Reflections on research about,
and the continuing influence of, a
movie star 21 years after her death
by Peter Krämer
A big surprise was in store for audiences who, in 1989, went to see Steven Spielberg’s film, Always. About three quarters of an hour into the film, the hero, Pete Sandich (played by Richard Dreyfuss), disappears in the fireball of an airplane explosion, and is next seen wandering in a burnt-out forest. Here, he finds an oasis of grass and flowers, and in it a slender woman dressed in white. The cinema spectator could be forgiven for disturbing the quiet of the auditorium by asking aloud, as I did when I first saw the film: Who is that woman looking like Audrey Hepburn?
It is, of course, Hepburn herself, appearing as an angel, who tells Pete that he has died, and that it is his task as a spirit to inspire a living young man to become the great pilot he had been himself. In the course of doing so, Pete has to confront leaving the love of his life, Dorinda (Holly Hunter). He is pleased to see her mourning for him and, when she encounters his young protégé, Ted, and begins to recover, his jealousy is aroused, making him interfere with the course of her new-found love. Hepburn’s second and final appearance in the film shows her telling Pete that he has to let go of Dorinda, to set her and himself free, so that she is able to live her own life again, and he is able to have a peaceful afterlife. In the end, Dorinda is united with Ted and Pete withdraws from their lives.
Like so many of Spielberg’s films, Always is steeped in nostalgia, for a better, more fulfilling past in a present that is reduced to a shadowy existence. The film itself is a remake of a movie from the golden age of Hollywood that Spielberg loves (A Guy Named Joe, 1944), set in World War II. And Hepburn appears in Always like ‘a ghost from the past’, looking as fragile and beautiful as ever, strangely untouched by the course of time, except for a few wrinkles. She is not only the embodiment of this different age, but she is also the living proof that it can live on. She is both a reminder of the past, and its continuation into the present.
While Spielberg clearly invites us to share the film’s nostalgic outlook, he also makes us aware of it, and even criticises it. After all, the story is concerned with the dangers of clinging to the past, of the necessity of letting go of people, and of moving on without forgetting or devaluing what has gone before. Whereas Dorinda finally achieves this balance, it is not quite clear what Pete is turning to when he turns his back on the young couple. In a sense, he is a representative of both the movie’s director and the people in front of the screen who, after a hopefully intensive engagement with the fate of the characters in the make-belief world of the cinema, have to turn away from it and get on with their real lives, about which the film has nothing to say.
Hepburn’s role, however, is a different proposition altogether. In character and as herself, she seems to be a timeless, ageless figure, transcending not only the boundaries of this particular fiction, but also the limitations of biological existence itself. The surprise, even shock of her presence gives the film an added dimension: she is an infinitely bigger star than the other actors, and she has a more powerful screen presence, not least because of the echoes of her movie past; yet, at the same time, she is minimally present, as an unworldly angel. Spielberg counts on the affection, fascination, admiration, maybe even love, that the star has inspired in generations of cinemagoers and television viewers.
And he makes her, the star, a figure of renunciation, for it is she who demands from Pete that he release the object of his affection so that she can be a subject again, an agent in her own right. It would seem that this plea applies not only to Dorinda, but also to Hepburn, the star. When, at the end of the film, Pete turns away from Dorinda, we must also finally turn away from Hepburn, who, after her role in Always, would never return to the big screen again.
Hepburn died just over 21 years ago, on 20 January 1993. At the time, I was surprised to find myself deeply touched by the news of her death and by the evocations in the media of her life and films. Perhaps the fact that I had seen Always just a few years earlier had something to do with it. In any case, being a film historian, my emotional response to Hepburn’s death quickly gave rise to the desire to find out more about her. I was surprised that hardly any books about her were in print in the UK at the time, and there was very little academic work. I started to carry out my own primary research, systematically re-viewing her films (including two versions of the very first film she appeared in, the Anglo-Dutch co-production Nederlands in Zeven Lessen/Dutch at the Double (1948) and then examining various archival materials (notably press clippings files and scripts) in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. This research in turn gave rise to a series of conference papers and three academic publications: on Roman Holiday, Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s .
These texts are just a drop in the ocean of writing about Audrey Hepburn across the last twenty years. In addition to countless newspaper and magazine articles, there have been numerous books (mostly popular biographies) and a growing number of academic studies of her films, her star image and her fans. The most recent substantial publication is a volume edited by Jacqui Miller, which will come out in April this year. My own contribution to this volume is ‘The Making of an International Star: The Early Film Career and Star Image of Audrey Hepburn, 1948-1954’.
Looking back on my publications on Hepburn, I realise that in addition to their scholarly ambitions, they are also quite personal (although this dimension may not be obvious to other readers). All the research I have done has deepened my fascination with this public figure and with the (filmic and non-filmic) roles she played – and, in many ways continues to play – on the world stage (as an actress, fashion icon, celebrity and UNICEF ambassador). As if I was replaying the basic dynamic of Spielberg’s casting of Hepburn as an angel and a figure of renunciation in Always, my academic writing about her always seems to return to an acknowledgment of the enormous distance between this iconic personality and the rest of humanity, which is indeed a central theme in some of her most famous movies (such as Roman Holiday, 1953, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961). In other words, like many a fan’s investment in the films and life of a star, a scholar’s research and writing may ultimately serve only to emphasise distance and separation rather than bringing about a feeling of (imaginary) closeness.
 ‘“Faith in Relations Between People”: Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday and European Integration’, in Diana Holmes and Alison Smith (eds) 2002, 100 Years of European Cinema: Entertainment or Ideology?, Manchester University Press: Manchester, pp. 195-206; ‘“A cutie with more than beauty”: Audrey Hepburn, the Hollywood Musical and Funny Face’, in Bill Marshall and Robyn Stilwell (eds) 2000, Musicals: Hollywood and Beyond, Intellect: Exeter, pp. 62-9; ‘The Many Faces of Holly Golightly: Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Hollywood’, Film Studies, no. 5 (Winter 2004), pp. 58-65.
Peter Krämer is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia. He has published several essays on female film stars and producers (Audrey Hepburn, Sherry Lansing, Jodie Foster and Sandra Bullock) and on female audiences. One of his latest publications on female protagonists in science fiction cinema and adventure stories can be found here. His recent books include The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (2005), 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010) and A Clockwork Orange (2011).