Who can be said to be quintessential twentieth-century women? Adventurous sorts like Amelia Earhart? Political and social leaders like Golda Meir and Eleanor Roosevelt? Inspirations like Coretta Scott King? Style icons and glamour-girls like Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe? I’ve just seen the new film, 20th Century Women, so the question comes to me naturally. All the names I’ve mentioned above are worth considering. But I’ve just been lucky enough to see again (on an airplane!) Audrey Hepburn’s first big film,1953’s Roman Holiday. It’s a blithe little romance, though one with a bit of substance, broaching as it does the tension between personal freedom and the need to do one’s duty. And of course it’s proof that Audrey Hepburn was one of the most delicious actresses who ever lived.
Writers other than me have crowned Hepburn (Audrey, not Katharine) a major social influence. Sam Wasson’s 2010 bestseller, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M., is subtitled Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. Wasson’s argument is that Hepburn’s Holly Golightly character contains a very modern moral ambiguity that doesn’t distract from her charm. Though I loved Wasson’s book, I can’t say it convinced me on that point. My vision of Audrey Hepburn is still that of someone who’s pristine: girlish and adorable. And, as she is in Roman Holiday, a genuine princess.
If you’ve been around little girls lately, you know that princesses are a very big deal. The Disney universe is full of them (see Frozen, Tangled, Brave, and now Moana). Why? Partly it’s because they wear great clothes. The modern Disney princess (unlike the very boring Sleeping Beauty) gets to go on adventures, and heroically save her people. At the same time, she’s always well-dressed, and when her adventures are over she gets to return to the castle and marry the prince (or at least an appealing stand-in). What more could a little girl want?
Which brings me to 20th Century Women, the quirky semi-autobiographical film in which Mike Mills (who’d chronicled his father’s coming out in Beginners) reveals what it was like to be a young man coming of age in the late 1970s, surrounded by women working hard at the new concept of female empowerment. The #1 woman in young Jamie’s life is his mother, Dorothea, a smart, nervous chain-smoker who would like to have been a World War II pilot. As played by the always-gutsy Annette Bening, Dorothea is both lovable and exasperating; she’s capable of a joyous exuberance but remains at the same time fundamentally sad about the ways life has let her down. The film’s other two 20th century women are Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a punked-out artist with serious health issues, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a gorgeous high-schooler who sleeps around with unworthy men but demands of the sexually frustrated Jamie a purely platonic friendship. Quixotically, Dorothea turns to these two young women to help teach her son about life and love. Meanwhile he’s reading classic feminist tracts like Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful to try to make sense of the world that his mother and her surrogates inhabit.
It’s been Annette Bening’s lot in recent years to play unusual “mom” roles. With spouse Warren Beatty she’s raised four children of her own, so she certainly knows the territory. In American Beauty she was an angry, hostile mother. In The Kids Are All Right, she played a devoted lesbian mother. .Dorothea is an equally worthy role for Bening: she captures both the love and the confusion of a mother trying desperately to make sure the kid is all right.