I know I’m not the first to make this realization, but while scanning 1950s articles about Hollywood the other day, I stumbled across a piece comparing and contrasting two stars on the rise in 1953, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.
It had never occurred to me that this dichotomous pair, arguably the two most iconic, recognizable, still-relevant Hollywood stars ever, burst upon the scene within months of each other. Yes, Marilyn had already appeared in many pictures as a supporting player from 1947 through 1952, but it was her role as the would-be husband killer in Niagara (released in February 1953) followed in quick succession by the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (August) and comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (November) that launched her to superstardom.
Hepburn on the other hand had found Hollywood via Broadway, where she’d earned raves for Gigi in 1952. Just to show how stars are born, Marilyn clawed and scraped her way up the ladder, while Audrey lucked into break after break. A couple of bit parts had earned Hepburn a pair of supporting roles in European pictures. While making one of these, the playwright Collette stumbled upon Hepburn in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby and knew instantly that this was the girl to play her title character, Gigi.
Faster than you can say Air France, Hepburn was jetting to Broadway in 1952 and earning press that made Hollywood a logical next step. And who should snap her up but William Wyler at Paramount for Roman Holiday, a picture tailor made for a pretty, young European unknown with a mostly British accent. In other words, it had taken Marilyn six years, many nude modeling assignments, and by my count 20 motion pictures and however many casting couches to get where Audrey Hepburn found herself overnight in September 1953.
What struck me about the late-1953 article taking a first look at Monroe and Hepburn was its question posed to the American public: Which do you prefer: curves or straightaways? Marilyn was already well known for bombshell curves the likes of which Hollywood had rarely seen. She was like a crazy-deluxe combination of Mae West and Lana Turner. Then out of nowhere comes this Hepburn girl from Holland by way of London and New York. Hepburn was described out of the gate as “boyish” and “elfin.” Wyler even called her a strange combination of “pretty and ugly.” In retrospect this seems outlandish but in context, Audrey had lived through World War II and spent months emaciated from lack of food. After the war, she grew chubby from overeating. And all the while her face was transitioning from nothing special to drop-dead arresting. When she hit Broadway and then Hollywood, nobody had seen anything quite like her before, and that which has become a modern standard for beauty took consumers in the United States some getting used to.
It’s amazing to me that IMDB lists 33 film and TV credits for Marilyn Monroe and 34 for Audrey Hepburn. Neither had a long career for vastly different reasons, and both left us wanting much more. As humans, they couldn’t have been any more different. Insecure Monroe became a super-sad super diva, while Hepburn retired from the screen for her two sons and for Unicef. Monroe coveted accolades as an actress and studied under Lee Strasburg; Hepburn spent her later years feeling she was never an actress and kept apologizing for it. Monroe was notorious for missing her call times by hours and half-days and Hepburn never showed up anywhere late even by a single minute. Yet today, given that Marilyn died 55 years ago and Audrey 24, they are the most famous of Hollywood icons, these two who hit the bigtime in 1953, one famous for curves, and the other for straightaways.
Very interesting contrast!
Whenever my mom would cut my dad a piece of cake, she’d ask, “Is this a nice size?” and he’d say, “Well, Audrey Hepburn is a nice size, but so is Sophia Loren.” Sophia, like Marilyn, was also known for her curves, but Dad favored brunettes over blondes. He also didn’t think much of MM as an actress, except for “Bus Stop.” However, when Audrey died, he said “There’s another angel in heaven.” One of my last memories of him is watching a DVD of “Funny Face” on a little DVD player we’d bring to the nursing home. He wept through most of it because he thought she was so beautiful (and he was also a great admirer of Astaire). I can’t watch that movie without crying now, myself, and my husband will say, “What are you crying for? It’s a musical.”
I’m sorry, Rosemarie, for not seeing this comment sooner. It made me LOL for a couple of reasons. First, your husband is such a guy. Second, Audrey always thought she was downright ugly and was baffled by compliments. She said that when she was a teenager, she’d look in the mirror and be sad because she was so ugly that no boy would ever want to marry her.
Your dad had great taste.
Looking at Audrey, one senses sleek elegance. She would never select the wrong fork at dinner, would always know instinctively just the right gracious words or actions needed to comfort a crying child or an adult lost in the maze of Life. She opens her heart unashamedly to those who hold the key. .
Marilyn brings to mind a bed, unmade but sheets still warm and with a slight scent of sex and expensive perfume. One is drawn to touch her, to feel her skin. One wonders what she would become in the soft darkness.
But one feels that Audrey’s passion is just below the surface, held in check, waiting. Marilyn’s passion seems to be driven by emotional neediness.