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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Audrey Hepburn: An Actress with a Rare Endowment of Humanity

On Sunday morning as I lazily logged into Google, there appeared a pretty face— a face that the world of yesteryears considered synonymous with ‘elegance’—that of Audrey Hepburn, the Oscar winning actress of Hollywood of the 50s and 60s.
Suddenly a captivating scene flashed in my mind …  boyish Hepburn in a feminine attire—long,  free style floaty skirt  of high-waisted almost  right from above the navel  down almost to the ankle over a low-cut  V-necked short sleeve white top with sleeves rolled up … a black silk cloth with striking white stripes tied in  Rajinikant’s  style around her neck, capped by cropped hair—zooming through the Roman streets on a Vespa … true to the spirit of a new rider with eyes wide open and face glowing with childish enthusiasm … all in gay abandon … literally knocking down people coming in her way  … yet magically keeping herself on course … suddenly Gregory Peck hopping  on it and trying to take hold of the scooter but the girl in her gayest spree refusing to let her hands be off the handle.   Oh! What a scene … all on that Ratnaa Talkies screen… Indeed, viewing it was a highly demanding experience: on the one hand eager to watch and register all those sprawling roads, fountain squares/plazas, columned palaces, street corner portrait drawers, and all those interesting locales through which they were riding, and on the other, eyes were refusing to be off from the bubbling and giggling Hepburn—state of mind was almost similar to that of Gregory, who is anxiously striving to steer her through safely…    
Interestingly, in the 50s and 60s there were a couple of theatres in Tenali—Satyanarayana Talkies and Venus picture palace besides Ratnaa Talkies that used to play Hollywood movies as morning shows on Saturdays and Sundays, of course, offering a decent discount vis-à-vis the regular Telugu show charges that obviously encouraged us somehow to snatch a few anas from somewhere and catch up with such flamboyant extravaganzas…   
Having already read about William Wyler’s direction in Screen —his sublime portrayal of human emotions with bubbling effervescence … all laden in gaiety … and everything … including scooter rides through the maze of Rome…  that looked so natural,  for unlike in today’s movies,  there were no graphics… no camera-assisted feats … everything original—we could thoroughly enjoy watching the journalist Gregory Peck moving quite relaxed in neat and tidy tweeds with his signature hair style (or, of Devanand’s style ?) accompanied by that regal beauty,  Hepburn, looking so beautiful and innocent—entering Gregory Peck’s  apartment she asks so sweetly: “Is this the elevator?”— in the role that was almost tailor-made for her. As I don’t remember how much I might have understood the dialogues in that American accent … but as the movie came to an end—as the lonely Princess ended her press conference with a few tender and uncommon words and returned to her gilded cage—we all went into a deep silence… Though it is more than 50 years since I watched the movie, I still remember this much: it was a sweet romantic movie that ended up gracefully like any other classical romance. And since then, Audrey Hepburn, who won an Oscar as best actress for her role in it and Gregory Peck remained etched in my mind ….
Again after about four years, I had a chance of watching Hepburn’s much talked about movie: My Fair Lady. That was in 1965.  We went on an educational tour from Bapatla to South India. The movie was playing in the then newly opened 70 mm theatre, Safire—claimed to be the first in South India—in Madras. By then, I had read a little about it in the magazines—it was a film adaption of the Broadway musical of the same name originally crafted from Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Hepburn played as an annoying cockney flower girl in it.  Rex Harrison was perhaps at his best as the arrogant phonetics Professor, Henry Higgins, who undertook the challenge of transforming this flower girl Eliza Doolittle—a girl so deliciously low; so horribly dirty—into a Lady presentable to the high society of Edwardian London.
A few of the scenes are still fresh in memory… Hepburn undergoes many forms of speech training—speaking with marbles in her mouth: “The rain in Spain stays in the plain”; “In Hertford Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen”—enduring the harsh teaching style of Higgins. She even endures Higgins’—“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” —indifference towards her. Interesting to watch Higgins mother warning Prof Higgins not to marginalize and overlook Eliza and he must behave if she had to join him. He was, of course, unable to appreciate it. 

The most interesting scene was: as Prof Higgins blusters at her, Hepburn (Eliza) displaying an incredible amount of ease and composure throws at Higgins all those insults he earlier heaped on her: “Oh! I’m only a squashed cabbage leaf”…  It was a marvelous scene to watch and enjoy Hepburn simultaneously displaying self-pity and pride. In those demanding scenes, one could see Hepburn amazingly combining femininity and strength to display the image of a strong, independent woman.  Interesting to watch!
Finally, Eliza metamorphoses into a lady—like a hairy caterpillar becoming a beautiful butterfly—who could speak with an impeccable aristocratic accent.  As the movie nears the end, we see the hitherto indifferent Professor Higgins suddenly realizing that he had “grown accustomed to her face”—her smiles, her frowns, her ups, her downs, have now become his second nature. Of course, as Rex Harrison (Higgs) singing (in his own tone), “Grown accustomed to her face”, walks back home .... and dropping himself in the chair listens to Eliza's recorded voice—after all, having not shared with Eliza how he loved her all along, what else he could .... — Eliza, the lady who hardly five minutes back sang having done with him, reappears in Higgins’s study ... with watery eyes (?) ... .. knowing fully well that he deeply cares for her after all. And thus ends the movie on a happy note. And as the music died down suddenly... got up from chair ...  heaving a sigh.... slowly walked out of  that grey silence...   
Listening to beautiful songs such as: “I could have danced all night…”, “The rain in Spain”, “Why Can’t the English…”, “I am an ordinary man”, I’ve grown accustomed to her face…” “Without you…” through the stereophonic sound system of the theater that too, for the first time, along with my roommate, Roy, was an experience in itself, which I relish still….  
A little deviation is perhaps, in order here: Intriguingly, during the 70s and 80s management Pundits have fostered a new concept called ‘Pygmalion effect’—a phenomenon whereby the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. In his HBR article of 1988, Prof J. Sterling Livingston described the Pygmalion effect thus: “The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them"— it enables staff to excel in response to the manager’s message that they are capable of success and expected to succeed.  Livingston further stated: "If he [manager] is unskilled, he leaves scars on the careers of the young men (and women), cuts deeply into their self-esteem and distorts their image of themselves as human beings. But if he is skillful and has high expectations of his subordinates, their self-confidence will grow, their capabilities will develop and their productivity will be high. More often than he realizes, the manager is Pygmalion." And this philosophy holds good even today.
Reverting to our story, Hepburn, the beautiful but cerebral woman, acted less frequently after My Fair Lady. Indeed she was very quick at turning down the offers that she considered didn’t interest her, or she felt they aren’t right for her—like rejecting the offer to play Anne Frank, for she felt she was too old to play that teenager’s role.
Finally, this iconic actress, who was born on 4 May 1929 to John Victor Hepburn, an Anglo-Irish banker and Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch aristocrat, moving away from films, lived the rest of her life practicing her philosophy of putting others before herself. The character that she had cultivated right from her childhood—as a child victim of Nazi occupation in Netherland, she raised funds through her ballet performances to help starving kids—well reflects in her saying: “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.” It is this side of her personality—as the special ambassador of UNICEF her contribution to humanity is much admired—that makes the world remember her even today [on her 85th birthday] gratefully.


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