This is almost always the wrong question. Biography by its very nature is incomplete. It is a Rashomon-like genre, never more so than when movie sets are involved and conflicting versions of events multiply like rabbits. Mr. Spoto, author of more than a dozen biographies, is well aware of this problem of pullulation. He seems to rely judiciously on the work of previous biographers, correcting their errors, providing some original film criticism, revealing one big new story about his subject, and writing with an incisive grace that puts him near the head of his class.
To determine Mr. Spoto's merits I compared his account of "Sabrina," the romantic comedy in which William Holden and Humphrey Bogart compete for Audrey Hepburn's hand, to other competing versions. As in other Hepburn biographies, Mr. Spoto's Bogart plays the offscreen heavy. At 54, he looked 65, "weathered and dyspeptic and ill with the first symptoms of the cancer that would claim his life four years later." Next to the handsome 35-year-old Holden, how was Bogart supposed to get the girl?
This question bothers Mr. Spoto far more than other biographers. Even though reviewers have lauded Bogart's performance, Mr. Spoto insists he was dreadfully miscast in a role originally meant for Cary Grant, who bowed out because at 50 he felt he was too old to play opposite the 24-year-old Hepburn. Yet, as Mr. Spoto notes, the next year Grant was triumphant in Alfred Hitchcock's "To Catch a Thief," playing opposite Grace Kelly, who was exactly Hepburn's age.
Mr. Spoto portrays a sulking Bogart who envied Holden and Hepburn, rising stars and lovers during the film shoot. According to Bogart's agent, Irving Lazar, Bogart also expected Billy Wilder to humble himself, but "on a Billy Wilder picture, there is no star but Billy Wilder." The director chose to chum around with Holden and Hepburn, increasing Bogart's animus toward everyone, including the film's writers. In the Spoto scenario, Hepburn remains coolly professional and diplomatic when Bogart baits her. Other biographers depict a stalwart Holden protecting a terrified or wary Hepburn.
Several aspects of Mr. Spoto's account troubled me. Why would Bogart take a Cary Grant role? Why would he compete with Holden, whom Bogart had had a rough time with on an earlier film? Was Bogart really already suffering from cancer? Why would Bogart do a Wilder film when the director was notorious for his sharp tongue and autocratic ways?
To answer these questions I had to consult not only other Hepburn biographies but also those about Grant, Bogart, Wilder, and Holden — and even then certain mysteries remain. Marc Eliot in "Cary Grant" (2004) makes it abundantly clear that the actor could not abide Wilder. On the other hand, several Wilder biographers note that Bogart and Wilder had been friends before "Sabrina," and Bogart did not even trouble to read the script, telling Wilder he would just shake on it and trust that the director would take care of him. When Wilder manifestly began to snub Bogart, the actor took his nasty revenge — at one point even calling the Jewish Wilder (who had lost family during the Holocaust) a Nazi.
No biographer seems to have considered the possibility that Bogart felt competitive, perhaps wanting to show that he could do well at a role meant for Grant. Even if Bogart had not read the script, it is hard to believe that he did not know, in a general sense, what the film was about, especially since it was based on a successful Broadway play. Mr. Spoto notwithstanding, several biographers and critics have lauded Bogart's performance, suggesting he gave the role a depth and color beyond Grant's capacity.
There is no credible evidence that Bogart was already suffering from cancer, although other biographers also provide the same overreaching explanation for his conduct. He may have been peeved at being Wilder's second choice, but then why do the film at all?
I e-mailed Jeffrey Meyers, a Bogart biographer, who responded: "Wilder, rather desperate, persuaded Bogart. And Swifty Lazar, who thought his [Bogart's] career would be enhanced if he could play high comedy, also talked him into it. Wilder later felt he did it mainly for the money." Bogart got $300,000, more than Hepburn's and Holden's salaries combined.
Perhaps Mr. Spoto should have done a little more sorting through the evidence. Economy of phrasing is virtuous, but not at the expense of doing less than full justice to events.
Now for the one big new story that other biographers might have detected since it was right under their noses. Mr. Spoto does not gloat about his fresh material, perhaps because Robert Anderson, a playwright and screenwriter who had an affair with Audrey Hepburn and wrote about it in his novel, "After" (1973), handed it to him.
Whenever writers consort with actors, look at the writer's work. It amazes me that no biographer before Mr. Spoto followed this cardinal rule. So dead-on is Mr. Anderson's novel that Mr. Spoto often prefers to quote from it rather than from Anderson's testimony about Hepburn: "The first thing you noticed was ‘style.' She was tall and slender and held herself beautifully, almost like a dancer. Her dark hair was worn in her own particular style, not the style of the day ... I saw her large dark eyes ... The entire effect of her was striking. She had style, dedication, real excitement."
Audrey Hepburn was like no other star of her period — nothing like Ava Gardner or Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe. She would have been the first to say she had little technique as an actress. But she had been trained as a ballet dancer, and it was a joy just to see her move. She brought intensity and elegance to every role she attempted, and the same dedication she would later display when she became UNICEF's "ambassador-at-large."
Anderson's novel and his talks with Mr. Spoto make this book. When Mr. Anderson speaks to Mr. Spoto, we get a sense of both the everyday Audrey and her allure: "She was a very tidy girl" who cleaned up Mr. Anderson's kitchen, and she was "sad — beautiful and sad and romantic." Hepburn, a young girl in Nazi-occupied Holland, almost starved during the war, escaped from a truck transporting children to a Nazi camp, and endured an unhappy marriage and a spreading cancer that ultimately took her life.
This graceful, indomitable figure enraptured William Holden, who never tired of regretting her loss (she broke off their romance when she learned his vasectomy, then irreversible, meant he could not engender children), and mesmerized millions who gazed at her movies and photographs and copied her exquisite taste in fashion.
What finally sets Hepburn apart was her sense of proportion. She never gave way to star tantrums; she never valued her work more highly than it deserved. Consequently, her performances evince a degree of integrity and honesty seldom equaled on the screen. To that Audrey Hepburn, Mr. Spoto is admirably faithful.