Audrey Hepburn: ‘Roman Holiday’ Star Started as Nightclub Dancer

ROMAN HOLIDAY, Audrey Hepburn, 1953
Courtesy Everett Collection

To celebrate Variety’s 115th anniversary, we went to the archives to see how some of Hollywood’s biggest stars first landed in the pages of our magazine. Read more from the archives here.

On July 5, 1950, Variety reviewed the floor show at Ciro’s London, mentioning “a nice dance routine by Diana Monks and Audrey Hepburn.” When you think of nightclub dancers, Hepburn is not the image that comes to mind. But three years before “Roman Holiday,” she was a struggling performer, after having studied ballet in the Netherlands and London. (She was born in Belgium and her family, like many others, was profoundly affected by WWII, both in the U.K. and Europe.)

The Ciro’s revue was called “Summer Nights,” and came with a $1.50 cover charge ($15 in today’s economy). Variety said it was “one of the most ambitious floor shows in town. Production is costing around $1,500 a week, which is considerably above average for a show of 28 minutes.” The lineup also included a French singer, a comic impressionist, a duo offering a Spanish dance and, as Variety noted, no trick lighting or special scenery. “As a finale, the entire company is on for a lively frolic,” though it didn’t describe exactly what this frolic entailed.

The following year, in 1951, Hepburn made a big splash in a nonmusical Broadway version of “Gigi,” after having been discovered by author Collette. Hepburn appeared in a dozen roles in films and TV, most of them forgotten, before hitting it big with “Roman Holiday.” Six months before the film opened, Hepburn made her Los Angeles stage debut with “Gigi” and on March 23, 1953, Variety noted that the box-office was just OK. It’s a safe bet that it would have been a sellout after Hepburn became such a sensation in the romantic comedy opposite Gregory Peck.

Audiences hadn’t seen anybody like her. She had a distinctive accent that was impossible to pinpoint (European? British?) and she redefined Hollywood beauty. In the early 1950s, audiences liked big Technicolor glamour gals, such as Jane Russell, Yvonne DeCarlo and Marilyn Monroe. “She started something new, something classy,” says Billy Wilder in the book “Conversations With Wilder” by Cameron Crowe. Wilder first directed her in “Sabrina,” which earned her a second Oscar nomination after her “Roman Holiday” win. (She earned five noms in all.) She and Wilder then collaborated with “Love in the Afternoon.”

Off camera, said Wilder of the actress, “sometimes standing on the set, she disappeared. When she stood before the cameras, she became Miss Audrey Hepburn. There was something just absolutely adorable about her … You cannot duplicate her. She was a thing made in heaven.”