The camera adored her; 22 years after her death fans worldwide still love the face that launched a thousand eyeliner flicks. But does the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition do the star’s life justice? Bertie Bowen took a look.
Audrey Hepburn had a fascinating life, from her birth to her early, quite sudden, death at age 63. Instantly recognisable, her image is unique and was once ubiquitous worldwide. This exhibition of more than 70 photographs spans her career from teenage ballet dancer through to her work with UNICEF later in life.
My initial reaction to the earliest photos is slight indifference; in one of the chorus line pictures, I cannot even tell which one she is. Yet overhearing a group of older women nearby, it all suddenly makes sense. One woman said she had been part of the audience at a very early musical which Hepburn performed in and was “…riveted by her eyes and her face. Yet she was just in the chorus!” She was not supposed to be looking at Audrey but she did; she simply couldn’t take her eyes off her.
It was the ballet training that gave Audrey the poise and expression which made her stand out, not simply her interesting looks. She also claims it was this rigorous training that lent her the grit and determination she channelled throughout her working life.
The problem is it is almost impossible to capture charisma in a photograph, a one-dimensional snapshot of a single moment in time, so some of these early photos can’t quite do justice to Audrey’s appeal. I wish I could have seen her on stage all those years ago.
Audrey was plucked from obscurity and quickly became first a model, then was given a small part in a film. From there, her career soon snowballed. The portraits from this point onwards are mainly professional, with the odd behind-the-scenes, unposed, unexpected one. This is where we see the ‘real’ Audrey: putting on makeup in her dressing room, listening with head tilted to the director on set. These intimate moments are what really stand out in this collection.
Audrey rose to fame during the second world war, a contradictory, confusing yet exciting time for women when their roles were redefined. I soon noticed a theme in her film roles. She often played a character who was transformed in some way during the film.
Maybe Audrey’s mass appeal was partly down to her multifaceted nature: feminine yet tomboyish, playful and childish, yet knowing and self-aware. She had something which appealed to everyone.
The 1960s were revolutionary years in many ways. Audrey gave birth to her first son and when she came back to work she had transformed again. She reinvented her image and her style became more confident and mature. The film industry began exploring previously taboo subjects and she was able to challenge herself with more controversial roles.
I loved the images from around this time; I felt a real sense of pride and peace from her. Becoming a mother (something she had wanted for a long time) appeared to have altered her for the better somehow. Something in her eyes told me she finally felt complete and content.
After her second son was born in 1970 she retreated from the public eye to some extent and so there are only a few film stills and promo shots from her final decades.
She was appointed the International Goodwill Ambassador to UNICEF in 1988 and the two photos of her in Sudan and Somalia with malnourished yet smiling children wrapped around her frail frame are emotional and revealing. I wish we could have seen more.
This exhibition left me slightly cold. I hate to say it but I was underwhelmed. Perhaps I was expecting more drama in the photographs of her but they were mainly small prints that I had to study close up.
I was also hoping to learn about the Audrey we didn’t see on screen, the person who suffered hardship early on and was drawn to help others in need later in life. But most of the prints were from the height of her fame, when her face never failed to draw the crowds to the cinema.
Sadly, the static nature of photos can never portray the spark that Audrey had in person or on screen. And later on Audrey even shied away from the cameras because, really, all she ever wanted was a normal family life, and who can blame her for wanting that?
I left planning to spend the next two days watching all the films she had ever starred in. There’s no denying it, she was a strange and lovely creature; there is no one like her on earth and her face can only ever be a joy to behold on screen or indeed, in print.
Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon runs until 18 October at the National Portrait Gallery. For more details, visit: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/hepburn/home.php3579 Views
Stylist, writer and mother living in East London. A clompy shoed, curly haired, Radio 4 enthusiast. www.mothershoppers.com