A Thing of Beauty
Capturing the ethereal beauty of a timeless star of the silver screen
Text: Charles Kane | Images: Bob Willoughby
The American photographer Bob Willoughby (1927-2009) had captured many leading ladies as a Hollywood studio snapper (his big break was to photograph Judy Garland during the filming of A Star is Born in 1954). But it is every celebrity photographers’ dream to build an intimate professional relationship with unique access to a major star.
When Willoughby met the Belgian-born actress, Audrey Hepburn, such a relationship was formed. In 1953 she was a novice starlet doing publicity for her first Paramount success, Roman Holiday (her ‘dearest movie’), but Willoughby was entranced within moments of shaking her hand. From that Oscar-winning US initiation, to the pinnacle of My Fair Lady in 1963, Willoughby recorded the winsome beauty at work and in the intimacy of her home and private life. It was one of the great creative, platonic love affairs of the lens and its subject.
Willoughby’s camera captures the very essence of the movie business, the grind behind the glitz, and the pressure on a woman trying to survive in a cut-throat and unforgiving industry. Hepburn fans will be sorry to see that her other iconic film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961, is excluded for no apparent reason, but her captivating portrayal of Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady is well represented here with many on-set candid shots. The large format does justice to the full page reproductions and, as Willoughby notes, she might be covered in grime for the part but she still sprayed herself with ‘$100 an ounce Joy perfume’. Hepburn was at all times exquisitely chic, Givenchy being a perennial, favourite designer. This may have a lot to do with her wretched childhood in Nazi-occupied Europe and her experience of real and personal deprivations.
Throughout her marriages– Mel Ferrer (1954–1968), Andrea Dotti (1969–1982), and partner until her death, Robert Wolders (1980–1993) – children and semi-retirement, Hepburn welcomed Willoughby’s camera into her personal domain. She worked tirelessly for UNICEF later in life, dying in Switzerland of cancer in 1993, aged 63.
A Los Angeles native, Bob Willoughby became one of the premier celebrity photographers of his day – when all stars were from the movie world, taking memorable snaps of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Fonda. He is latterly credited with giving the movie-still the gravitas of the photojournalist, and paving the way for many great names to follow (for example, the Magnum photographers on the set of The Misfits, ten years later). After a long period in Ireland, Willoughby lived in Vence, France, where he died of cancer on 18 December 2009, aged 72.