Stanley Donen: Charade (1963) | poster excerpt
Charade (1963) | poster excerpt

‘Charade’ after 60 Years: A Crossroad Film For Its Golden Age Stars

When you need a break from today’s harsh realities, you need a film like the 1963 comedy/mystery/romance ‘Charade’, starring Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Stanley Donen
Universal Pictures
5 December 1963

Two weeks before the comedy/mystery film Charade was set to open at Radio City Music Hall in November of 1963, screenwriter Peter Stone received some devastating news. John F. Kennedy, America’s 35th President had been assassinated. As he mourned JFK’s senseless death with the rest of the world, Stone had a thought. Charade, the Hitchcock-like murder mystery that it was, had the word “assassinate” sprinkled through a major scene between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. If left in, this would be a disaster. 

Stone wracked his brain to find an equally powerful, yet similar-sounding word he could dub into the scene. He lay awake all night turning it over in his head. “The only word I could finally find was ‘eliminate’,” Stone recalled during the 2004 commentary of the film. “It was cut into the movie and it was like that for many years, but I recently saw it on television and it’s ‘assassinate’ again. Someone must’ve dubbed it back in later!” (CHARADE (1963) – Commentary by Stanley Donen and Peter Stone, YouTube.)

Charade was released at a pivotal time in American and Hollywood history. The unthinkable had happened, and it seemed the world was rapidly changing in response. People’s perceptions were changing, and audiences began to demand a reflection of the real world in their entertainment. Cinema’s golden era days were numbered. A new movement was on the horizon – one where the free-thinkers of New Hollywood would overrule the studio system. As the ’60s wore on, hit films like Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) would hold a mirror to the world with a taste of real-life grit. Hollywood’s code that sold the happily-ever-after daydream was fading fast.

However, just before the floodgates of these idealistic films closed, Charade, a sparkling Parisian fantasy, would provide the escapism that was sorely needed in those turbulent times. Directed by Stanley Donen, famous for Singin’ in the Rain, the film starred two esthetically perfect and beloved actors from a brighter era. It allowed viewers entry into a fictitious version of the City of Lights, set to a haunting yet buoyant score by Henry Mancini.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn flirted and dined in the moonlight on the Bateaux Mouche cruise as danger and excitement lurked in the air. A murder mystery and screwball comedy rolled into one, Charade took viewers to a place where reality and believability didn’t matter in good filmmaking. With a whodunit plot that provides a visually stunning climax at the Palais-Royale, the film defines sophisticated fantasy, and it was among the last of that kind of filmmaking.

Hepburn plays the Givenchy-clad Regina Lampert. Her life is in danger as a group of criminals demands the 250k francs her husband had supposedly hidden from the gang. Helpless and terrorized, she does not know of the money’s existence or where it could be. Fortunately, Regina has support from Alex. He shows up just in time to help her navigate life on the run from a cast of thugs. But soon, as holes appear in his story, she questions Alex’s loyalty. On a deeper level, Charade explores the importance of honesty and prompts viewers to ponder what a relationship or union is without trust.

Regularly described by film enthusiasts as “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made”, Charade will celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2023. While watching the film today, Grant and Hepburn both seem to possess an otherworldly quality that would make them seem comfortable in any era of filmmaking. Stone even said of Grant, “Cary somehow has a universal existence that fits any period. He’s modern, no matter when you look at him.” Charade showcased Grant and Hepburn in their usual charming form, but the film marked a major departure for both stars. First, Grant, 61 years old at the time of filming (though you’d never know it), felt he was coming to the end of his career. Indeed, in the early ’60s, he made only two more films before quietly retiring. 

Grant had to be talked into taking the role because he felt uncomfortable as a romantic lead with the younger Hepburn. Charade was even canceled for several months due to Grant’s nervousness about the role. Donen explained, “I thought we had Cary for it, and then he said, ‘no I’m not going to be in it, I’ve changed my mind.’ Audrey only said she’d do it if Cary did it, so the picture collapsed.” Charade went into turnaround, and several stars like Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood were considered. However, after some soul searching (or perhaps because another film was falling through), Grant had a change of heart. Donen called Hepburn, and again she jumped at the chance to work with Grant. Charade was back on.  

Before shooting began, Grant and Stone met at New York’s Plaza Hotel to discuss the script and make any needed changes (a stipulation of Grant’s contract). As Stone said, “The main thing he said was ‘I cannot chase this girl, I am too old, and she is too young. She must in some way be chasing me.’ He thought it was unseemly for a man his age to be coming onto a young girl.”

Wisely, Grant knew films were changing, and the public may not want to watch him grow old as a romantic lead. Instead of waiting to receive his pink slip from the industry, he decided to bow out on his terms, even though he was still in high demand. The rest of Hollywood was shocked by his decision. Director Billy Wilder commented, “Cary Grant would still be a heartbreaker. He would still be the most attractive man on the screen. He did not age one bit. His hair got gray. That’s all.” 

Donen pursued Charade primarily because he wanted the challenge of switching lead gender roles. He loved the idea of taking a North by Northwest-like film and putting someone like Hepburn at the center of it. “I was specifically looking for an action-adventure romantic comedy where the female was the leading role,” said Donen in the 2004 commentary, “And low and behold along came this story.”

Charade signified a new beginning for Hepburn. In a certain sense, this would be the first rom-com where she’d call her shots. In Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), she played one of the original versions of the manic pixie dream girl, which tended to appeal to the male perspective. In Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964), she stepped into the Hollywood makeover machine, making her more esthetically pleasing to her suitors. In Charade, however, Hepburn wasn’t out to please anyone.

Squarely in the romantic comedy genre, Hepburn’s Regina is a mature woman, though with the help of Grant, is facing the danger she’s in head-on. Hepburn combined comic timing with her trademark grace and the wide-eyed innocence she’s known for. Throughout Charade, she orders Grant to “stop treating her like a child.” She’s honest about her feelings for him, even if he’s not at first. Before heading to bed one night in the hotel they’re staying in, she turns to Grant and utters those famous lines before retiring to her room in the spirit of directness. 

Regina:  You know what’s wrong with you?

Alex: No, what?

Regina: Nothing.

Regina is taking control of her life, all while being the centerpiece of the story. Stone explained, “Even though I’d had Audrey in mind when I wrote the script, I realized she’d never done anything like this before – in other words, been in jeopardy, which is what she is throughout the movie.” But after seeing her acting in Fred Zinneman’s The Nun’s Story (1959) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s and witnessing that vulnerability on screen, he knew he had his actress.

After Charade, Hepburn played out the ’60s with films that challenged her range further. There was a steely grace about the new mod Audrey. Gone were the makeovers and male dependencies of past roles. Instead, she played “the world’s champion blind lady” in Terence Young’s 1967 thriller, Wait Until Dark (which earned her an Oscar nod). Then she explored the realities of fractured long-term romance with Albert Finney in 1967’s Two for the Road (another Donen film). In the wake of the New Hollywood era, Hepburn seemed to have found her niche.

The world changed dramatically throughout the ’60s, and nobody could stop it. But for a brief moment, one could stop in a movie theatre and escape to the bright lights of Paris and enjoy the chemistry between the last glamorous stars of the studio system. Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn were beginning their separate respective journeys as they navigated New Hollywood. Still the special time capsule of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Charade would remain forever for viewers who need a lovely form of escape.