Six Damn Fine Degrees #14: Two for the Road

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

In 1951, when she had a small appearance in The Lavender Hill Mob as Chiquita (sadly not having seen the film, I cannot tell whether this means she played an actual banana), Audrey Hepburn wasn’t yet the movie star that she would later become. Roman Holiday was still two years away, then came Sabrina, War and Peace and Funny Face, and in 1961 she made her iconic appearance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Much has been written and said about what exactly Hepburn’s character in that film, Holly Golightly, is exactly: is she merely selling companionship needy men, or is she selling sex? Truman Capote, who wrote the novella the film was based on, called her an “American geisha”, but he didn’t exactly answer the question.

In any case, for all of Hepburn’s tremendous charms and attraction, she never struck me as particularly sexual in her performances; her characters were largely cute as the cutest of kittens, but also oddly innocent, almost to the point of sexlessness. On screen, she always came off as something of an anti-Marylin Monroe.

So consider my surprise when I found out that she was in a film written by Frederic Raphael, whose other works include Eyes Wide Shut. Yes, Stanley Kubrick’s last film. Yes, the one with the orgy that caused Warner Bros. to digitally alter the respective scenes, Austin Powers-style, to avoid an adults-only NC-17 rating.

Obviously a writer can turn in very different scripts; I mean, look at someone like George Miller who wrote family favourites Babe and Happy Feet as well as all the Mad Max movies. Just because one film written by Frederic Raphael (though co-written by the director) features a big, cheesy orgy that required “computer-generated people” (as IMDB puts it – I wonder if Andy Serkis was involved?) placed in front of steamy Kubrickian sex for the version released in the US doesn’t mean that Two for the Road (1967) would be the same, Swinging Sixties notwithstanding.

Yet, the more I think of it, the more it’s actually a surprisingly good fit. There are no mysterious, tacky orgies in Two for the Road, but at its core it too is a story about a husband and a wife, about a marriage on the rocks. Two for the Road was directed by Stanley Donen, who’d also collaborated with Hepburn on Funny Face and on the delightful Charade, and it co-starred Albert Finney, who had risen to stardom with the 1963 film Tom Jones. Nominally, Two for the Road is a romantic comedy-drama, but this description might give the wrong impression: there is a charm and a lightness of touch to it that is in line with most other star vehicles featuring Hepburn, but Donen’s film is surprisingly willing to take its characters to darker, more acrimonious places. It is also ne of the earliest movies I’ve seen that plays heavily with chronology – the story jumps frequently, even disorientingly, between the early days of the romance between Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) and Marcus (Albert Finney), their newlywed period, and a decade into their marriage, which at this point is clearly in dire straights.

And where there is usually just the slightest hint that Hepburn’s characters have a sexual life in many of her big, iconic performances, Two for the Road is sexually frank (if obviously not as explicit as Eyes Wide Shut could be 32 years later). As soon as young Joanna and Marcus get together in the episodes set early in their relationship, they can hardly keep their hands (and assorted other parts) off each other, stealing food from the breakfast buffet and taking it back to their room in between all the lovemaking so they can spend more time in bed together. We see both of them having affairs as their marriage falters – but the film is never coy about the nature of these affairs, nor is it moralistic about them. Sex is an aspect of Joanna and Marcus’ relationship that both keeps them together – when things are good, they are clearly very much into each other, physically as well as emotionally – and drives them apart, as they seek satisfaction and solace elsewhere. In the film, sex isn’t inherently good or bad, it simply is one important way in which their relationship expresses itself.

And, as much as I love many Audrey Hepburn films, Two for the Road is one of the few of them where I feel I’m not watching Audrey Hepburn, cinema icon, but an actual, varied, nuanced performance of a human being who has very relatable wants and needs and fears. Sex isn’t as central to Two for the Road as it is to Eyes Wide Shut, which even before the orgy scene is entirely about the sexual insecurities of Tom Cruise’s character, but it is an important part of what makes the relationship it depicts feel real, messy and alive. (In the case of Kubrick’s film, it may be one of the only times that Cruise has been convincing playing a husband.)

As I said at the beginning: at first I was more than a little surprised to find that the same writer was responsible for both Audrey Hepburn vehicle Two for the Road and Eyes Wide Shut. But as I think about it, I would say that they share a lot of the same DNA. In fact, minus the talk about dreams and waking life (and Kidman and Cruise’s acting, which in this case I’m not 100% sold on), the famous ending scene and especially the last line of Eyes Wide Shut could almost be in Two for the Road.

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