By Jim Watters
Updated April 12, 1976 12:00 PM

The great movie stars not only have faces; since 1930 they’ve needed voices too. This voice is an unmistakable one. “Water! I need water, pleeeease…?” Audrey Hepburn’s singsong cadence turns a declarative sentence into a question, and then into laughter. An opaline hand, not without a hint of liver spots, flutters at the most exquisite swan neck of the century.

Hepburn has dried up her throat in an effort to talk about herself. “I wish I could spice this up with something shocking—really I do,” she says.

Hepburn is sitting in the living room of Signora Arabella Ungaro, one of her “dearest chums” and an imposing beauty in her own right. The hostess rushes off for a glass of acqua minerale. “There’s not one drop of tap water in my house today,” she apologizes. It is typical of the vexations of life in the ailing city of Rome, although the district in which Ungaro resides, Monti Parioli, is a choice one.

Hepburn says, “Well, from June to November I had no hot water.” A ladylike sip of the mineral water has brought a quick recovery. “I had to bathe at my husband’s studio. You might say I went to Spain last summer to make Robin and Marian just so I could take a bath!”

After more than eight years Audrey Hepburn has returned to films, where from 1953 to 1968 she was, with Elizabeth Taylor, the highest-paid female star. For My Fair Lady alone she received $1 million. She was also one of the most honored actresses, winning an Oscar, four other nominations and countless international awards.

The Hepburn legend took hold fast. Alfred Lunt, who directed her Tony-winning performance on Broadway in Ondine in 1954, spoke for much of the Western world when he declared, “While most people simply have nice manners, Audrey has authentic charm and class.” In an age of Monroe and Mansfield, Billy Wilder, who directed Hepburn in Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon, thought that “she might single-handedly make bazooms a thing of the past.” Sinatra’s old Rat Pack promptly tagged her “the Princess.”

Hepburn, curled up on Signora Ungaro’s sofa, says, “I think the movies I made left a pretty strong impression because of the big directors [Wyler, Wilder, Zinnemann, Cukor, Huston] I was lucky enough to work for.” (Hepburn is known to be less enthusiastic about her director on Robin and Marian, Richard Lester, but is too civilized to speak her mind publicly.) She continues, “People associate me with a time when movies were pleasant, when women wore pretty dresses in films and you heard beautiful music. Now people are frightened by the movies.”

Looking still the ingenue from Roman Holiday, Hepburn pauses. “I’m a realistic romantic myself—that’s possible, you know. To me it has something to do with believing in love. Robin and Marian is really about how much two people love each other. It’s an intimate story, and that’s why I wanted to do it.” And so a 46-year-old Roman housewife became the key ingredient in a $6 million show business gamble, whose payoff is dependent on her name more than anything else. The film, shot in Spain in 36 days last summer, costars Sean Connery as the aging Robin Hood, with a script by James Goldman, who also wrote The Lion in Winter.

From a survey, however, the producers discovered to their dismay that younger filmgoers, who dominate today’s audiences, weren’t at all certain who Audrey Hepburn was. Many were only babies when Hepburn was playing opposite Astaire, Bogart, Cooper and Grant in Cinderella, September-May fairy tales. The producers also faced the curious problem that female stars don’t pull at the box office in 1976 as they once did.

So with Hepburn’s cooperation the publicity blitz was turned on. During the past four weeks Hepburn returned to the U.S. to make her “comeback” official. She appeared on television in the American Film Institute’s tribute to director William Wyler. “Without Willie, I would have had no career,” she said. That evening America got its first glimpse of the mature Hepburn, in bright red dress, little changed, still reed-thin, still smiling. Next came the premiere in New York with a terrified Hepburn onstage at Radio City Music Hall before 6,000 fans—many chanting, “We love you, Audrey.” She seemed genuinely moved. The next morning she sat down for breakfast with 200 members of the international press. (Hepburn was scheduled for the Today show but canceled because after eight years away in Rome she was not familiar with Barbara Walters and did not want to discuss her personal life with a stranger on TV.) After a week’s rest in Italy, Audrey returned for a second Robin and Marian opening in Hollywood and to present the Academy Award last week for the best film of the year. Her husband, Dr. Andrea Dotti, escorted her to the ceremonies and on camera she was all serene elegance. Backstage she was so nervous she lost her purse and refused to go to the pressroom after the telecast.

It is too soon to know how Robin and Marian will do at the box office, but Hepburn’s reception has been boffo. The first reviews of the movie were mixed. Critics’ comments about Hepburn were glowing: “She’s a genuine miracle…” and “We are reminded of how long it has been since an actress has so beguiled us and captured our imagination. Hepburn is unique, and now almost alone.”

Back in Rome, Hepburn denies that her eight years’ absence from films constituted a “retirement.” “I never said I was quitting—’Goodbye, that’s it!’—and I won’t make any promises about continuing. [She has, however, found another script she likes, but won’t say what it is.] I love doing pictures, but I enjoy the luxury of a married life more.

“With my first child, I always took him with me in his formative years. His father [actor-director Mel Ferrer] was always working and moving too. We moved together.”

Married in 1954, Hepburn and Ferrer separated in 1967. She and British actor Albert Finney were filming Two for the Road at the time, and they became a column item. But some friends say the reason for the eventual divorce was that Ferrer treated her like a child.

After the divorce Hepburn moved into the European jet stream. She was seen with Spanish bullfighter Antonio Ordoñez, Prince Alfonso de Bourbon and Prince Marino Torlonia. During this period she met Dr. Andrea Dotti, a Rome psychiatrist nine years her junior, on a Mediterranean cruise. His pursuit was unflagging, and they married in February 1969.

Hepburn has heard the rumors that she returned to movies because her marriage was troubled. “That’s just not true,” she protests. “It’s those scandalous Italian magazines.” (The magazines delight in stressing their age difference.) During Audrey’s recent travels Dotti was photographed escorting beautiful women about Rome, but friends say they do not believe the marriage is in jeopardy. “I’ve had to cope with rumors all my life,” Hepburn admits, “but you have to believe me.” She stretches out the “believe” for two or three seconds. “My responsibilities are to my family first. That’s why, if I have to make a choice, acting loses out.”

In her early days, such was not the case. As a ballet student, dancer, cabaret entertainer, chorus girl and actress, Hepburn “worked from the age of 13 and for 25 years straight. That’s why I think I’ve deserved this time off.”

Hepburn was born Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston in Brussels on May 4, 1929, the daughter of a baroness with two sons from a previous marriage and Joseph Hepburn-Ruston, an Irish businessman. Her father was divorced from the dominating baroness when Audrey was 9. When the war came, the baroness reportedly thought it best to stay in Holland.

Hepburn will not discuss those years, but she suffered from anemia and saw one of her half brothers sent to a German labor camp. Because of Jewish ancestry, some of her relatives were killed by the Nazis. Hepburn has said, “I’m sure other people have been through much worse. I dislike talking about it because I feel it’s not something that should be linked to publicity.”

The effect of such a childhood, however, is still apparent when she mentions how she “hates anything that crowds me.” She counts her long walks alone in the country near her secluded Swiss villa among the joys of life and goes there as often as possible.

Dr. Dotti says that his wife “must have matters under control, and she’s afraid of surprises.” (At the New York press breakfast, she found herself facing inquisitive strangers: her hands shook noticeably and she smoked without letup.) Hepburn has never undergone analysis, although she shares her husband’s world and friends. “Oh, I feel blue sometimes, but I’m never so depressed that I have to rush to a doctor. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but I don’t think you have to make just the big gestures to be helpful. Every second of every day you can do something. Just a cheerful smile does wonders for a beginning.”

Like most wealthy Romans, the Dotti family lives in fear of kidnapping—and with reason. In February the doctor managed to escape after two men tried to push him into a car on a busy street. Hepburn herself will not reveal her precise address to any but the closest friends, and she meets reporters at the homes of friends. Gossip has suggested that a possible strain in the Dottis’ marriage is the doctor’s reluctance to give up his practice or his teaching at the University of Rome to join Audrey in Switzerland, where she feels so much more secure. She will discuss her fears only in generalities. “Rome is such a beautiful city, but it is so sad too. This violence that’s been unleashed gives me great anguish.”

She has been fiercely protective in trying to keep her two sons out of the public eye, but she speaks of them proudly. Luca is just 6 and “will be a sea captain or something like that.” Sean Ferrer is now 15 years old, 6’3″ and studying in Switzerland. “I don’t think he’ll go into acting. He’s interested in writing and in medicine right now.”

Although she has suffered five miscarriages, four during her first marriage and one since the birth of Luca, Hepburn insists she is healthy. She is 5’7″, 100 pounds. “I was just born this way. Exercise? No, no. That’s too much like school. I like to be free. There are too many musts in life without adding exercise.”

In Robin and Marian Hepburn is photographed in some unflattering natural light. “I just trusted the director. I didn’t see the rushes, so I was nervous, but actually age is not a problem for me. I wanted to come back as my own age. And at my age, if you’re tired, you look much older—on camera or in real life.”

In the fading Roman light, Hepburn jumps up like a teenager, ready to walk down the hill to her apartment. Flecks of gray show in her close-cropped curls, and laugh lines are there at the corners of those huge, dark doe eyes.

“Please don’t say I’m self-effacing,” she asks. “You have to face something to be self-effacing. I’m not really that objective about myself. And, as for my personality, it isn’t calculated, please—it just happened.” She is laughing again, sipping the last of the water and pulling the high collar of her coat around her neck. “I’m going to be a fierce walker on the way home.”