Love affairs grow slowly. In the case of Audrey Hepburn and myself, the torch has been burning since the night of the Academy Awards ceremony of 1964. Oh, we did't meet that night, or any other, but I've carried that torch for her since the night of the Academy Awards ceremony of 1964. Oh, we didn't meet that night, or any other, but I've carried that torch for her since that April night when she turned a pompous presentation that had rejected her into her own shining triumph.

That was the year the motion picture industry fell in love not with Audrey Hepburn, but with Julie Andrews. Jack Warner had rejected Andrew - Eliza Doolittle in Broadway's "My Fair Lady" - for the role in the movie version. Instead, he chose Audrey Hepburn, feeling that she was more of "star quality" for the picture. Out of this grew a sort of anti-Hepburn camp in Hollywood, culminating when Andrews landed the lead role in Walt Disney's "Mary Poppins" and was nominated for an Oscar for it.

Perhaps with a little of the tough Eliza Doolittle still in her, Hepburn attended the ceremonies that night; and a few moments after the best actress award went to her rival, Andrews, she was on stage to announce the nominees and winner for best actor. And this was the moment I fell in love with Audrey Hepburn.

Her co-star in "My Fair Lady," Rex Harrison, had been nominated for best actor, and when she opened the envelope with the winner's name in it she grasped the card and held it to her breast. That child-woman smile I had known in all those pictures came to her face and she exclaimed "Rex Harrison!" as if the words were magic to her. As he reached the stage to accept his award, Hepburn embraced him as if his triumph were all that mattered in the end.

That same Audrey Hepburn is the subject of a 15-film American Film Institute retrospective that begins this weekend. The films range from her first major starring role, in the 1953 "Roman Holiday" (for which she did receive an Oscar) to her last two major roles before he long absence from the screen, in "Wait Until Dark" and "Two for the Road," both made in 1967. Those last two roles once again proved her credentials as an actress, far surpassing Julie Andrews and other stars of the period.

More than that, however, were the enduring qualities Hepburn brought to the screen - a sort of fragile beauty that was certainly enchanting, if not sensual, and an amazing ability for diverse character studies - and her associations with motion pictures that boasted superb directors, writers and a remarkablke assortment of leading men.

Hepburn came to the screen when Hollywood was being rocked by the hysteria of the blacklist, studio purges and, perhaps even more alarming, the advent of television. For these and other reasons, the film industry had moved toward sensationalism, calling on actresses to be more carnal and suggestive and making their roles more and more banal. But she managed to work in films that were several cuts above many others of the period.

Her directors ih these 15 films include William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Fred ZInnemann, King Vidor, Stanley Donen and George Cukor; her leading men cover three decades of the star system - Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Peter Finch, William Holden, Rex Harrison, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Sean Connery.

With the exception of her 1976 role in Richard Lester's "Robin and Marian," Hepburn retired gracefully from the screen after her splendid performance in "Two for the Road" (1967). Whether she returns to the screen or not, I shall not worry. In this excellent retrospective, of in others, she will always be up there on the screen as Holly Golightly, or Natasha, or Doolittle.

Yes, my love, I could have danced all night