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Audrey Hepburn documentary reminds us how the actress became beloved worldwide

While lacking new insights, the film provides ample evidence of her star power and a solid summary of her journey through show business and humanitarian work.

Audrey Hepburn is pictured in the early 1950s, when she got her first big break, landing the title role in the Broadway musical “Gigi.”
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you took a generous sip of champagne every time someone says “icon” or “iconic” to describe Audrey Hepburn’s acting or fashion or hairstyles or presence in “Audrey,” you’d be too hungover to enjoy breakfast at Tiffany’s — but then again, the legendary, trendsetting, globally beloved Audrey Hepburn deserves the “icon” label as much as nearly anyone who has ever graced a Hollywood soundstage.

And while this worshipful documentary breaks no new ground and often seems like little more than a glorified IMDB bio accompanied by video, it serves as a lovely and valuable reminder of Hepburn’s unique star power and grace in front of the camera — and her kindness and tireless work for the less fortunate long after she had kissed the cinema a fond farewell.

Two words: “Roman Holiday.” If you haven’t seen it, please give it a watch before you watch “Audrey.” Hepburn’s indelible performance in that film arms you with all the evidence you need to understand how she became such an … an …

Icon.

Director Helena Coan quickly and capably takes us through the early stages of Hepburn’s life, when the notion of little Audrey becoming a movie star would have seemed too farfetched for an actual Hollywood movie. Her family was relatively well-off, but her parents were ardent fascists and Nazi sympathizers pre-World War II and her father abandoned the family when Audrey was just 6. (The documentary is not the first to speculate this was why Hepburn often was romantically attracted to father-figure older men.)

Audrey arrived in London from The Netherlands after the war with dreams of becoming a ballet star but eventually turned to acting onstage and in small film roles, getting her first big break when she was cast in the title role in the Broadway play “Gigi” in 1951 and getting her first starring movie role and winning Oscar for best actress in the aforementioned “Roman Holiday.”

We get the time-honored documentary formula of family photos and home movies, archival footage from talk shows and awards shows and clips from Hepburn’s work, interspersed with interviews with Hepburn’s son, Sean Hepburn Ferrer (who speaks with great eloquence and love about his mother); her granddaughter Emma; old family friends and associates, and veteran journalists, as well as Peter Bogdanovich, who directed Hepburn in the noble failure “They All Laughed” in 1981, and Richard Dreyfuss, who appeared with Hepburn in her last film, Steven Spielberg’s spiritually themed romantic comedy/drama “Always” (1989).

Of course, we’re going to hear about the famous opening to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” with Hepburn exiting a cab at dawn to the instrumental strains of “Moon River” — wearing that black dress and oversized sunglasses, hair swept up, ropes of pearls around her neck, taking out a croissant and coffee while gazing into the windows of Tiffany’s flagship store. Of course, we’re going to hear how she influenced generations with her sense of style and her famous haircut. It’s so easy to see how she became a star for the ages.

Alas, “Audrey” hits a storytelling pothole from time to time, whenever actors are used for dramatic enhancement. Late in the film, we see three dancers, apparently representing Hepburn at different stages in her life, doing a mournful ballet together. This is tantamount to having actors portray Michael Jordan from time to time in “The Last Dance.” It’s not terrible; it’s simply unnecessary.

Audrey Hepburn visits Ethiopia in 1988 as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
UNICEF/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

My favorite moments in “Audrey” are the smaller ones, e.g., a “Tonight Show” clip with a visibly awed Johnny Carson literally holding the star’s hand and seeming tentative and almost nervous — in stark contrast to his usual image as the suave and sophisticated king of late night. And “Audrey” reminds us Hepburn was still greatly in demand when she semi-retired in 1967 (we catch a glimpse of a letter she wrote to Stanley Kubrick, politely turning down a role), as she longed for a life less complicated, where she could enjoy her family and her dogs, take long walks, spend time in the garden, cook for friends.

On occasion, Hepburn would take an acting role, but her last great part was her most admirable: traveling the world as an ambassador for UNICEF, devoting her time and resources and star power to combating child hunger everywhere. In that role, she was magnificent.