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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Cukor's Fair Lady (Audrey Hepburn)

Updated: May 5, 2023

In 1914 George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion was first staged - a huge furore broke out when Eliza Doolittle uttered the line “I washed my bloody face before I come, I did” - so much so that protesters petitioned Downing Street. This may well have contributed to it it becoming such a hit!

Released in 1964, Jack Warner paid an unprecedented $5 1/2 million (about $45 million now) for the film rights to Lerner and Lowe’s stage musical which had been first staged. Directed by George Cukor it was filmed in Super Panavison 70 at Burbank Studios, California. Cukor had originally hoped to film at Covent Garden, but his was ruled out as being too costly. After Warner’s heavy initial investment there were the cast and crew salaries to be considered. Audrey’s fee was $1million, the director George Cukor’s was $300,000 and Rex Harrison’s $200,000. The film's budget finally came in at $17 million (now $141 million), but recovered that plus a further $12 million on its initial release.

The film was nominated for twelve Oscars and won eight including Best Film, Director, Cinematography and actor for Rex Harrison, but Audrey Hepburn was not even nominated for her performance. There had (sadaly) been much anti-Audrey press surrounding her engagement as Eliza Doolittle with many believing that the role should have gone to Julie Andrews who had wowed audiences in the West End and on Broadway. Audrey’s $1million salary had been widely reported as well. She was only the second woman ever to receive such a sum, matching Elizabeth Taylor’s salary for Cleopatra.

Warners felt there was too much money to risk on an unknown stage performer and hired Audrey. Meanwhile Disney snapped up Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins and it was Julie Andrews who won the Oscar for Best Actress. Strangely, everyone had forgotten that Audrey had been overlooked for the filmed version of her Broadway success Gigi!

We were lucky that Jack Warner, one of the last great Movie Moguls, didn’t get his way in all the casting decisions. He initially approached James Cagney for the role of Alfred P. Doolittle, but he wisely turned it down, knowing that he could never compete with Stanley Holloway who had made the role his own in the West End and on Broadway. Obviously aware of their success as sparring partners the previous year in Charade, Cary Grant was his first choice for Henry Higgins. Grant replied by saying that if they didn’t ask Rex Harrison to recreate his stage role he would never make a film for Warners again. Still convinced that Rex Harrison was too old (at 55) and not a big enough name at the box office they next offered the role to Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O’Toole. He too turned it down so they finally offered the role to Rex Harrison who accepted and although he had initial reservations of playing opposite Audrey Hepburn, he too was soon captivated by her charm.

Much of the backlash directed at Audrey was caused by the announcement that her singing had been dubbed. Audrey had thought that her voice was being used for all the songs. She had recorded them prior to filming and used them as ‘playbacks’ throughout the filming of the musical numbers. It was only when filming was near completion that she had discovered Marni Nixon had been secretly brought into the studio to re-record the numbers. She stormed off set for the first and only time during her career.

To coincide with the 1994 $600,000/six month restoration project on the film a documentary entitled Then and Now the Making of My Fair Lady was made. In it, the documentary’s narrator Jeremy Brett revealed that his songs had also been dubbed, by Bill Shirley. Rex Harrison, on the other hand refused to lip-synch: using a wireless mic in his tie he sang live on set - each time creating a unique performance. This documentary (which has been included in subsequent releases) also shows some clips of Audrey singing her own songs, alongside that of Marni Nixon.

My Fair Lady is a sumptuous and glorious big-screen musical of a most endearing stage musical. No expense was spared in recreating Covent Garden and a myriad of London buildings and streets. The extravagance of the costumes, settings, hairstyles and set dressings all add to the Lerner and Lowe’s book to create a magnificent film. The performances are all exemplary, including the much-maligned Audrey. Considering her back catalogue of film set-ups where she transforms from ugly duckling to swan (most notably Sabrina Fair and Funny Face) this is a role that she was born to play. And it is a shame that at the time there was so much adverse press surrounding her casting, her salary and Jack Warner’s and George Cukor’s decision to dub Audrey’s voice for the singing sequences. Audrey’s singing may not have the oomph of Marni Nixon’s but they are far more pleasing, as they form part of the Eliza’s character development. It was a real shame the 50th anniversary film restoration didn't offer an alternative version reinserting Audrey’s recordings back into the film - perhaps on a 60th anniversary release?

Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Eliza Doolittle), Rex Harrison (Professor Henry Higgins), Stanley Holloway (Alfred P. Doolittle), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Colonel Hugh Pickering), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Higgins), Jeremy Brett (Freddie Eynsford-Hill).

Director: George Cukor

Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner

Music: Frederick Loewe

Original Score: André Previn

Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.

Costume Design: Cecil Beaton

Production Deisgn: Cecil Beaton/Gene Allen


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