Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon at the National Portrait Gallery

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Left: at a dance recital in 1942, aged 13. Right: on location in Africa filming The Nun’s Story, photographed by Leo Fuchs.

The second most famous ‘face’ of classic movies is currently the subject of an exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery. Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon includes over 80 photographs of the actress, spanning intimate dancing shots from her formative years to fashion editorials and studio stills taken by photographers including Cecil Beaton and Angus McBean. The exhibition is, like the actress herself, tasteful, and elegant, an on-the-surface snapshot into one of the silver screen’s most enduring icons.

Arranged chronologically, it offers an overview of the actresses’ career, from aspiring ballerina to Oscar winner and finally, UNICEF ambassador. These milestones reveal something about Hepburn the woman, yet throughout the exhibition, her essence remains elusive. The exhibition never ventures very far from the accepted ‘image’ of Hepburn – not unsurprising considering that most attendees are likely to visit because they are fans of the star and what she represents. But who was the ‘real’ Audrey? She was certainly talented and beautiful… but what else? Her gamine, elfin beauty placed her on a pedestal, separating her from ‘us’. She was – and remains – and untouchable, aloof and pure.

Audrey Hepburn - portraits of an icon

Left: in Richmond Park, taken by Bert Hardy, 1950. Right: wearing a headpiece designed by Erwin Blumenfeld and made by milliner Mister Fred.

It’s impossible to view Hepburn ‘the actress’ without thinking about Marilyn Monroe and comparing their public personalities. Whatever your opinion of Monroe (and I err on the side of positive) it’s impossible not to feel like you ‘know’ her on some level. Her (assumed) warmth and vulnerability are in stark contrast to Hepburn’s aloof distance. Although, as Sarah Churchwell observes, we all find the Marilyn we need, she comes with personable characteristics, flaws and quirks. Hepburn, on the other hand, is pure. She wasn’t enigmatic like Dietrich or alluring like Garbo. She was – and remains – a look-don’t-touch icon who inspires worship and acclaim but rarely relatability.

Maybe Hepburn was the icon Hollywood needed in the mid-1950s. Independent but sweet of temper, successful but sincere and authentic. In the post-war era, when women’s roles were in flux, she was just enough of an inspiration but not too much of a threat. The exhibition notes hint at this context, but don’t really explore the issues. Hepburn, it seems to suggest, exists solely for our admiration. Absent too is any discussion of her pairing with older men – from Cary Grant to Fred Astaire and Rex Harrison. These are key and interesting components in the construction of the Hepburn persona. Her most famous role – that of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – is sexually ambiguous, played in only the way that Hepburn could. Yet, in both the exhibition and in popular consciousness, Hepburn ‘the actress’ remains obscured by the image of Hepburn, the LBD-wearing fashion icon.

Audrey Hepburn - portraits of an icon

Left: promotional photo for Sabrina, taken by Bud Fraker in 1954. Right: in Rome, photographed by Cecil Beaton, 1960.

Today, Hepburn’s legacy plays out most obviously in fashion editorials and advertising. It’s a fitting epithet for an actress most obviously associated with ‘timeless beauty and elegance’. It’s not clear exactly how much control she had over her imagery, but she certainly knew how to play the camera. Most of the shots in the exhibition follow a similar formula: shot showing her left side, evading the camera with a half-smile. Of course, each photographer put their stamp on the image but, strolling through the exhibition rooms, there’s little sense of development – either visually or emotionally. Hepburn found what worked for her, and stuck to it. Not a fault, but to be truly relevant, this exhibition needed to peer beyond the pose to grasp Hepburn the woman. Sadly, but perhaps understandably, convention – and profits – won the vote. Go see if you want to revel in the legend, avoid if you crave what the camera doesn’t see.

Audrey Hepburn - portraits of an icon

Left: wearing Givenchy, photographed by Douglas Kirkland. Right: in Italy for LIFE magazine, photographed by Philippe Halsman.

Audrey Hepburn: Portraits of an Icon is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 October 2015

Further reading: Fashion Abecedaire: exhibition review / Interview with Luca Dotti

The Lady From Shanghai: Welles’ nightmare-infused filmmaking riddle

The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles The story of The Lady from Shanghai (1947) starts with a favour. Orson Welles, who had already achieved global success with Citizen Kane, released before his 25th birthday, had swapped his attention to the stage. He was directing an ambitious version of Jules Verne’s classic adventure novel Around the World in 80 Days when he ran out of money. Not without friends in Hollywood, Welles called Columbia Pictures’ Harry Cohn, who agreed to stump up the cash – if the director made a film for the studio. What resulted was an inventively dreamlike film, part noir, part murder-mystery – and a real-life nightmare for Cohn, who famously remarked that he would give a thousand dollars to anyone able to satisfactorily explain the film’s plot.

The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Rita_Hayworth The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles Continuing the standard that had been set by The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai was a flop. Although it fared better in Europe (it was released there first in 1947) most US critics panned it. Bosley Crowther claimed it was sloppy. Variety suggested that Welles’ ‘rambling style’ had ‘occasional flashes of imagination’. History has been kinder. The film was cut from over two hours to less than 90 minutes, with none of the director’s edits considered – today, Welles is mostly praised for the great, rather than lambasted for the shoddy. And much about The Lady from Shanghai is great. Several scenes – beyond the famous hall of mirrors climax – stand out, evidence that Welles was the master of creating atmosphere through unusual shots. A chess game fades into a birds-eye view of a courtroom. A tense cliff top exchange is filmed from above, exaggerating how the characters are teetering on the edge of a precipice. Two lovers exchange vows in an aquarium in front of a fish tank filled with large, slow moving fish. A group of school children witness their passionate embrace and are ushered away by a teacher. The ‘background’ functions as a comment on ‘foreground’ actions. The subtle, foreboding undertones are enhanced by these surrealist aspects, hinting that nightmarish qualities exist below the surface of normality – nothing is as it seems. Undeniably artistic, none of the filmmaking creativity evident in The Lady from Shanghai feels contrived. There’s a strong sense that it’s how Welles saw the world. He wasn’t trying to be clever or different, he was just presenting scenarios in a way that felt entirely natural but just happen to be slightly off-kilter. The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles Those virtues are unquestionably Welles. But surely the film’s shortcomings are his too. The nonsensical plot. Michael’s questionable Irish accent (Welles played the lead character). Watching The Lady from Shanghai, a viewer has to accept that the film operates a slightly different plane. Welles lets you in, but never enough. There’s always something unknown, a mystery that will never be solved, no matter how often you watch for the answers. You might think you understand Shanghai’s true colours, but then you realise you probably never will. Welles’ character always remains just out of reach. Upon meeting the glamorous Elsa Bannister (played by Rita Hayworth, then Welles’ real-life wife) in Central Park, he understands that common-sense wasn’t going to factor into their relationship: “When I start out to make a fool of myself there’s very little that can stop me.” Michael revels in his bad decisions. He accepts a job working for Mr Bannister (a prominent lawyer, played by Everett Sloane), and soon finds himself skippering Bannister’s yacht, despite his attraction to Elsa and the obvious shady dealings that surround the couple. The ultimate anti-hero – Michael ‘saves’ Elsa from a robbery yet never quite lives up to his own standard – he is eager to please and unquestioning. His wistful, almost hyperbolic voice-over imbues the film with a sense of loss and retrospection that almost seems to come straight from Welles – the director who enjoyed success so early only to see it dissipate in front of his eyes. The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles Yet for all the film’s complexities, the thriller finish is remarkably literal. The fun-house elements are an obvious, visual comment on Michael’s lack of control, the multiple mirror reflections confirm that nothing is real, that the ‘self’ is made up of multiple facets that exist together to form a whole that’s not always the sum of it’s part. Often the scene that’s used as evidence for Welles’ genius, it’s actually the most contrived. Drawing heavily on German Expressionism and apparently inspired by The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920), which Welles showed to the cast before filming began, it’s sinister, unhinged, hallucinatory… but ultimately unsatisfying. Possibly the product of over-cutting, but disappointing considering the director’s commitment to madness – he spent hours hand-painting some of the scenery. The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles The_Lady_From_Shanghai_Orson_Welles The Lady from Shanghai might not be Welles’ most acclaimed film but it’s a worthy watch in his catalogue. For years, the director would claim: “Friends avoided me,” Welles said. “Whenever it was mentioned, people would clear their throats and change the subject very quickly out of consideration for my feelings”. Yet in Europe, the film was embraced, particularly by Francois Truffaut. In the foreword to Andre Bazin’s 1978 biography, he wrote “The only raison d’etre for The Lady from Shanghai… is the cinema itself’. Watching it, it’s impossible not to wonder what a ‘director’s cut’ would look like. In his centenary year, most of the attention will no doubt focus on Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, but many of these interim films reveal just as much about a director that – despite the acclaim – has always remained slightly on the fringe. With three documentaries set for release over the coming months, Welles saturation looks likely. Perhaps it’s time to return to his films and judge him through his own lens. This post is my contribution to the 1947 blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. Find out more about this amazing year of filmmaking by reading all the entries here.

A Liebster Award: I’d like to thank the Academy

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Once upon a time (about three weeks ago), the wonderful CineMaven nominated yours truly for a Liebster Award. I’ve taken so long to reply the honour probably still doesn’t hold, but I’m going to claim it does. Now this isn’t a take-the-crown-and-bask-in-the-glory award. It comes with tasks…. pass the award on to some recipients, answer some questions and then ask some.

So the blogs I nominate (in no particular order, you should check every one out because they’re all wonderful) are:

Silent-ology / Regular Pop / Margaret Perry / Critica Retro / The Hollywood Revue / Speakeasy / Film Grimoire / Writer Loves Movies / The Vintage Cameo / Silver Screenings / The Blonde at the Film

Recipients: should you wish to accept this mission, simply answer my eleven questions (see below), share eleven random facts, think of your own questions, make some nominations and share the love. Simple.

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My responses to Cinema Maven’s questions:

You’re a casting agent. Tell me, what two stars who never acted together would you most like to see in a film?
Barbara Stanwyck and Jimmy Stewart. The actress that could do anything and the all-American male – can you imagine?

What is your favourite line in a movie?
I have so many! Probably something from All About Eve: ‘I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart. You can always put that award were your heart ought to be’.

What is your favourite Hitchcock film… and why?
The 39 Steps. Why? Because it’s perfect. And Madeleine Carroll’s intro is the best character opening BAR NONE (ok, maybe Rita Hayworth as Gilda…).

Clark Gable or Cary Grant? Why?
Team Cary all the way. For him, acting was so natural, so effortless. Also, he wore a suit better.

What movie should never EVER become a re-make?
All About Eve. Oh, hang on…

What classic film star would you like to interview? Full disclosure. They’d hold nothing back during your interview.
Louise Brooks. Can you imagine the stories she would have….?

What movie or actor or actress (pick one ) was absolutely, positively, unequivocally robbed of an Academy Award? For what film? Briefly, why should he/she/it have won?
Barbara Stanwyck, for everything, but especially in Stella Dallas. She played the role so naturally, and that was probably her downfall – you only win if you look like you’ve given something up, right?! More than any other star, her magic was in her acting and not her looks – although they weren’t bad either. And I know this question is specifically about actors/actresses, but a special shout-out to director Preston Sturges. So many of his films should have been given the official nod…

What classic film star, at the height of his or her fame, would you like to show up with you at your prom? 
Marlon Brando, circa Streetcar Named Desire. If he’s unavailable, Steve McQueen would do…

Which endings resonate MORE with you: movies with happy endings or movies with sad endings? (Do NOT say, “that depends”). Name the film. And why? 
Can I say happy sad endings? For me, Casablanca is perfect – you want Rick and Ilsa to be together but you know it’s not the right thing. I like that. I like endings that don’t make me feel cheated.

What actor or actress do you find too hyped up and over-rated OR what actor or actress do you find totally under the radar, and should be much more well-known? Tell us why.
The ultimate under-the-radar actress is Myrna Loy. She gets a lot of love in the classic film community but she’s shockingly under appreciated by wider film goers. I think the same could be said of William Powell.

If you didn’t have classic films in your life, where else would your passion lie? What would your hobby be? 
Writing novels. But I like to think that I can combine the two. Well, one day.

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11 (fairly random) facts about me: 

  • I love visiting cemeteries. Highgate is a particular fave. I even have a wish-list – Cementerio de La Recoleta (Buenos Aires) is probably at the top.
  • Prince is my musical and sartorial idol. Don’t mess with the purple one.
  • I like Marmite. I eat it straight from the jar (using a spoon).
  • I collect notebooks. I often don’t write in them. I just like to know they’re there.
  • My fancy-dress go-to is Sally Bowles (Cabaret).
  • I know every word (dialogue and musical numbers) to Grease. People refuse to watch it with me because I quote-a-long without realising (see also: Dirty Dancing).
  • Once, I knitted a scarf. It remains my greatest crafting achievement.
  • I have an art degree. Now I’m a writer. Go figure…
  • My enthusiasm for singing is matched only by the strength of my tone deafness.
  • I follow Kim Kardashian on Instagram. I’m sorry. But I.just.can’t.stop.
  • My best friend and I once walked across Manhattan for five hours to get to the Brooklyn Bridge. It didn’t look that far on the map…

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11 questions for my nominated bloggers:

Congratulations on your award. Who’ll be presenting it to you? And why?

Which movie character would you like to ask for advice?

You can spend one day dressed in a movie costume. Whose would it be – and why?

What’s your favourite film decade?

Which film character do you most identify with?

What talent would you most like to have?

One movie that you’ve never seen but probably should….

… and the movie that you can watch again and again?

What was your best movie-watching experience?

You’re hosting a dinner party. Which classic stars/directors/personalities are on your invite list?

Who is your favourite movie villain… and why?

Thanks once again to CineMaven for the nomination…

Easy Rider: freedom, escape and the open road

easy rider

Easy Rider is the legend that almost never was. At the end of the film’s chaotic, weeklong shoot, producer, co-writer and co-star Peter Fonda threatened to fire director, co-writer and co-star (you really don’t have to look far to find the incestuous origins of the chaos) Dennis Hopper and refund all the backers. Hopper didn’t just want to film an on-the-road ‘rock n’ roll’ lifestyle, he wanted to live it: chaos, drugs, alcohol, loaded guns and trashed TV sets and more.

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But the film was made and released. Moviegoers went to watch it. Then they went again. The low-budget ‘problem child’ would go on to make more than $40 million at the box office. But it wasn’t just about the money. Through a drug-induced haze, Hopper and Fonda had created something that would come to mean so much more than the sum of its parts, a movie that would still be recognised, referenced and revered in popular culture more than 45 years after its 1969 release.

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So what’s the appeal? It’s not the sensitive direction, the endearing characters, or even the storyline. It’s not the costumes, the art direction or the editing. In terms of production, the only thing Easy Rider really has going for it is the rough and ready soundtrack, a musical commentary that was added in for the first studio screening. In truth, the appeal of the movie is intangible – on the surface it’s about romance and authenticity, the ability to reconnect with something lost. But these ideas are coded into open roads and barren landscapes, and they had been since another Fonda (Henry) had left Oklahoma for California (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940). No, Easy Rider wasn’t the first, best – and certainly not the last – movie to examine a counter-culture diametrically opposed to the mainstream.

easy rider

Bonnie & Clyde, released two years earlier in 1967, had already marked ‘the road’ out as a metaphor for crisis-ridden America. Younger filmgoers accepted (even expected?) that heroes would be fallible – in fact, it was cool to think everything was futile, that nonconformists had their fun and then got what they deserved. Yet in spite of the clichés (admittedly more pronounced for contemporary viewers), Easy Rider‘s cool rapidly cultivated a cult following.

easy rider

You don’t have to look too hard to work out that this is a film about freedom. Amongst the drugs and prostitutes, Billy (Hopper) and George (Jack Nicholson) talk about it:

George Hanson: They’re not scared of you. They’re scared of what you represent to ’em.
Billy: Hey, man, all we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
George Hanson: Oh no. What you represent to them is freedom.

Of course, freedom isn’t just about the ability to live as one wishes. Freedom is often a trade off; it’s a bargain in disguise. Yes, Billy, George and Wyatt (Fonda) choose to live outside convention and they pay the ultimate price. But even before their deaths they’re ridiculed for their clothes and their long hair – a transient, as-you-like-it lifestyle was no protection from polite society – incidentally one that’s never polite.

easy rider

Perhaps it has less to do with freedom and everything to do with escape. Escape from social conditioning, the ‘rat race’, and the machinations of consumer culture. Escape from judgement and the ensnaring promises of the American dream. But escape is hard and, by their own admission, Billy and Wyatt ‘blew it’. But it was probably less about selling out on their dream, but the realisation that truly living to personal values requires an internal conformity and a life of ‘struggle’ that doesn’t exactly sit with the definition of escape.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project, hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Catch up on day 1 (the Silent era)day 2 (the Golden Age) and day 3 (the Modern era).