Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Hepburn Dichotomy

A friend of mine recently reminded me of a well-known theory involving two classic film stars.
At the time, we were discussing Sabrina and Audrey Hepburn’s penchant for playing the same sort of girl in film after film (flighty and glamorous). I observed that while it is great fun to spend a couple of hours basking in Audrey’s immaculate glibness, I am pretty well satiated with her by the time her film’s end. In fact, I am not certain how many more minutes I could stand of her.
This provoked my aforementioned friend to remind me that when it comes to Hepburn, some guys prefer Audrey – others Katharine. When it comes to dating women, “guys want one or the other,” she said.
I confess I had totally forgotten this dichotomy and reveled in being reacquainted with it. And although reducing an entire gender to a rather stark choice between two starlets is fraught with difficulty, I am nonetheless forced to admit there is truth in what my friend said.
The Hepburn Dichotomy breaks down in the following ways…
Audrey is fun, unserious and delightfully fashionable. She always wears perfect clothes, continually smiles at just the right moments and is forever ready to giggle at the absurdity of life. Her ability to be so unserious is bolstered by the fact that bad things do not happen to her on-screen – indeed, the entire notion of bad things even existing seems impossible in her cinematic world (Wait Until Dark aside). Everyone she meets is kind and willing to either wait on her or indulge whatever dreams her character conjures up for plot points.
As far as looks go, Audrey is elfin and girlish in the cute and innocent way that causes males to crumble. She is made-up almost entirely of limbs; hence her ability to look “fabulous” in just about whatever she is wearing. Women, who all secretly wish they could dress like her and pull it off half as well, typically describe her as a kind of “gorgeous” icon, worthy of the same high fashionista status as Jackie Kennedy or Marilyn Monroe. Men describe her as “pretty” and steer well clear of pointing out the obvious fact that part of her physical charm rests in her aforementioned girlishness. The word “sexy” never really comes into the conversation...
Always up for fun...
In contrast, Katharine is far more stoic, far more serious. She could be elegant, but nobody would describe her as fashionable, and for most of her career, she had a reputation – partly of her own making – for being something of a tomboy. She generally had to strive in her films to succeed and the world was not always pitch-perfect. Whenever she spoke she sounded serious and got right to the point, usually without batting her eyelashes or giggling.
Patrician beauty...

Put simply, there is nothing girlish about her. She is one of those women whose beauty looked “mature” – for lack of a better word – even when she was girlish and very young. She is made of more statuesque stuff than Audrey, and in the end, much of Katharine's charm comes down to appreciating her character.
As to whether guys want one or the other?
Well, without venturing too far into pop psychology, I think guys want both.
Every male dated an Audrey at some point in school – or really wanted to. Audrey is fun and carefree (and as my friend noted, “she doesn’t talk back”). She would make a wonderful date for a cocktail party and the perfect partner for a romantic weekend getaway – the latter of which is essentially the plot of Roman Holiday. But it is difficult to believe that after the fun and games are over that a lasting relationship could be built alongside Audrey’s screen persona. There just does not seem to be a lot of staying-power there...
I think this is because Audrey is forever playing the princess (both literally and figuratively), and attracting men to sweep her off her feet and take care of her. That is fine in the fantasia of movies, less so in real life. Katharine, on the other hand, is made of sterner, more independent stuff. Her relationships – such as the one in The African Queen – are largely built on mutual respect and cooperative achievement. She is old and withered in The Lion in Winter, and yet she still manages to hold the attention of King Henry precisely because she has as much guile and wit as he does – and he knows it.

In love with talking
Based on their film appearances, we can offer this further generalization: If a person dated Audrey, he could win her heart simply by showing her a good time; if a person dated Katharine, he would have to earn her love through a much deeper commitment (say an external cause, like blowing up a German warship).

As for where I come down on the two, I will simply recount a Humphrey Bogart story and leave things at that. The Hollywood stalwart got along famously with Katharine during the filming of The African Queen. He complained constantly about working with Audrey during the shooting of Sabrina. It was not just the difference in their ages, either. Remember, Bogey knew a thing or two about younger women (he was married to Lauren Bacall at the time he made Sabrina). For all her girlish charms, it seems he just could not abide Audrey’s flights of fancy for more than a few hours, either...

Definitive Hepburn films:
Katherine: The African Queen (reviewed here), Bringing up Baby, The Lion in Winter
Audrey: Sabrina, Roman Holiday (reviewed here), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (reviewed here)


  1. Much as I admire Katharine Hepburn, my vote goes to Audrey.

    Katharine's incessant Yankee twang and snooty primness tend to grate on my nerves after a while. My own favorite of her performances is "Long Day's Journey into Night"...there is one scene in particular that is, for me, so mesmerizing and unforgettable I can watch it over and over.

    I find Audrey enchanting. And, according to what I've read, so did a long list of her co-stars: Bill Holden, Gregory Peck, Albert Finney and Cary Grant - some of whose hearts she broke. As an actress, Audrey tended to stick to type, as Katharine tended to do, though she strayed on occasion, too ("The Children's Hour," "Robin and Marian").

    On the beauty front, I've aways seen Katharine as more a powerful presence of great individual style (plus those amazing cheekbones) rather than a beauty. Audrey, on the other hand, was one of the iconic faces of the '50s and '60s. In fact, top '60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton bore an uncanny resemblance to her.

    Another point...the "regular guys" (meaning: not movie stars) I know don't seem to find either Katharine or Audrey all that irresistible. However, the woman I know do seem to find them so - perhaps, in their different ways, they represent iconic types to which we aspire.

    All in all, a great, thought-provoking post that I thoroughly enjoyed.

  2. She didn't break Bogey's heart (lol)!

    But I do think you're right in pointing out that the dichotemy may be more appreciated by women who admire these actresses than men...

    Even so, I think the personas do lend well to the kind of generalized arguement I made -- even if most guys are unaware of who they are or find them unappealing. You can play the Hepburn game with modern actresses, too. Meryl, Gweneth, Angelina, etc. These women can all be pushed into one catagory or another, albeit somewhat crudely.