If it’s true that only the beautiful get to be movie stars, it’s true also that there are some stars whose beauty becomes its own kind of luminary. Audrey Hepburn’s is that kind, an idol apart, enshrined in a million posters and film stills, and in the daydreams of girls, and certain kinds of boys, who yearn for her aura of blithe sophistication. And if a large part of Hepburn’s talent is in simply helming that beauty, in carrying it comfortably even when sheathed in the most exquisite Givenchy ensemble, another is her mien, calculated or not, of bemusement over all the fuss. “I’m too thin,” she says in Billy Wilder’s 1957 comedy, Love in the Afternoon. “And my ears stick out and my teeth are crooked and my neck’s too long.” All of which is true — and her chest is flat, her jaw as square as a safe, her leonine eyes almost grotesquely oversized. “Maybe,” replies Gary Cooper. “But I love the way it all hangs together.”
If anyone understood how surpassing beauty hung together or, for that matter, fell apart, it was Wilder, but where Sunset Boulevard saw the loss of a woman’s desirability as cataclysmic, the cunningly cast Love in the Afternoonviews a man’s decline as a comic opportunity for grace. Hepburn was frequently paired with older leading men; gorgeous without the sex-doll va-voom of a Marilyn Monroe, she could hold up under the wattage of a Cooper or a Cary Grant without glaring back on their incipient aging. As a lovestruck, blossom-fresh cello student feinting at worldliness with Cooper’s careless millionaire playboy, she is the mirror on the wall in which Cooper sees just where his own good looks have gotten him. Far from transcendent, his epiphany features what might be the single most unflattering shot — replete with thinning hair and bloodhound eye bags — of his entire career. It’s easy to imagine the film as Wilder’s friendly word of warning to the matinee idols he saw fading all around him.
Love in the Afternoonscreens as part of LACMA’s four-weekend tribute to Hepburn, which also includes a rare screening of the 1981 Peter Bogdanovich picture They All Laughed and a 70mm screening of My Fair Lady. If ever there was a reason to forget the DVD and hit the museum, it’s the chance to watch Hepburn as she was meant to be watched: projected through the velvety grain of celluloid onto a screen big enough to do justice to her monumental beauty — crooked teeth and all. (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater; through Fri., Nov. 13; lacma.org.)
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