My Fair Lady – The rain in Spain
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the loss of one of Hollywood’s greatest icons. She will forever be remembered as an undercover princess in Roman Holiday and the charming opportunist Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, among many other iconic roles. However, Hepburn, who died on January 20, 1993, is still most closely associated with the role of a certain feisty (and squawking) flower girl who sported fabulous gowns and beautifully rounded vocals. But the role was created by another stage legend, and Hepburn very publicly paid the price for the film.
By now, everyone knows that Hepburn’s voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon for the big screen adaptation of the classic musical. In Hollywood’s Golden Age, it had been common practice, and yet the actress found herself at the center of a harrowing storm of bad press and ill-feeling when her casting was announced, during filming, and even when it was released.
She was forced to publicly justify “snatching” the role from Julie Andrews, while her My Fair Lady co-star Rex Harrison made poorly concealed coded comments in their own interviews.
The entire scandalous saga came to a head at the 1965 Oscars with headline coverage and television cameras panning lewdly between the two actresses in the audience.
Audrey Hepburn was punished by My Fair Lady
Audrey Hepburn in the scene from My Fair Lady Ascott
Since the Roman Holiday of 1953, the gamine and refined actress had been beloved by fans and critics alike. She was followed by Sabrina, Funny Face, The Nun’s Story and, of course, 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s. So her role in the Hollywood adaptation of My Fair Lady should have made perfect sense.
Except that everyone seemed to want another star, who had never appeared on the big screen. Julie Andrews had been a huge hit on Broadway, but she wasn’t just the darling of theatergoers. The record-breaking cast album topped the US charts for 15 weeks and 19 in the UK. It was the first LP to sell a million copies.
Andrews’s face and, above all, her voice were synonymous with Eliza Doolittle to most people. Studio head Jack Warner, however, would not be deterred. He infamously stated that the difference between the two actresses was $15 million, referring to the additional box office Hepburn would get.
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Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady on Broadway
Some have controversially claimed that Andrews herself scuttled her own chances when Warners called her to discuss the film. She reportedly said, “I’d love to do it. When do we start?” But when they asked her to come for a screen test, she replied, “Screen test? You’ve seen me play the role and you know I can do a good job.”
Furious at her refusal, Warner publicly stated that it would only consider established screen stars for what was shaping up to be the most expensive movie in Hollywood history at the time: “You can say ‘Audrey Hepburn’ and people will instantly know you’re talking of a beautiful and talented star. In my business, I have to know who brings people and their money to a theater box office.”
Hepburn was well aware of the hype that was building, but two things influenced her decision to accept the role.
Audrey Hepburn: How the star was ‘demonized’ for the role of My Fair Lady
First of all, they offered him the whopping sum of $1 million. Only three other actors at the time could reach that amount: Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, and Elizabeth Taylor. She would pay herself for seven years to help with her taxes (and to help the studio balance her own books).
But Hepburn also candidly stated: “I understood the dismay of people who had seen Julie on Broadway. Julie made that part her own, and for that reason, I didn’t want to do the film when it was first offered to me. I learned that if she refused, they would offer it to another movie actress. I thought I had as much right to do it as the third girl, so I accepted.”
That “third girl” was later revealed to be none other than Elizabeth Taylor.
Audrey Hepburn was devastated to be dubbed in My Fair Lady
Hepburn was also assured that her own pleasant singing voice would be used mostly except for the highest notes. While her dramatic performance has become iconic, the problem of dubbing her voice has never gone away, and she even bothered the star herself at the time.
Andre Previn, the film’s music director, later revealed that Warner never intended to use Hepburn’s singing, but he did convince her to accept the role. The actress worked incredibly hard over 12-hour days to master the cockney accent, choreography and singing, but the first few recording sessions weren’t promising. Director George Cukor said, “When she started, it was agony for that girl to sing. But she’s not afraid to make a fool of herself. She has the courage to do it, do it miserably at first, but do it.” “
The filmmakers quickly decided they needed a full-time voice actor and called in Marni Nixon, who had sung for Deborah Kerr on The King and I, and Natalie Wood on West Side Story.
Hepburn and Nixon rehearsed and later recorded together with the actress still convinced that her voice would be used primarily and still receiving singing lessons every day. The situation went on for weeks, with no one willing to tell him the truth. In the end, it is estimated that up to ten percent of the final recordings are by Hepburn.
Previn revealed her devastation when she finally found out: “I was very hurt because I felt that if I had taken Julie Andrews’ place and then she couldn’t sing, it would reflect very badly on her. But she never said a word. I’m sure that had tears about it.”
Marni Nixon nicknamed Audrey Hepburn in the movie My Fair Lady
Controversy over dubbing loomed over the film’s release and at the New York premiere, Hepburn said, “I took singing lessons from a New York vocal coach and pre-recorded all of Eliza’s songs,” but the end result is a mix. I must say, hats off to the wonderful people in Hollywood who pull all the knobs and who can make one voice out of two.”
Critics highlighted the problem with the Sunday Telegraph snipers: “I still find the sight of a beautiful doll singing another person’s head rather less than fascinating”, with Hedda Hopper adding: “Audrey Hepburn gives only half of a performance.” “.
Even so, the film was a huge success, grossing $72 million on a budget of $17 million. At the 1965 Oscars, it won eight, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Harrison. Despite My Fair Lady competing in twelve categories, including three out of four acting categories, Hepburn wasn’t even nominated for Best Actress. Instead, she had to watch the woman whose shadow loomed over her performance come up on stage.
Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn at the 1965 Oscars
Andrews hadn’t quietly disappeared after being rejected by My Fair Lady. She quickly became a hot property in Hollywood with her debut film, Mary Poppins, making her an instant global star. She also made more money and won more awards than the film she lost to Hepburn.
Released the same year, the film was made with a quarter of the budget of My Fair Lady, but grossed a whopping $102 million. She also received thirteen Oscar nominations and, as is well known, Andrews took home the award for Best Actress. Many at the time and since have suggested that much of her victory can be attributed to her fellow performers, who vote for that category, correcting a perceived error.
Andrews politely said before the ceremony: “I think Audrey should have been nominated. I’m so sorry she wasn’t.”
He also famously and fantastically mischievous added when collecting his award: “My thanks to Mr. Jack L Warner who made all of this possible.”
When she picked up her own Oscar, Harrison tactfully said, “I admire my beautiful ladies.”
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