accidentally has a doll full of heroin in her possession.  Alan Arkin plays the drug dealer needing to get his product back.  It is an intriguing and intense cat and mouse game which culminates at the climax of the film where Arkin chases Hepburn through a pitch-black apartment.  It is horrifying, terrifying, stressful, and made watching “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) a bit difficult for a while.

Hepburn was certainly a star on the screen.  With five Oscar nominations with one win, it is clear that Hepburn was a master of her craft.  But what people don’t realize is that her work in Hollywood provided her with the opportunity to do humanitarian work later in life.

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Hepburn was born in Brussels but spent some of her early life in London before moving back to her mother’s homeland, Holland.  While living in the Netherlands, WWII broke out.  There was a three week period during the German occupation, Hepburn and her mother lived in a cellar with tulip bulbs as their only source of food.  Her father was a Nazi sympathizer while the maternal side of her family were supporters – and some members – of the Dutch resistance.  During WWII, Hepburn suffered from depression and malnutrition.

“Hepburn was certainly a star on the screen. With five Oscar nominations with one win, it is clear that Hepburn was a master of her craft.”

So when given the opportunity, in the late-1980s, Hepburn was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador of UNICEF. Hepburn travelled the world to war-torn countries and to communities facing hunger, lapse in medical care.  After a trip to Ethiopia in 1988, Hepburn said, “I have a broken heart.  I feel desperate.  I can’t stand the idea that two million people are in imminent danger of starving to death, many of them children, [and] not because there isn’t tons of food sitting in the northing port of Shoa.  It can’t be distributed. Last spring, Red Cross and UNICEF workers were ordered out of the northern provinces because of two simultaneous civil wars…. I went into rebel country and saw mothers and their children who had walked for ten days, even three weeks, looking for food, settling onto the desert floor into makeshift camps where they may die. Horrible. That image is too much for me.  The ‘Third World’ is a term I don’t like very much, because we’re all one world.  I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering.”

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In addition to Ethiopia, Hepburn visited Turkey, Central America, Vietnam, Somalia, meeting with world leaders to discuss humanitarian aid efforts.  It is the images of her amongst children, listening earnestly to them, hugging them, holding them, loving them, moves me more than her films.  While she was a tremendous actress, she was an even more phenomenal human.  She was more than a style icon but a true humanitarian, one looking to find ways to improve the lives of others through help and love.

“Whenever her birthday rolls around, sure, I will talk about her films. I will mention she was a style icon.  But, more than anything, I focus on her humanitarian work.”

Hepburn died in 1993 of cancer.  She was posthumously awarded the President Medal of Freedom and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her humanitarian work.

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Her humanitarian work had a huge impact on me as a kid. I had to do a school project at the age of 13 about famous or notable people, and I chose Audrey Hepburn based on my love of “Charade.”  As I dove into her past, the trauma of war endured in her youth, and how that shaped her humanitarian work; I was truly inspired by this marvellous person.  Whenever her birthday rolls around, sure, I will talk about her films. I will mention she was a style icon.  But, more than anything, I focus on her humanitarian work.  The love she gave to others was beautiful.  And it is a beautiful reminder to be sharing love during times of turmoil and crisis.

“People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.”

To find out more about UNICEF and their on-going work, then please click here.

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