The pet project of Jennifer Love Hewitt has many positive attributes, from Frances Fisher’s stirring turn as Hepburn’s mother to Marsha Norman’s graceful and engaging script; also, “The Audrey Hepburn Story” benefits from a nonfiction story far more interesting than run-of-the-mill celebrity making. Substantial time is spent chronicling Hepburn’s early years studying ballet and evading Nazi invasions — the set-up with the young Audreys (the impressive Emmy Rossum and Seanna Kofoed) takes considerable weight off Love Hewitt, who is not quite up to an impossible task: Re-create the charm and beauty that was Audrey Hepburn.
Although it lags toward the end, three-hour telepic should pull in decent ratings. Thinking that Oscar puts celebrity on America’s collective mind and that this biopic will deliver the goods in the numbers column, ABC might have wasted a solid sweeps contender.
By beginning in Brussels in 1935 with her Nazi sympathizer dad (Keir Dullea) leaving the family to head to London, telepic works over Hepburn’s lengthy search for her father and how that search manifests itself in her choice of lovers. Hepburn was clearly attracted to father figures and took emotional risks that make for intriguing drama. A major casting flub, however, is putting Eric McCormack, who looks like he graduated from college in Love Hewitt’s class, in the role of Mel Ferrer, who was a dozen years older than the starlet and arrived with four children in tow. (Not so in this film).
Pic opens on the New York set of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and drops into flashback, moving with a wistful air and a sense of impending doom as mom Ella (Fisher) ensures that her daughter is safe and educated. Hepburn moves to a boarding school in England where she picks up ballet, and to Holland, where mom erroneously believes they’ll be safe from a Nazi invasion. Hepburn aids the resistance movement, falling ill as armistice is declared.
Telepic returns to “Tiffany’s” — she’s seen singing “Moon River” quite enthusiastically — and a bit of a lingering cat fight between the star and book’s author Truman Capote (a prissy Michael J. Burg), who wanted Marilyn Monroe for the lead. One of pic’s weak points is the Capote-Hepburn struggle that suggests no one could deny her charms, not even this vinegar-filled prima donna.
Hepburn’s rise is accurately depicted: She gives up ballet to try out for the stage; Jerome Robbins casts her; she lands a role as cigarette girl in a film; Collette asks her to star in “Gigi” on Broadway; and her screen test for “Roman Holiday” knocks out director William Wyler.
Equal weight is given to career and romance — first with stately millionaire James Hanson (a suave Peter Giles), second with a carefree William Holden (Gabriel Macht) and third with Ferrer. Career covers the Oscar win for 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” a return to Broadway in “Ondine,” fashion frolics with Givenchy and a trip to Africa for “The Nun’s Story.” Eventually, it’s her growing concern about helping underprivileged children that piques the viewer’s interest; the collapse of her marriage to Ferrer is boilerplate dull and it comes as the pic starts to lose steam. A cold reconciliation scene between father and daughter, for example, seems lacking in palpable reactions, particularly when one considers the set-up of her emotional being.
Love Hewitt benefits greatly from the presence of the two younger Audreys, whose winning portrayals give her depth and likability. Love Hewitt is handed a ball that’s already rolling and she handles herself gracefully by staying consistently in character; she displays an onscreen maturity that’s far more nuanced than the tortured looks and giggles that pass for acting on Fox’s “Party of Five” and “Time of Your Life.”
She is ably handled by director Steve Robman, whose credits happen to include “Party of Five.” Here he gets a wide-open canvas that subjects itself to the strait-jacket of history only during the “Tiffany’s” scenes. Otherwise, he moves the action with a steady eye for pace and drama.
Technically the pic is sharp as it ranges from World War II Europe to 1960s Manhattan, even capturing the making of “Tiffany’s” with an overlit glare. Score is consistently faux Mancini and Hank’s “Something for Cat” even accompanies a Hepburn meeting with the designer Givenchy.
Producers obviously insisted on a complete portrait of one of the most enduring icons of taste and class. They succeed in proffering a life well-intentioned and well spent, a woman who battled self-doubt and emerged a champion. Her radiance was rare in its day and viable today — just a quick look at the over-the-credits shots of Hepburn on a UNICEF mission late in her life demonstrates what a rare act this woman was.