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.
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.
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 is at the National Portrait Gallery until 18 October 2015