For the Silly Season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of the month and blogging about it.

Tuesday 25 August

Exhibition: Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of an Icon
Place: National Portrait Gallery

When I was 10 my Christmas stocking contained a Lett’s Film Lover’s Diary, which featured many production stills from the upcoming year's movies. I can’t remember any of these except one, but this utterly entranced me. It showed a short-haired young girl in a tropical forest glade, who sat on the ground petting Bambi (well, a faun, anyway) while wearing a pixie-style shift dress. This was my first glimpse of Audrey Hepburn, as she appeared  in the otherwise wholly forgettable film Green Mansions.

Film_Review.jpg  Cover of ABC Cinema's Film Review in the early 1950s

I came to the National Portrait Gallery hoping to see this photograph again and was disappointed, but I did see the faun. In a publicity stunt for the film shot by one of Hepburn’s regular photographers Bob Willoughby Hepburn is seen in a Beverley Hills supermarket with a shopping trolley, a packet of Honey Grahams – and that faun. Weird.

AH_Parkinson.jpg  by Norman Parkinson

Why did Hepburn enjoy such enormous success? Her film career contained not many good films and no great ones. She rather specialised in Cinderella roles though one of her best parts, as a princess in Roman Holiday, was Cinderella in reverse. Hepburn was no great shakes as an actor. To be sure she was always charming, and very graceful, but her speaking voice had a noticeably limited range of expression, and so did her lovely face. As a singer, while her ‘Moon River’ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is touching, she was no Julie Andrews and (to her great chagrin) was overdubbed by Marnie Nixon as Eliza in My Fair Lady.

MFL.jpg  in My Fair Lady by Cecil Beaton

As for her face, two very early shots by Antony Beauchamp, a fashion photographer who discovered Hepburn performing in a London revue in the late 1940s, are instructive. These are fashion shots for the Marshal and Snelgrove stores and in each the 20-year-old stands in the same pose with her head at an identical angle. In one, with her eyes closed, she looks nothing special; in the other, eyes open, she is beautiful. 

Avedon.jpg  by Richard Avedon

So, though she had great bone structure, a marvellous wide mouth and a long neck, it’s the vivacity of her eyes that brought all this together. They looked marvellous in moving pictures, but almost as good in stills as this show demonstrates, and it’s no wonder she always had the best photographers at her disposal – Angus McBean, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Philippe Halsman, Erwin Blumenfeld, Norman Parkinson and Steven Meisel are all represented here.

COVERS.png  Some Audrey Hepburn magazine covers

Sex (and what used to be called sex appeal) played little part in Hepburn’s stardom. She was good at flirtation (even in The Nun’s Story!) but avoided any deeper sexuality. In her playing of Holly Golightly the sexual cynicism of the book almost completely disappears, to be replaced by faux innocence and kookiness. Hepburn was very good at those, and she knew how to deliver a funny line too.

UNICEF.jpg  Hepburn with UNICEF in Africa

Later in life, Hepburn was Hollywood royalty and also became highly effective as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the organisation from which she had herself received food aid in the famine-ravaged Netherlands at the end of the World War 2. She exhausted herself making more than 50 tours on UNICEF's behalf, perhaps driven by the sense that she had a debt to pay.

Posted on August 26th, 2015


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