In addition to setting up the exhibition space, Sean and his team had to transport thousands of historical items from Europe to Manila without anything being compromised. Beyond juggling customs, logistics, and Filipino importing rules, he had to make sure that his treasure trove of beloved heirlooms remained undamaged. Bigger objects were sent via large crates on sea, but more delicate items (such as original photos and their prints) had to be carried in four climate controlled, air-conditioned containers via air. All their hard work paid off, however, because the end results of “Intimate Audrey” in Manila is truly stunning. The exhibit paints a unique and in-depth biographical story of one of the world’s most celebrated individuals. Guests are able to feel close to Audrey by simply moving through the show, and seeing the items that she and her family considered important in their lives.
One corner has photographs of her family life as a young girl in Brussels, while another features Sean’s baby clothes and baptism gown. There are drawings that show Audrey’s boundless creativity, as well as an array of personal documents such as passports and letters. Despite Sean’s decision to stray away from the “Hollywood-ness” of it all, cinephiles will not be disappointed with “Intimate Audrey”. Among some of the cinematic artifacts shown in the exhibit is her Academy Award for her humanitarian work, the original Vespa showcased in 1953’s “Roman Holiday”, and many rare original movie posters and still photographs. Sean has even gone as far as creating a mini cinema within the venue that features clips from Audrey’s most iconic films.
Sean notes that even though this particular exhibit is about Audrey Hepburn the Woman, it was always going to be hard to separate her from the beloved actress everybody has grown up watching. “I think people see her in films and hope that she was that way,” he says. “And when they ultimately discover that she was the person they perceived on the screen—that she was a lovely, innocent, earnest, and humble person—then it’s a nice reassurance…Of course, you need to understand that her great ability as an actress was to be able to have an emotional megaphone…She was part of the last generation of actors before The Method came about. In the case of The Method, [actors] became the character on the page. For [my mother], she would take the character and bring it into Audrey Hepburn. So it was kind of like a real melding of the two. But to do that, she always spoke of the importance, in acting and in real life, of always being able to put yourself into the other person’s shoes.”
Hepburn’s great ability for empathy really began as a young girl living in German-occupied Belgium. Her father had abruptly left the family in late 1939, leaving Audrey and her mother to scrape by alone, just as the Second World War broke out across Europe. Despite a world of destruction around her, the young girl dreamt of becoming a prima ballerina. Various accounts, including a Time Magazine article, details her life as a dancer in Belgium, where she even helped the Dutch Resistance by raising money through small underground dance shows. The Occupation ended on May 4,1945 (Audrey’s 16th birthday). While her life was spared from the horrors of the Nazis, Audrey suffered from long term health problems due to malnutrition.
In an effort to start a new life for themselves, the Hepburns moved to Amsterdam. Both mother and daughter were taken in by influential ballet dancer Marie Rambert, who trained Audrey to dance. Sean recounts the story: “After two years of studying, [with] room and board and money, [my mother] said to Marie: ‘Do you think I can make it as a Prima Ballerina?’ And Marie, bless her soul, was very honest, and said: ‘First of all, you’re too tall and these little ballet dancers won’t be able to pick you up. But beyond that, you suffered from malnutrition [and] vitamin deficiency so your muscle development is not optimal. Listen, you can work here for the rest of your life. You can become a teacher. You have great [technique], but I wouldn’t hold your breath.’ And my mother was devastated, because she loved Marie and she trusted her. And she knew that when she told her that it came from a place of [true professionalism]. And so, after crying into a pillow for an hour or so, she decided that she can’t spend any more time on this and that she had to move on. There was no time to stop and really feel sorry for herself.”
What happened next is the stuff legends are made of. Audrey Hepburn quickly turned to stage and film acting, and took on as many small parts as she possibly could. While shooting a small supporting role in Monte Carlo, she was spotted by famous French author Collette, who was looking for the perfect girl to play the titular character of Gigi in the Broadway adaptation of her controversial novella. Audrey landed the part and was sent to the United States to prepare. The good notices from “Gigi” eventually caught the attention of Paramount Pictures, who then asked the breakout actress to audition for the role of Princess Anne in William Wyler’s “Roman Holiday”. Her natural charisma and unique screen presence won her the job and a contract with the studio. The rest is history.