Birthday Girls: Audrey Hepburn
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1959 Best Actress Oscar to Simone Signoret for Room at the Top)
Why I Waited: Lack of allegiance to Audrey, and to Zinnemann, and to nuns, and to midcentury "values" pictures, especially when they stretch over two hours.
The Performance: First off, if I may enumerate: Audrey Hepburn, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Patricia Collinge, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, and Colleen Dewhurst (as a psychopathic inmate!), all in the same picture. Such a constellation of legendary actressing that whenever Barbara O'Neil apparently passed through, I missed her. Top work, too, by Peter Finch and Dean Jagger, and by actresses previously unknown to me, like Patricia Bosworth, Ruth White, Margaret Phillips, and Dorothy Alison (one "L," and so not the one you're thinking of).
But let's not bury the lead: among the very highest pleasures afforded by this whole exercise, being wowed by performers to whom I was previously indifferent runs a close second to having my expectations surpassed by wizards I already adored. Some fans of Audrey Hepburn maintain that everything she ever touched was perfection, and though I can easily see how the swanlike, elegant, superhumanly gracious woman could inspire that level of fealty, I have never seen how such a case could be made for the actress. Among fans who permit distinctions, though, Hepburn's turns in 1967's Two for the Road and 1959's The Nun's Story far surpass all her others as pledged conversion experiences. I admit, my curiosity about the possible truth of these predictions has been outweighed by my worries about discovering myself the human exception to this cosmic rule. One hates to know for sure that one just doesn't "get" Audrey Hepburn, because the ideal of serene chic, sari'd in peerless and simple humanitarianism, is an epitome to which anyone would want to show favor.
Conversion and belief take unexpected forms, though, as I came to learn for different reasons but nonetheless at the same time as Sister Luke, née Gabriella van der Mal, the Belgian girl who takes orders in a convent at the outset of The Nun's Story, Fred Zinnemann's handsome, high-minded, and surprisingly rich film about Luke's experiences as a woman of the church. Among many smart, principled decisions Robert Anderson makes in his script is his excising of any but the slimmest impressions of who Gabrielle is or what she is like before taking her vows. Starting in the convent might have lessened our sense of what Gabrielle renounces by assuming this formidable challenge to her soul's provenance, her self-perceptions, and, increasingly, her minuscule but torturing "vanity." We'd be denied the flawless tact but the obviously etched regret of her father (Jagger), whispering as though in plaintive warning, "I don't want to be proud of you, I want you to be happy!" We would lose out on witnessing the prim, cool, frankly eerie resolve with which Gabrielle strides into her new life as Luke, and plays her lapses in protocol (sprinting when she's late, speaking when she oughtn't) not as jokes or as exposés of institutional dourness but of lamented errors in a craft, an ethics, that she means very much to honor. Sister Luke craves and sets quite a high bar, and so too does the film, for itself and for its star. The religious life must be articulated and revealed on its own intricate terms, not through opposition to some simplified vision of bouncing secular life, as prologue or parallel plot; Hepburn cannot use some impetuous sketch of green or narrow youth as a foil by which to cultivate new, tactical mannerisms representing faith, tranquility, or submission.
As it happens, none of those capacities comes automatically to Sister Luke, and the prodigious charge of a deceptively placid-looking film comes from the fact that Audrey Hepburn, of all people, has to scour her heart for trace elements of doubt, unrest, and arrogant assertion. But here, too, Hepburn and Zinnemann resist the logic of the foil. The Nun's Story does nothing to conjure the ghost of the Givenchy-clad gamine so that, as in so many other change-of-pace performances across the decades, we tick off our congratulations to the actor who has opposed one avatar of herself with another one, strenuously and self-regardingly constructed. This isn't an officiously revised or a diametrically different Hepburn so much as a firm, latent aspect of Hepburn that no previous role has probed. So often, a premise for a strong performance arrives in a seemingly cosmetic concern. We find such a revelation in the sere, bone-white face that emerges when Hepburn's brow and jaw are framed by the sharp lines of her white wimple. Suddenly, she presents the bare, pallid architecture of the human that the very different contemporary figure of Tilda Swinton has often been used to show us. The face is that of an icon in a religious painting, something remote but troubled, seemingly filtered of blood but not of worry. The mystery, then, is not how Gabrielle has come to lack her interpreter's seemingly innate endowments of poise and rectitude, because we aren't even thinking about her interpreter. The mystery is how her body seems regressed in time and broken downsimply, unhistrionicallyinto its barest ingredients, and yet this emblem of asceticism still feels the agony of something inward, something designed to provoke unrest, like a splinter that pricks even after it appears fully removed.
Where, in that body and face, could it reside, and what is it? It is her faith, but not solely, and "faith" is the question, anyway, not its answer. In laboratory scenes, it is her scientific acumen, cultivated in part by her famous father, and fueling a drive toward philanthropy that Sister Luke apprehends, both from others and in herself, as a slippery slope into self-aggrandizement. In moral dilemmas, as when she faces down a mutual antipathy with a fellow nun, or when she is asked by one Mother Superior to flunk an exam deliberately and disavow any taste for adulation, Sister Luke worries that her sin lies in pridein a yen, however modest, for approval. The character several times professes to lapses in "charity, humility, and obedience" that we have a tough time perceiving. Indeed, Hepburn makes the performance more interesting by making Sister Luke so earnest in these claims, without pigeonholing the character as a rote reciter of dogma she cannot really mean, or a dupe of misguided zeal, heedlessly making faults out of virtues. The Nun's Story handles sound, lighting, color, framing, and ensemble playing so carefully that it's easier than you might expect to empathize with this pitiless regimen of self-scrutiny. But no one aids our understanding more than Hepburn, whose eyes never rest as windows into pensive animation, even as she marshals that inborn gift for composure into keeping a firm rein on the clean, stark lines of her movements, her posture, her speech, and her thought. A less ambitious performance might have snuck in little heartbeats of jollity or bloom as Sister Luke connects with what she loves (science, knowledge, succor, good work), so that her moments of self-censure are weighted all along with sentimental cues, with our desire for the character to just let it out, Be Free. Hepburn, without ever being boring, is vigilant and self-policing, on guard even against these blips of offhanded pleasure, and only as warm as the lowest gleam of the coal (but never cold). Her vigilance, her inward quest, the stillness and often the solemnity of her face are spiritualized in ways that cinema only achieves when it restrains rather than heightens its allowance of conspicuous emotion. For that reason it's a miracle when you see a portrait of complex thought but also of banked or repressed feeling in as pathos-hungry an aesthetic as that of Hollywood.
Hepburn doesn't withhold from playing the local pressures and demands of specific scenes. She is hit hard, however mutely, at seeing her first sanitarium and her first leper colony. (I'm sure we all remember our first leper colony!) She looks like she's going to gag or shake apart as she tries, tries to force herself to fail that exam, though it's the least histrionic shaking you've ever seen, complete with what appears to be perspiration on cue. She is terrified and necessarily spry at repelling a violent patient who accosts her and tries to kill her, and then humiliated by the telltale scars on her cheek. She is bored and annoyed by the flippant charm and agnostic "wit" of the Peter Finch character, the doctor to whom she reports when she finally earns her long-desired assignment to a missionary outpost in the Congo. But Hepburn is always, always playing the spiritual ramifications of these episodes first, so that they palpably supersede the sensations of a given moment. Her movements, without seeming over-rehearsed from the standpoint of acting, reveal Sister Luke's gradually cultivated self-consciousness about how others will observe her, how a holy eye will assess her, how she will or won't satisfy her own self-inspections ...and whether she will come to feel, as begins to seem possible, that the church's standards are not finally habitable for her, and that she can only make good on her promises to God and on her capacities for helping others by stepping away from God's and others' most revered institution. The Nun's Story, as written, directed, and performed, preserves this as an impossible choice. A baseline of disquiet emanates at all moments from Hepburn's face and movements, though never at a garishly high pitch, and sometimes at such a low hum that you forget about it for a second, or maybe Gabrielle does.
When she finally resolves an untenable conflict by choosing half of her life over the other in the finale, the moment inherits the accumulated force of quiver and contemplation that Hepburn has sustained for more than two hours, without once looking like an actress asking to be lauded by fans or laureled by critics. Her final scenes are played almost entirely in a silent key, and without the same kind of trajectory or scale of test that confronts, say, Adrien Brody in The Pianist, she comes as close as any 1950s Hollywood star could possibly come to the double arc of Brody's Szpilman: surviving as the person he is, yet also ending up as a very comely husk of himself, an inspiring emblem of human will and a tomb of foreclosed possibilities. And speaking of how or whether memory serves, I have "four stars" written down in my notes about this performance, but for the life of me, I can't remember why. I have certain qualms about the film as it rushes through some later chapters with one eye on The War, and there's a certain bourgeois impersonality to Zinnemann's direction even when, as here, he hits his highest heights. In Hepburn's case, I might wrack my brain for qualms or peer again at her performance, as though through a microscope, and remember some wanting element ...but bless me, Father, I cannot presently think what it is.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 29 to Go