My Fair Lady turned into a titanic battle between Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn that divided Hollywood. This was a terrible shock for the “devilish” Hepburn, who had been beloved by critics and the public until then. The actress found herself in the middle of a agonizing storm of bad press and ill-feeling when the casting was announced, throughout filming and even upon its release. She is humiliated and betrayed by the filmmakers when Marnie Nixon shoots her. She had been forced to publicly justify “taking away” the role from Julie Andrews, while her leading man Rex Harrison made cryptic, unsubtle comments in his private interviews. The whole scandalous story came to a head at the 1965 Academy Awards.
Since Roman Feast in 1953, the beautiful and distinctive actress has been beloved by fans and critics alike. It was followed by Sabrina, Funny Face, The Nun’s Story, and, of course, 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s. So her starring in the Hollywood adaptation of My Fair Lady should have made perfect sense.
Except everyone seemed to want another star who never made it to the big screen. Julie Andrews was a huge hit on Broadway in the title role but she wasn’t just a darling to theatergoers. The record-breaking album topped the US charts for 15 weeks and 19 weeks in the UK. It was the first LP ever to sell 1 million copies.
Andrews’ face and, crucially, her voice were synonymous with Eliza Doolittle to most. Still, studio head Jack Warner wasn’t deterred — and Hepburn paid the price.
Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn collide, My Fair Lady
Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady
Some have claimed, controversially, that Andrews herself ruined her chances when Warners contacted her to discuss the film. She is said to have said, “I’d love to do that. When do we start?” But when asked to come for a screen test, she replied, “A screen test? You saw me doing the part and you know I can do a good job.”
Furious at her rejection, Warner publicly declared that he would only consider established screen stars for what was shaping up to be the most expensive film in Hollywood history at the time: “You can say ‘Audrey Hepburn’ and people know right away that you’re talking about a beautiful, talented star. In my business, I have to.” To know who brings people and their money to the theater box office.”
Hepburn was well aware of the uproar the building had caused, but two things sparked her decision to accept the role.
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Julie Andrews recreating My Fair Lady for the 1972 TV show
First, she was offered a whopping sum of $1 million. Only three other actors of that time could have this amount – Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. It will be paid over seven years to help pay its taxes (and to help the studio balance its own books).
But Hepburn also bluntly declared: “I understood the displeasure of people who had seen Jolie on Broadway. Jolie did the part, and for that reason, I didn’t want to do the movie when it was first offered to me. I learned that if I turned it down, they’d show it to another movie actress.” I’m entitled to do it like the third girl, so I accepted.”
It was later revealed that that “third girl” was none other than Elizabeth Taylor.
Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady
Hepburn was also assured that mainly her sweet singing voice would be used, except for the higher notes. While her dramatic performance became iconic, the issue of dubbing her voice never really went away — it even bothered the star herself at the time.
Andre Previn, the film’s musical director, later revealed that Warner had no intention of using Hepburn’s vocals, but pushed her on the side to get her to participate. The actress worked incredibly hard during her 12-hour days to perfect the Cockney accent, choreography and vocals but the early recording sessions were not promising. Director George Cukor said, “When she started, it was the agony of that girl to sing. But she’s not afraid to sing herself. She has the guts to do it, she does it miserably at first, but she does it.”
Marni Nixon dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady
The filmmakers soon decided they needed a full-time vocalist and called on Marnie Nixon, who had sung for Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and Natalie Wood in West Side Story.
Hepburn and Nixon rehearsed and then recorded with the actress still convinced her voice would be used in the first place, and still took vocal lessons every day. The situation went on for weeks, and no one was willing to tell her the truth. In the end, it is estimated that up to ten percent of final recordings are Hepburn.
Previn revealed her devastation when she finally found out: “She was so hurt because she felt if she took Julie Andrews’ place and then couldn’t sing, it would reflect very badly on her. But she didn’t say a word.” I’m sure she was crying about it.”
Dubbing controversy loomed over the film’s release and at the New York premiere, Hepburn said, “I took singing lessons from a vocal coach in New York and pre-recorded all of Eliza’s songs,” but the end result was a mix. I have to say, my hat off to the amazing people in Hollywood who juggle all the knobs and can make one sound out of two.”
Critics highlighted the case of the Sunday Telegraph sniper: “I still find the spectacle of a pretty doll singing someone else’s head rather captivating”, and Hedda Hopper added, “Audrey Hepburn only gives half a performance”.
Nevertheless, the film was a huge hit, grossing $72 million on a budget of $17 million. At the 1965 Academy Awards, it won eight awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Harrison. Despite competing in twelve categories, Hepburn was not even nominated. Instead, she had to watch the woman whose shadow looms over her performance as she took to the stage to accept her Oscar — and then posed sweetly together for photos.
Audrey Hepburn and Julie Andrews at the Academy Awards in 1965
Andrews didn’t just quietly disappear after being snubbed for My Fair Lady. She quickly became a sensational royal in Hollywood with her first movie, Mary Poppins, which instantly made her an international star.
Released the same year, the movie was made for a quarter of My Fair Lady’s budget, but grossed a whopping $102 million, surpassing My Fair Lady. It also received thirteen Academy Award nominations, more than My Fair Lady, and Andrews is known for taking home a Best Actress gold.
Many have suggested then and since that much of her win can be attributed to her co-stars, who vote for this category, correcting a perceived wrong.
“I think Audrey should have been nominated,” Andrews said politely before the ceremony. “I’m so sorry she wasn’t.”
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