William Wyler was, without a doubt, one of the greatest directors to ever work in Hollywood. With a career spanning from the silent era all the way up to 1970, his credits are numerous and varied, with some of classic film’s greatest titles among the list. From the epic Ben-Hur to The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the most poignant films ever made about the second World War, Wyler’s filmography is full of gems.
Three such gems happen to star another big name from old Hollywood, one of a handful of midcentury actresses whose names are still well-known amongst the general public: Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn needs no introduction, as a legendary icon of both style and the screen. Though not quite as prolific as Wyler’s, her career spanned several decades and produced stellar performances in memorable, enduring classics like Charade, Funny Face, and Sabrina.
Put these two brilliant folks together and you’re bound to make some magic. Wyler and Hepburn collaborated on three films: Roman Holiday (1953), Audrey’s Oscar-winning break-out role; The Children’s Hour (1961), a drama of the pain caused by ignorance and lies; and How to Steal a Million (1966), an art theft caper/romantic comedy. Hepburn delivers three of her very best performances under Wyler’s direction in these three very different films.
Roman Holiday (1953)
The plot: Princess Ann is bored of her sheltered royal life, so she makes an escape, going undercover as a normal gal in Rome. She meets Joe Bradley, an American newsman who recognizes her but doesn’t let her know it. Enlisting the help of a pal with a hidden camera, Joe is sure he can get an exclusive scoop by showing the princess around the city.
Audrey’s role: Princess Ann, adventure-seeking royal on the run
My thoughts: Roman Holiday launched Audrey Hepburn to stardom and earned her a certain special golden statue. It’s also my personal favorite of the Hepburn-Wyler films. I can’t think of a single thing that I don’t love about Roman Holiday; it’s damn near perfect! Audrey’s delightful performance, the chemistry between Ann and Joe, stellar support from Eddie Albert, and a story that holds a great sense of adventure and romance despite its simplicity… there’s so much to love here. To top all of that off, Wyler and his cinematographers make Rome a character all its own, as much a part of the film’s heart as either of its lead performers. I wouldn’t hesitate to place this flick among the top five romantic comedies of all time. It’s the essence of a “symbiotic collaboration.”
The Children’s Hour (1961)
The plot: Two old college friends open an all-girls boarding school. Serving as both teachers and headmistresses, they work hard to make the school a success. Scandal may cause the demise of the institution when a hateful pupil accuses the women of being involved in a romantic relationship.
Audrey’s role: Karen Wright, one of the headmistresses
My thoughts: I recently learned that the source material of The Children’s Hour, a play of the same name, was adapted years earlier as These Three. That adaptation was released in 1936 also directed by William Wyler. I haven’t seen the earlier film yet, so I can’t compare the two, but I’ve heard positive things about These Three, though it doesn’t stick as closely to the source material. I’ve seen 1961’s The Children’s Hour twice and was first introduced to it in an undergraduate film class. This remains a polarizing film, many viewers put off by its tragic ending, and others finding it too “dated” for today’s viewer. In my book it’s worth watching, though it isn’t the strongest of the three Hepburn-Wyler collaborations. Wyler draws a very good performance from Hepburn — quite subtle, which leaves room for co-star Shirley MacLaine’s also strong, but much more overtly dramatic portrayal of Martha.
How to Steal a Million (1966)
The plot: Nicole Bonnet is the daughter of an art forger, whose father and grandfather were also art forgers. When her father allows one of her great-grandfather’s forgeries to be displayed at a museum, Nicole is sure their profession will be found out, so she decides to conduct a heist. Enlisting the help of burglar Simon Dermott (who is actually an undercover detective), Nicole tries to pull off the great thievery.
Audrey’s role: Nicole Bonnet, the charming criminal mastermind
My thoughts: Audrey’s career took a small turn toward the zany in the 1960s with the release of films like Charade and Paris When It Sizzles. How delightful that she was able to collaborate with William Wyler one more time on an energetic, charming, light-hearted flick like How to Steal a Million. Adding to the on-set reunions, the film was shot by Charles Lang, who had also worked with Audrey on Charade and Paris When It Sizzles — Hepburn and Wyler weren’t the only symbiotic collaborators involved in How to Steal a Million! All of their efforts come together to create a film that is one of my favorites from Audrey’s filmography, a slice of pure enjoyment with dazzling costumes, clever dialogue, and of course a great performance from the leading lady. (That O’Toole fella ain’t too shabby, either!)
To cap off this remembrance of three wonderful films resulting from the star-director collaborations of Audrey Hepburn and William Wyler, I leave you with a few wonderful behind-the-scenes photographs of the pair: