An exhibition of rare photographs of Audrey Hepburn reveals that even at the age of nine she knew how to work the camera. Bee Wilson celebrates the woman who set a new standard for style
The greatest film stars inspire certain labels that stick to them as surely and superficially as school nicknames. Marlon Brando is always a “screen legend”. Lauren Bacall is a “siren” and Montgomery Clift, a “heart-throb”. As for Audrey Hepburn, she was, and is, “iconic”: occasionally, an “icon of elegance”, sometimes a “style icon”, but mostly, just plain “icon”.
As labels go, it could be worse. It is certainly less reductive than “sex symbol” (Marilyn’s fate). Hepburn’s enduring iconic status is a sign of how strong her cultural currency remains. Fashion writers invoke her constantly. When enthusing about sunglasses or little black dresses or gloves, it is still de rigueur to mention that scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with Hepburn clutching a paper cup of coffee and a croissant, staring coolly into a window full of jewellery.
Now, more than 70 photographs of the star can be seen in a small but dazzling exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Half are from the personal collection of her children, Sean Hepburn Ferrer (the son she had with her first husband, actor Mel Ferrer) and Luca Dotti (the son she had with her second husband, an Italian psychiatrist). Ferrer and Dotti own their mother’s name as Audrey Hepburn™. In 2013, they granted permission to Galaxy chocolate to recreate her image in CGI. You may have seen the adverts; they had a Roman Holiday vibe, with a young Audrey driving through Italy in an open-top car. Her sons also worked closely with the NPG on the new exhibition. Its title, you may not be surprised to hear, is Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon.
And what an icon she was. As Billy Wilder said: “God kissed Audrey Hepburn on the cheek, and there she was”, meaning: she was born a star. No one has ever worn a white shirt quite as she did. To peruse this glamorous collection of photographs – including work by Cecil Beaton, Yousuf Karsh and Irving Penn – is to be reminded how sublimely photogenic Hepburn was. Others have been called gamine, but only she fully inhabited that identity: the skittishness and innocence. On another face, to have eyebrows so darkly painted and eyes so swishily lined might have seemed overkill; on her it looked natural. She photographed equally well in black-and-white and in colour. Here she is in 1951, in one of her informal black tops, grinning for American Vogue, like a child with a secret. And there she is four years later, radiant in pink Givenchy couture during the filming of War and Peace.
Even in family album snapshots – or at least the examples chosen by the NPG – she has a ballerina’s poise. The earliest image in the exhibition shows her in 1938 aged just nine. She has a Milly-Molly-Mandy haircut and no eyeliner yet, but she has already mastered how to smile for the camera without giving everything away. Richard Avedon – whose 60s portraits are some of the most haunting in the exhibition, accentuating the vulnerability of her swan neck – claimed that he found Hepburn paradoxically hard to photograph. She left so little work for him to do: “However you defined the encounter of the photographer and subject, Audrey won.”
Our continued reverence for Hepburn is interesting because it reveals the extent to which we remain in thrall to beautiful stills. An icon is something lovely and precious but also motionless: symbolic, not real. It is a flat picture of a golden saint before which you kneel, unworthy. As such, an exhibition of photography – rather than a film retrospective – may be the perfect way to pay homage to Hepburn’s charm.
In theory, we inhabit the age of the moving image: Netflix, YouTube, Skype. Yet the Hepburn with the enduring fame and cachet is not, as you might expect, the witty, talky one who could actually act – Katharine – but the one who photographed well. The more you look at the exquisite images in the NPG exhibition, the more you see that Hepburn’s genius for still imagery far eclipsed her achievements in motion pictures. I wonder how many now watch her in Sabrina, a rather odd and stilted romantic comedy in which Hepburn gives one of her many less-than-convincing performances as a chauffeur’s daughter torn between Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. Yet we still recall the black slacks and ballet flats she wore in that picture, and her sylph-like waist.
The cult of Hepburn as “icon” has often seemed to be less about devotion to her film work and more a way for other women to put themselves down. Who can live up to that level of chic, not to mention the extreme slenderness? Hepburn herself insisted she ate “awfully well at meals”, but still, her figure would be a dangerous one for others to emulate. “Audrey maintained an impressive 31.5in-22in-31.5in her entire life,” remarked Pamela Keogh in her deeply annoying 2008 book What Would Audrey Do? Timeless Lessons for Living with Grace and Style.
As Billy Wilder said: ‘God kissed Audrey Hepburn on the cheek, and there she was’, meaning: she was born a star
In the exhibition catalogue, curator Helen Trompeteler admits that film “was just one of the ways Hepburn’s image was shaped, and arguably not the most enduring”. She points out that at the height of Hepburn’s career, audiences would often see a film only once, whereas photographic stills were treasured, to be viewed over and over again. Through such publications as Picture Post and Picturegoer, Hepburn’s image reached a huge public. She was on the cover of Life magazine nine times, more than any other celebrity (Marilyn only managed seven). In 1954, Vogue magazine said that she had so captured the public imagination that she had established a new “standard of beauty”. It was the costume designer Edith Head who first spotted that Hepburn was more like a model than an actor. Head worked with Hepburn on Roman Holiday and said “her figure and flair told me, at once, that here was a girl who’d been born to make designers happy”.
To go from Hepburn in photographic form to one of her actual film performances is often a disappointment. She spoke in princessy tones as if English were a foreign language, which it was. Her mother was a Dutch baroness and her father – who abandoned them when Audrey was six – was an English fascist. Audrey and her mother spent the war in the Netherlands, where they suffered terrible malnutrition, and the little girl was always warned that she must not speak English in public. Perhaps this explains the strained intonation in her voice. The problem is not with her accent – after all, that was no obstacle for Ingrid Bergman – but the sense that she is often failing to connect with the basic register a line requires. Her best performance by far was in My Fair Lady, where, cast as Eliza Doolittle, Hepburn’s default mode of speech is presented as something put-on and fake. It is a shock to go from this film to Funny Face, say, and realise that it is just the way she talks, not something that Henry Higgins has taught her. Another bonus in My Fair Lady is that Hepburn’s voice was not used during the songs – she mimed to Marni Nixon’s singing – which gives her acting a rare feeling of freedom. She could devote herself to pure gesture and was never as affecting as when miming to “I Could Have Danced All Night”.
As a young woman, Hepburn didn’t aspire to be an actor, but a ballet dancer. Her mother saved every penny for ballet lessons and after the war they came to London, where Audrey danced in the chorus of whatever shows would take her, earning a little extra as a model in newspaper ads for Lacto calamine, a “skin food”. She got her first big break when the French writer Colette spotted her in a hotel lobby and wanted her for the lead role in Gigi on Broadway. Hepburn replied, without false modesty: “I’m sorry, madame, but I wouldn’t be able to, because I can’t act.”
This body of images burnishes the sense we have that Hepburn must have been one of the greatest film stars of all time
It turned out this was no obstacle to becoming a huge star. Icons do not need to act; they only have to be, and no one was better at existing in front of a camera than Audrey Hepburn. Whether she is cuddling children on a Unicef mission to Sudan or posing in a crisp pink shirt on the cover of Life magazine, she is mesmerising. This body of images burnishes the sense we have that Hepburn must have been one of the greatest film stars of all time. The American Film Institute ranked her the third best female screen lead, ahead of Greta Garbo and Judy Garland.
But in the end, her most indelible images are the static ones; it’s easier to worship something fixed than something in motion. The NPG exhibition includes a Sam Shaw photo of Hepburn during the filming of Love in the Afternoon in 1956. She is sitting at a bar wearing a coat, surrounded by laughing, drinking men. She stares straight at us, with the loneliness of someone in an Edward Hopper painting. There is more poignancy and depth in this single photo than in the entire movie, in which Hepburn plays the ingénue to Gary Cooper’s old roué. Our need to make Hepburn into an icon suggests that it is often the idea of a classic film that we love more than the thing itself.
A few nights ago, I watched Charade. It is a 1963 comedy crime caper set in Paris, directed by Stanley Donen and starring Hepburn and Cary Grant. It features clothes by Givenchy and music by Henry Mancini. The plot is one of multiple identities, with shades of North by Northwest. It has amazing modernist opening credits, like a Mondrian painting come to life. I thought I was going to love it. The plot lurches from mystery to jeopardy to romance, but unlike Grant, who slides smoothly into his usual ambivalent character, Hepburn never seems able to summon the requisite emotions. You do not share her fear or understand what she feels for Grant. “I’m having a nervous breakdown!” she announces, in a phone booth, in such a baffled voice she could be Eliza Doolittle enunciating “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain”.
And yet, throughout Charade, Hepburn looks preposterously good, in a series of chic belted shift dresses, pillbox hats and 60s swing coats. I paused the film to make a cup of tea. When I came back, it was freeze-framed on Grant and Hepburn watching a Punch and Judy show. Grant is in a debonair suit; Hepburn wears a red coat and coral lipstick. Even though I was bored by Charade, in still form, it suddenly looked like a classic piece of cinema, rich with glamour and intrigue. I stared at that immortal frozen face for another moment, before un-pausing it and letting the static icon melt back to faltering life.
- Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon runs from 2 July to 18 October at the National Portrait Gallery.