Audrey Hepburn can easily be called the queen of effortless fifties romantic comedies. Every movie she made in the fifties involved her falling for a man who would be won over eventually by her witty naiveté. These movies highlight her posh accent and her pixie beauty. But there is also something odd about them. Each movie involves her falling in love with a man who is usually at least twice her age, both inside the movie and out of it. She is pitted against Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, and Gary Cooper. Later on the divide would be even more apparent in Cary Grant and Rex Harrison. Why wasn’t she pitted against more actors that were her own age?
In Love in the Afternoon, she is placed with Gary Cooper. She is a British woman living in Paris with her French father (Maurice Chevalier) and studying the cello at a conservatory. Her father is a private investigator who gets a lot of work investigating Frank Flannagan (Gary Cooper) and his ability to attract the wives of wealthy businessmen. One businessman in particular is extremely mad at Frank’s ability to capture his wife’s heart. He decides to wipe this man off of this good Earth by shooting him while he is with his wife. Ariane (Audrey) overhears this conversation and rushes over to the hotel room to save this playboy. She poses as the woman he is romancing while the wife escapes from the situation. Frank and Ariane have a witty exchange and make plans for her to visit him the next day in the afternoon. (Thus the title, get it?) Ariane is very secretive about who she is and what she does with her evenings after she has left his embraces. Eventually she starts to talk like she has tons of interested men and they give her luxurious things. This is all a ploy to get him to fall in love with her, of course, but it is also a way of protecting herself from his wandering eye. The trick works, Frank is enchanted by her mysterious persona and is jealous of her many lovers. So he is on a mission to find out more about her lovers by hiring her… father as a private detective (Frank doesn’t know that this detective is the father of Ariane). From there the plot twists and turns until Frank and Ariane hop on a train together and ride off into the sunset.
Hepburn is just as vivacious in this movie as she is in Sabrina. She glides through the picture on her tippy toes unafraid of looking too cute. But the problem with the movie is that she has no William Holden or Humphrey Bogart to bounce off of. Gary Cooper is a bland spring-board for all of her bounces. He was never convincing in the role of debonair, fun-loving playboy. And that is why this whole movie falls a part. I am not going to say he is too old for Hepburn, but rather he is just too dull. Throughout the film, you see him in news clippings and hear accounts of his misconduct from other people. This picture that they paint of him is one of easy-going and slightly devilish humor. But the real man, despite saying really witty things, is nothing of these things. It annoys me to no end that Cooper was chosen to play this role when he was clearly never suited to be the romantic interest in any movie, let alone this one.
I think Hepburn was chosen to go against all of these older men, because she was representative, just like these men were, of a time that was slowly dying out. I couldn’t think of one man who would have been age appropriate for her that could match her slick effortlessness. The only men that could were the men she got. She was a society woman and so were these men. Through the fifties and sixties, this persona of hers still worked, but I think that she could tell it would not propel her much further into the gritty seventies. That grittiness was starting to take hold in the fifties and both the actors and the actresses had to evolve in order to fit into it. Take for instance James Dean, Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, who all got their start in the late forties to mid fifties and would have been around Hepburn’s age. Would you have put them in the romantic lead of this or any other Hepburn movie? Of course you wouldn’t because their acting styles would but up against each other. But Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden and all the other film co-stars of hers all had a complimenting acting styles. Whereas Brando was known for his edginess, Gregory Peck was known for his inherent innocence. Her co-stars could wear a suit, sip champagne and deliver richly textured dialogue without putting in much of an effort. Paul Newman or James Dean probably could not easily do any of these things. Hepburn was the last hold out of the old Hollywood glamour and the only men that could match easily would be the men that are still working from that era. But this reason does not justify the unintended consequences of this development. She never seemed to have grown up. She was always looking for a father figure in every one of her movies, and in this one in particular. She is reduced sometimes into a witty porcelain doll collected for these older men’s amusements. And it gave copious excuses for men to justify their relationships with women that are significantly younger than them. She perpetuated a stereotype without really meaning to. I have this impossible wish to go back through time and fix things that was wrong with the film industry. I want to reinstate the Hollywood Ten, give Gloria Swanson a fuller career, and give Audrey Hepburn at least one age appropriate co-star.