We could have danced all night

SAM's film series is back home ... with Audrey Hepburn

On the uncontested assumption that there could be no more pleasant company on a summer evening than Audrey Hepburn (though the same applies for chill winter and soggy spring), Seattle Art Museum film curator Greg Olson has summoned up "My Fair Audrey: More Films of Audrey Hepburn" for six Thursdays in July and August.

It's a little startling to realize that this exquisite distillation of Irish-British-Dutch heritage - although a world-class movie star from her first leading role, an Oscar-winning turn in the 1953 "Roman Holiday" - never appeared in an absolutely first-rate film. Then again, apart from the execrable "Bloodline" (excuse me, "Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline") and her turn as Rima the bird girl in "Green Mansions" (directed by then-husband Mel Ferrer), nearly all her movies were class acts, and few of them failed to leave audiences moved, charmed, delighted and/or impressed. She was mostly fortunate in her directors - notably William Wyler, Billy Wilder, King Vidor, Stanley Donen, Fred Zinnemann, John Huston, Blake Edwards, George Cukor, Richard Lester, Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Spielberg - and costars: Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Peter Finch, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, Rex Harrison, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Sean Connery and Ben Gazzara. The good fortune was mutual.

Olson's first Hepburn series last summer showcased her signature roles, but the second half-dozen are worthy of her and us.

The 1957 "Funny Face" (July 5) could be stored in the mind as a recipe of can't-miss ingredients: Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Paris, Technicolor and the breezy lyricism of high-fashion photography. The producer was veteran music man Roger Edens, and his selection of Stanley ("Singin' in the Rain") Donen to direct ensured that the gossamer romantic comedy would have zest, lilt and just enough edge to keep the mix from getting gooey. Hepburn and Donen would reunite for the sprightly Hitchcock pastiche "Charade" and the ambitious, Frederic Raphael-scripted chronicle and dissection of a marriage, "Two for the Road." The screenwriter and lyricist of "Funny Face" was Leonard Gershe, a lovely gentleman.

"Love in the Afternoon" (July 12), Hepburn's second film for Billy Wilder, is better than their better-loved "Sabrina." That's largely for the same reason 1957 audiences found "Love" a mite, well, disturbing. Another Parisian-set movie, and the first joint effort of Wilder and his final writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, the film casts the aging Gary Cooper as a notorious American roué whom the innocent Hepburn sets out to seduce, all the way affecting to be as casual about sex as he is. Their affair is viewed with a Continental wryness that pushes the envelope for dubious taste and discomfort, with an authentic darkness interlaced with the sad romanticism.

It's a comedy haunted by the spectre of death, in terms of the potential destruction of the Hepburn character's spirit and the visible mortality of Cooper himself, a gaunt figure well past leading-man prime. Maurice Chevalier plays Hepburn's father and Cooper's greatest admirer - a private detective who has spent years building Cooper's dossier as a champion among philanderers. And yes, this is the movie in which a ubiquitous Gypsy orchestra put "Fascination" on the Hit Parade; it was actually an old tune Wilder remembered from his gigolo days.

Hepburn's most sustained immersion in high seriousness was "The Nun's Story" (July 19), which brought her her third of five best-actress Oscar nominations and was itself a major contender for 1959 honors. Fred Zinnemann directed this long, respectful but by no means reverential adaptation of Kathryn Hulme's memoir about her years in a religious order and her numerous crises of faith, from European convents to a mission in Africa. The supporting cast includes Peter Finch, Dame Edith Evans, Patricia Collinge and Dean Jagger.

Hollywood got religion in a different way when it came to the 1964 filming of that sacred text, Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady" (July 26). Everyone but studio boss Jack L. Warner saw no good reason why anyone but Julie Andrews should play Eliza Doolittle, the role Andrews had created on Broadway. Warner wanted more Hollywood marquee value and insisted on Audrey Hep-burn - though he didn't trust her (lovely) voice and recorded Marnie Nixon singing the songs. Despite being one of the dullest pieces of work director George Cukor ever did, the mega-production dominated that year's Academy Awards ... but Hepburn went unnominated - punishment for not being Julie Andrews, while Julie Andrews took best actress in Disney's "Mary Poppins" (and cheekily thanked "Mr. Jack L. Warner" while collecting her statuette). In hindsight the truth is glaring: Audrey was robbed.

Three years later she got her final shot at a second Oscar in 1967's "Wait Until Dark" (Aug. 2). This mechanically conceived but undeniably grabby thriller, based on a play by Frederick Knott ("Dial M for Murder"), features Hepburn as a blind woman alone in her flat and menaced by three bad men who believe she has something they're after. Appearing at the 1991 Film Society of Lincoln Center tribute to the star, Alan Arkin remarked, "How did I get here? I'm the only man who was ever mean to Audrey Hepburn!" He is mean, and scary, too. Richard Crenna, Jack Weston and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. costar.

Following that film, Hepburn went into semiretirement and didn't appear on a motion picture screen again till nine years later. The occasion was "Robin and Marian" (Aug. 9), and it's a heartbreaker several times over. Sean Connery plays Robin Hood a decade or two past his prime (though the actor was at his peak) and Hepburn is his erstwhile Maid Marian, now a bride of Christ. The first image we have of her is her thin, visibly aged wrists as she pours water into a basin - a tenderly sacramental gesture on director Richard Lester's part. James Goldman's screenplay borrows more than a little from brother William's script for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and it lays on the age jokes rather too thickly. But this is a beautiful and resonant film about legends who've outlived their time, and the cast - throw in Nicol Williamson as Little John, Robert Shaw as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Richard Harris as Richard Lionheart - is superb.

'My Fair Audrey' will be shown in Seattle Art Museum's Ples-tcheeff Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays. Series tickets go for $35 SAM members, $39 others; tickets to individual films may be available at the door.

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