Born in 1929 in Belgium, Audrey Hepburn was so many things to so many people- Hollywood icon; star, activist, dancer, fashion queen, and so on, but a puzzling, somewhat unpleasant trend emerges in many of her films: the age gap romances between her and her male co-stars.
Whilst her most celebrated role remains the vulnerable (*COUGH*-euphemistic) ‘society girl’ Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards’ 1954 adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the inappropriate pairing is most apparent in Stanley Donen’s Funny Face, where her youthful intellectual beatnik (hmm) Jo Stockton falls for the ridiculously craggy fashion photographer Dick Avery, played by Fred Astaire- way past his prime at 58,even if he could still dance beautifully. She swoons over him, yet he sings the title song to her, as she is considered ‘plain’, until draped in the finest trendy catwalk garments. A crazy premise for anyone to pitch. Kissing Grandad seems the least of the film’s inconsistencies- a cute, yet rather silly film.
Even her first leading role had an age gap of 13 years- the 1953 classic Roman Holiday saw her team up with older journalist Gregory Peck, hiding her aristocracy as she whizzed around Rome with him on his scooter in a last bid for freedom before royal duties beckoned.At least Peck is a debonair match for her, charming and attractive.
Sabrina from 1954 is famous for the alleged off-screen tensions between co-stars Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, but the fact that they are both love rivals for her character is absurd.She’s partnered with Holden again in the caustic film making satire Paris when It Sizzles, and his alcoholism had taken its toll, although he was older.
It is not as though there was a paucity of attractive male leads who would have been suitable- Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Marlon Brando were all contemporaries.Hepburn’s celebrated glamour broke the mould: at a time when voluptuous beauties such as Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner and Anita Ekberg dominated the pin-up lists, Hepburn represented a new doe-eyed sophistication; the very picture of European innocence with her small boyish frame, Givenchy couture and wide smile. The Gamine was born- classy but never sexy, more untouchable and independent, ultimately won over by patrician sugar daddy types.
Another Donen film, Charade had Hepburn playing against Cary Grant (age gap: 25 years) in a very Hitchcockian caper which, although stylish and pacy, reinforced the creepy father-daughter-romance roles somewhat.
Love In The Afternoon Billy Wilder’s film about romantic jealousy and suspicion from 1957 cast Hepburn alongside Gary Cooper (age gap: 27 years)- yet another male lead past his prime, while she shone like a pixie-faced girl.
My Fair Lady 1964’s spin on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion directed by George Cukor is one of her most famous film roles. Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) becomes part of a bet by crusty snob Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison, 21 years older) that his uncultured naif can be transformed into a society lady by means of almost Pavlovian like training, involving elocution, styling and education. Of course, she melts his curmudgeonly old heart, and becomes a charming glamorous woman. This seems a constant- from ingenue to womanly, and all through the actions of men. An insidious, patriarchal device of transformation.
Quite why Hollywood seemed so obsessed with presenting this image of her is never really made clear.In real life, Hepburn had become a mother in 1960,already had a successful dance and chorus line career before films, and had survived the war- hardly a virginal, unworldly woman. It seems that in so doing this, her Peter Pan status was cemented- creating an ageless symbol, rather than flesh and blood woman.
It may be inappropriate to modern sensibilities, but this legacy has, sadly, somewhat endured. Maggie Gyllenhaal spoke out last year, saying that she had been told by a casting director that she was too old at 37 to play opposite a 55 year old leading man as a love interest. “It was astonishing to me,” she said. “At first, it made me feel bad, then angry, then it made me laugh”. Yet it persists, the double standard of authoritarian male and (supposedly) inexperienced young woman.Thanks Audrey- thanks for nothing.
Of course, it’s not really her fault. Fairytales set out the stall for this- the heroine, in need of saving, usually by an elder man was the paradigm. The taste for partnering older men and younger women is a societal double standard which never really goes away-especially on the big screen. It’s not as if she is an anomaly- many other women, from Marilyn Monroe to Chloe Sevigny appeared on screen with father figures. But imagine- just imagine if it were the other way around…