My Fair Lady became a titanic battle between Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn that divided Hollywood. This was a terrible blow for the “demonized” Hepburn, who had been a darling of critics and the public until then. 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. The filmmakers had humiliated and betrayed her when her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. She had been forced to publicly justify “taking away” the role of her from Julie Andrews, while her lead, Rex Harrison, made poorly concealed coded comments in her own interviews. The entire scandalous saga came to a head at the 1965 Oscars.
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 in the title role, 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. However, studio head Jack Warner was undeterred, and Hepburn paid the price.
Clash between Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady
Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady
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 “. 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.
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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.
Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn 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 her 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.” “
Marni Nixon nicknamed Audrey Hepburn in the movie My Fair Lady
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.”
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 a voice out of two.”
Critics highlighted the problem with the Sunday Telegraph snipers: “I still find the sight of a beautiful doll singing to another person rather less than mesmerizing”, with Hedda Hopper adding: “Audrey Hepburn gives only half 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 competing in twelve categories, Hepburn was not even nominated. In her place, she got to watch the woman whose shadow loomed over her performance take the stage to accept an Oscar and then pose gracefully together for pictures.
Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews 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.
Released the same year, the film was made with a quarter of the budget of My Fair Lady, but grossed a whopping $102 million, dwarfing My Fair Lady. It also received thirteen Oscar nominations, one more than My Fair Lady, with Andrews taking home the gold statuette 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 mistake.
Andrews politely said before the ceremony: “I think Audrey should have been nominated. I’m so sorry she wasn’t.”
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