A shallow, gossipy perspective of ‘Audrey and Bill’

The cover of “Audrey and Bill” helpfully clarifies that it’s “A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn & William Holden.” The two film stars met while co-starring in Billy Wilder’s effervescent 1954 rom-com, “Sabrina.” In that film, Hepburn plays the title character, the young daughter of the chauffeur to the filthy-rich Larrabee family; she pines for David Larrabee, played by Holden. Once she’s grown up a little, she eventually catches David’s ever-wandering eye, but he steps aside to give Sabrina a shot at romance with his big brother, played by Humphrey Bogart — three decades Hepburn’s senior.

Few films buffs would deny the superiority of an earlier movie Wilder and Holden made together, “Sunset Boulevard.” But “Sabrina” remains beloved 60 years later, which is the raison for publicist-turned-biographer Edward Z. Epstein’s glib, shallow book. Holden, who Epstein asserts never let his 30-year marriage get in the way of his busy sex life, always carried a torch for Hepburn after their affair during the making of “Sabrina.” Though “they’d shared an emotional intimacy that precluded words,” she dumped him upon learning he’d undergone a vasectomy.

Epstein brings a publicist’s fuzzy eye for criticism to his survey of Hepburn and Holden’s careers. Hepburn is invariably graceful, dignified and blameless, though he notes that she engineered the firing of the original cinematographer of “Paris When It Sizzles” because she didn’t like the way he was lighting her. Nowhere does the author — a self-described “show business insider” — betray the slightest suspicion that movies are something more than vanity reels for their stars. He seems to have aimed his book at audiences who assume films are made entirely by movie stars, who come up with the stories themselves and improvise their dialogue.

That’s unfortunate, because both Hepburn’s and Holden’s careers encompassed a complex and interesting tectonic shift in American cinema, when the old, glamorous studio system gave way to the grit and realism of the “ New Hollywood” of the 1970s. Instead of explaining this transition and how it treated Hepburn and Holden (badly, for the most part), Epstein dwells on such trivia as Hepburn’s Givenchy-designed wardrobes.

Those interested in ancient Tinseltown gossip delivered with the style and firm point of view of a world-class critic are urged to check out film historian Karina Longworth’s weekly podcast “You Must Remember This,” offering “true stories from Hollywood’s first century.” Knowledgeable and laceratingly funny, it’s everything that Parade-magazine-level material like “Audrey and Bill” is not.

“Audrey and Bill: A Romantic Biography of Audrey Hepburn and William Holden” by Edward Z. Epstein (Running Press)

Chris Klimek is an editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine.

For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.

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