Not So Saintly After All: A Sad Star, Strongly Sexed

100206 article book eyman Not So Saintly After All:  A Sad Star, Strongly SexedAudrey Hepburn moved through her movies like a mournful swan, unsure of her own beauty. For years she was the anti-Marilyn, the pensive garden princess preferred by people who pined for the gentility and grace that had supposedly been driven out of Hollywood’s Edenic garden by Monroe and the overtly sexual stars that followed in her wake.

With time, it’s become obvious that Hepburn possessed a sensuality all her own. Despite her ethereal appeal, she was strongly sexed: She had extramarital affairs with William Holden, Robert Anderson and Ben Gazzara. She was also a conflicted, somewhat morose personality, not far removed from Marilyn’s own fault lines.

Hepburn came out of war-torn Belgium with an abiding sense of the crevasse beneath the high wire, and a very odd bloodline: Her mother was a baroness, her father an emotionally remote fascist. (Both parents raised money for Oswald Mosley.) She came to acting through dance and was a star in both theater (Gigi, in 1951) and movies (Roman Holiday, in 1953) before she was 24.

As is often the case, her professional success was unmatched by personal satisfaction. Her first husband was the sepulchral, charmless Mel Ferrer, who tried to leverage their marriage into a directorial career; his successor was Andrea Dotti, an Italian psychiatrist with zipper problems. It was only near the end of her life, with her work for UNICEF and a relationship with the actor Robert Wolders, that she seems to have found some contentment.

There have been four or five books about Hepburn, the most emotionally intimate being a memoir by her son Sean. Donald Spoto thus comes to the party a bit late, shortly after issuing volumes on subjects as diverse as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Francis of Assisi and the efficacy of prayer. (Once as ubiquitous as the giddy, reliably goofy Charles Higham, Mr. Spoto’s output of gossipy but adoring biographies has slowed since he reconnected with his religious roots.)

Do we need yet another harvesting of this over-ploughed field? Probably not—especially not one with a weakness for buzz-kill transitions, like the subtitles in a Griffith Biograph that tell us what we’re about to see: “A terrifying accident interrupted filming on January 28.”

As he does in most of his books, Mr. Spoto brings to Enchantment a moist sensibility, presenting his subject as a near-divinity. Writing about Hepburn’s frequent pairings with much older male stars such as Gary Cooper and Fred Astaire, he writes, “The situation was very much like the tradition of medieval and Renaissance religious art, in which the youthful Virgin Mary is represented alongside her husband, Joseph—represented as a venerable old man, bearded and avuncular. The relationship, therefore, seemed chaste, free of the taint of carnal progress.”

This is ridiculous. Aging male stars of that generation often hitched their weathered glory to a younger star with more commercial or sensual heat: Witness Cary Grant and Sophia Loren in Houseboat; Clark Gable and Doris Day in Teacher’s Pet; Gable and Monroe in The Misfits; or, to take an example closer to the present day, Harrison Ford and Anne Heche in Six Days Seven Nights. (Decline and fall, neatly illustrated.)

It’s hard to give much credence to the judgments of an author who prefers the badly embalmed My Fair Lady (1964) to Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957)—and then compounds the error by calling the musical “in every visual detail … one of the great artistic achievements in popular entertainment.” What on earth is Mr. Spoto burbling about? The flowers in the foreground as Jeremy Brett lip-syncs “On the Street Where You Live”?

Having outraged common sense, Mr. Spoto foolishly forges on. Although Hepburn (along with Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins) is among the least convincing Cockneys in movie history, Mr. Spoto believes that her breathy little whisper of a singing voice should have been used instead of Marni Nixon’s. But My Fair Lady is carefully constructed for a Henry Higgins who can’t sing and an Eliza Doolittle who can. The film’s creative problems were planted when Jack Warner blundered and hired Audrey Hepburn instead of Julie Andrews, or anyone else who could sing—hence the need for Ms. Nixon’s soprano.

Mr. Spoto doesn’t write comprehensive biographies; rather, he targets his research so he can drop some fresh raisins into the porridge. In this case, there are the details of the financial hiding that Hepburn took at the beginning of her career—she was paid only about $12,000 for starring in Sabrina (1954), while William Holden got $80,000 and Bogart got $200,000.

Also interesting is the revelation that Kathryn Hulme, the author of The Nun’s Story, which Fred Zinnemann converted into one of his—and Hepburn’s—best movies, was in fact the lover of Marie Louise Habets, the book’s subject. Mr. Spoto opts for a prissier phrase—“soul mates”—but there’s no doubt what he’s talking about, which gives Sister Luke’s renunciation a meaning that would have seriously compromised the lofty idealism of Zinnemann’s film.

It’s become increasingly obvious that any great star makes mid-level biographies redundant. The truth of their being is in every close-up, and that truth is wrapped in a mystery mere words can’t dispel. Certainly, Audrey Hepburn’s performances in Funny Face (1957), The Nun’s Story (1959), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Two for the Road (1967), Robin and Marian (1976) and, yes, Love in the Afternoon have a luminosity that’s nowhere to be found in this book.

Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer.