My Fair Lady
Friday November, 24 2017 at 05:00 PM
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In 1964, for one of the few times in his career, Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner personally produced a film - My Fair Lady. The result, despite some controversy about the casting, was the last great musical of the studio era and the highest-grossing film in Warners' history to that time.
Warner had fallen in love with the musical version of George Bernard Shaw's classic Pygmalion -- about a phonetics expert who transforms a Cockney flower girl into a great lady by teaching her how to speak properly -- when he had seen its New York opening in 1956. The rights were controlled by CBS, but Chairman Bill Paley wouldn't even entertain movie offers for five years. Finally he accepted a then record $5.5 million from Warner, along with 50 percent of the film's gross once it passed the $20 million mark. He also stipulated that Warner hire Cecil Beaton to supervise all design aspects and hold the film's release until after the Broadway production had closed.
The latter was hardly an issue given the time lavished on assembling just the right production package. Committed to a large budget for the film (it would end up costing $17 million), Warner decided to guarantee the investment by pursuing an all-star cast, initially rejecting the show's original stars: Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews and Stanley Holloway. He wanted James Cagney for the juicy supporting role of Alfred Doolittle, the leading lady's father, but Cagney had recently retired and, though he often performed Doolittle's songs at parties, had no intention of going back into battle with his former boss. So Warner ended up giving the role to Holloway.
For Henry Higgins, the stage's most famous phonetician, he originally sought Cary Grant. But Grant, gearing up for his own retirement, quipped, "Not only will I not play Higgins, but if you don't use Rex Harrison, I won't even go to the film." At least that's what the Warners publicity department said, though the statement was surprisingly similar to Grant's remarks when offered Robert Preston's role as Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man (1962), which was also filmed at Warner Bros. Warner next turned to Peter O'Toole, who had just become an international star in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but the actor's salary demands were too great. Finally, director George Cukor asked Harrison to test for the role. In response, Harrison sent Cukor some naked Polaroids of himself. Cukor finally convinced Warner to cast him for the relatively low fee of $200,000.
In casting the female lead, however, Warner was intransigent. Audrey Hepburn was one of the screen's top stars at the time and had made the studio a great deal of money in The Nun's Story (1959). Even though there was a groundswell of support for the musical's original star, Julie Andrews, Warners argued that Hepburn's box-office power would help the film much more than anything Andrews, who had yet to make a film, could bring him. Ironically, Andrews, whom most people associated with Eliza Doolittle thanks to sales of the show's original cast album, had only been a last minute choice for the role on stage. She was brought in after Mary Martin, Deanna Durbin and Dolores Gray had all turned it down.
But even though Warner paid Hepburn $1 million, there was one part of the role she couldn't handle -- the singing. She had sung charmingly in her one previous film musical, Funny Face (1957), but that was a screen original for which numbers could be arranged to fit her talents. The My Fair Lady score was already well known, particularly as sung by Andrews, so there was little musical director Andre Previn could do to make the numbers any easier for Hepburn. She started seeing a vocal coach almost as soon as she was cast and spent hours in the recording studio recording and re-recording numbers to get them just right. But though she did a creditable job on simpler songs like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," she wasn't up to the more operatic pieces. Halfway through filming, Cukor informed her that they were going to have to dub her songs. In truth, they had already started working with Marni Nixon, who had previously provided the singing for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956) and Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961). Hepburn was heartbroken, and the studio tried to soften the blow by telling the press that Nixon had only done half of the singing. That only triggered a public protest from the singer's husband, leading to the revelation that Nixon's contribution was closer to 95 percent. Hepburn's vocals are only heard on a few brief half-spoken, half-sung passages. The bad publicity likely cost Hepburn an Oscar® nomination for Best Actress.
My Fair Lady was one big-budget film in which almost every penny can be seen on the screen. Although Warner insisted on filming it entirely in Hollywood, despite arguments from Beaton that they needed to use real British locations, he still shot the film on a lavish scale. For the cobblestone streets around Covent Garden, stones were made individually (the standard practice would have been to make identical stones from a single mold). Art director Gene Allen painted and re-painted the sets to create the illusion that some of the buildings had been standing for centuries. He also spent hours aging Hepburn's flower-vendor costumes so she wouldn't look too affluent.
Beaton's costumes for the stage show were already legendary. He outdid himself on the film, inspired by the talents of the Warner Bros. Costume Department. But he had problems dealing with Cukor from the first. Some on-set observers have described their relationship as a power struggle: Beaton was the major creative talent brought from the Broadway production while Cukor was a respected and highly individual Hollywood director. There were also some personal issues. Beaton thought Cukor vulgar, while the closeted director considered his designer too flamboyantly gay. Rumors also flew that Beaton had once stolen a lover from Cukor. Their biggest on-set argument was over Beaton's assignment to photograph the cast. Cukor felt that his photography was slowing down production and told him to stop taking shots on the set. Then he complained that posing for the portraits was overworking the actors. Yet Beaton persisted in taking pictures. After some on-set blow-ups, Cukor complained to Warner, and Beaton stopped coming to the set. Years later, Cukor would denigrate Beaton's contribution to the film, giving most of the credit for its design to Allen. Some comments Cukor made on British television in 1973 even lead Beaton to sue for slander.
But all of that was in the future. My Fair Lady opened to ecstatic reviews and solid box office. It earned $72 million on its initial release, becoming the studio's highest-grossing film to that time. It also cleaned up in year-end awards, winning Harrison a Best Actor Oscar® bringing Cukor his only Oscar® for Best Director and giving Warner Bros. its first Best Picture Oscar® since Casablanca in 1943. Even Julie Andrews got a career boost from the film. When Warner passed her over for the lead, she accepted the title role in Walt Disney's Mary Poppins (1964). Between her performance and the sympathy for her losing out on My Fair Lady, she won a Best Actress Oscar® for her first film and landed the leading role in The Sound of Music (1965), which, like Mary Poppins, would outrank My Fair Lady at the box office.
Producer: James C. Katz, Jack L. Warner
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner, George Bernard Shaw (play)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Film Editing: William Ziegler
Art Direction: Gene Allen
Music: Frederick Loewe
Cast: Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), Rex Harrison (Professor Henry Higgins), Stanley Holloway (Alfred P. Doolittle), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Colonel Hugh Pickering), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Higgins), Jeremy Brett (Freddy Eynsford-Hill).
C-173m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller