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That neck, those eyes...the missing 30 years

Sunday, March 26, 2000

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Remember that "PLAN AHEAD" desk sign with the last three letters all jammed together - victims of spatial ill-planning?

Something similar afflicts "The Audrey Hepburn Story," which should be titled "The Audrey Hepburn Half-Story." Writer Marsha Norman's theory is, "Give me liberties or give me death." In her play " 'Night Mother," she took the latter. In her "Audrey" story, she takes the former. She also takes the booby prize for omitting the two most powerful events of her subject's life.

That odd narrative decision was presumably based on budget limitations and/or the limitations of Jennifer Love Hewitt, whom my normally benign daughter hates and hissed during the screening for reasons understood only by her gender. I, in my wisdom (the wisdom of never having seen her before), do not hate JLH and rooted for her dramatic survival in an unenviable part: It's the best of roles, it's the worst of roles - as dangerous as the one Audrey got in the film version of "My Fair Lady."


"The Audrey Hepburn Story"

When: 8 p.m. March 27 on ABC.

Starring: Jennifer Love Hewitt, Frances Fisher, Keir Dullea.


Hepburn's Liza couldn't escape the ghost of Julie Andrews' popular original. Hewitt's Hepburn struggles to impersonate an icon whose face, voice and much-beloved persona are familiar to the world. Ever wonder why Audrey is the only great star that drag artists never do? No? I'll tell you anyway: Because she was too low-key and real for parody. What character traits would you choose or exploit to render her?

Hewitt chooses "sincere" and, in a yeowoman effort, halfway succeeds. She's got the vocal cadences and the neck - must've had it surgically extended for the occasion. She can't help it if she lacks those crucial [ital] Audrey eyes [unital]. Where the hell were the makeup artists? It's not a major Tom Savini challenge. I could have done it for her myself with some mascara and an industrial-strength eyeliner.

Worse, she's saddled with a gaggle of supporting characters - Greg Peck (Swede Svensson), William Holden (Gabriel Macht), Mel Ferrer (Eric McCormack), Truman Capote (Michael J. Berg) - who don't vaguely resemble the well-known originals.

Everybody is further saddled by a soap-operatic acting (and Steve Robman's directing) style: Nobody has a body below the shoulders or, if they do, uses it to act with. Infatuated with their own faces, they "emote" from the outside in (vice versa is correct), knowing that every four-minute scene will end - just like "Days of Our Lives" - with the camera zooming in for a lingering caress of their beautiful features before the commercial.

Worst of all is Berg's Capote, a hideous caricature with an absurd Southern accent and soprano voice, always hovering and bitching on the "Breakfast at Tiffany's" shoot: "Can you believe they gave her a [italic] song [unital]? Call girls don't sing!"

Well, he has a point. There are more insipid variations on the "Moon River" theme here - major, minor, jazzy, schmaltzy, upper, downer - than Henry Mancini could have shaken a baton at. It's the "All Moon River, All the Time" channel. By the time Hewitt gets around to doing her own passable version of it, we've long since overdosed.

The good news: Frances Fisher is wonderfully effective as Audrey's mother, a bona fide Dutch baroness, full of maternal warmth and support. Never mind that it's a fairytale "upgrade" of the real-life mama, as is her dishonest transformation into an anti-fascist from the fervid Nazi sympathizer she actually was until abandoned by her like-minded husband, well played by an ancient-looking Keir Dullea (gone tomorrow).

Convinced that Germany would never invade Holland, the Baroness removed herself and 10-year-old Audrey from London to Arnhem for safety - Famous Last Decisions. During six brutal years of Nazi occupation, Audrey delivered messages and performed other small heroic services for the Resistance. There is real tension and suspense in the war sequences and real beauty in the ballet scenes, soulfully performed by Emmy Rossum as the teen Audrey. There are a few Central Casting Nazis running around, yelling, beating people up and being outwitted by her.

But where is the astonishing airdrop of 10,000 paratroopers into her backwater town to capture "A Bridge Too Far," the monumental Battle of Arnhem? Or even a [ital] mention [unital] of it? Why hoke up little incidents when the huge reality was infinitely more dramatic?

Because battle scenes cost a fortune to stage. But you can rent WW2-doc footage for a song - if you weren't a slave to the TV-safe subjects of stardom and romance, and melodramatic details thereof. For 175 leisurely minutes, we get a blow-by-blow account of Hepburn's first 30 years, through "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961), then suddenly - sayonara! End o' film.

The [ital] last [unital] 30 years of her life? Not short shrift. NO shrift. What exactly is shrift? I just looked it up. To "shrive" is to confess; shrift, the noun from it. A short one was granted to condemned men for confession and absolution before execution.

Hepburn from 1962 to her death in 1992 is dispatched with lightning speed in two title cards and 20 seconds of screen time: "She completed many other films ... gave birth to another son ... and spent the last years of her life working tirelessly with UNICEF on behalf of the world's children." The epilogue is a maddeningly brief snippet of the real Audrey on UNICEF duty. It lasts 10 seconds, but who's counting?

I am. At three hours total, "The Audrey Hepburn Story" had plenty of time to give us more than a perfunctory kiss-off of her passionate UNICEF work in general, rescuing millions of Somalians from starvation in particular.

Holly Golightly finding Cat in the rain - a lovely scene whose replication here is quite faithful. Jennifer Love Hewitt has done her homework and worked hard and is not to be dismissed. But I'm still not sure why we want to watch Hewitt mimic Hepburn when we can get Hepburn just down the street at Blockbuster.

Barry Paris is author of the biography "Audrey Hepburn," published by Putnam.

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