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My Fair Lady: The flowergirl blooms



Somewhere in the beginning of 1960s, the telephone rang in the little chalet in Bürgenstock, in Switzerland. Popular actress Audrey Hepburn answered it, not even suspecting what the call could be about. It was her Hollywood agent, Kurt Fringes, and he was advising her to sit down before hearing what he would say. “My Fair Lady,” he said, trying to sound very casual, “is yours.” The rest as they say is history.

The selection of Hepburn to play the title role of Eliza Doolittle, in the screen version of the Broadway hit of the same name, which in turn was based on the play ‘Pygmalion’ by George Bernard Shaw, should actually not been a surprise as she was always the first choice of the chief of Warner Bros Studios, Jack L Warner, for this role. The role had acquired the same status as Scarlett O’Hara, Anna Karenina and Cleopatra by the time Warner bought the rights of the Broadway production from the lyricist-composer team of Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe, for a whopping five-and-a-half million dollars – the most expensive screen rights in the history of movies, at that point of time.

Hepburn herself was paid one million dollars for ‘My Fair Lady’, while the total budget of the film soared to seventeen million dollars, the most elaborate and costly production ever undertaken by Warner Bros since the studio was born four decades earlier. The Technicolor version to be shot in Super Panavision 70, promised to be miles ahead than ‘Pygmalion’, a 1938 black-and-white British film, starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.

Strangely, the choice of Hepburn for the coveted role turned many people within Hollywood, apart from many movie-goers openly antagonistic towards her because Julie Andrews, who enacted the part with great success on Broadway and in London, had not been pegged for the screen version. The film industry finally expressed its indignation during the 37th Academy Awards Night – to be precise on April 5, 1965 – when Hepburn’s performance was not even given an Oscar nomination, while ‘My Fair Lady’ sweeping almost all major awards. Ironically, the Oscar Award in the Best Actress category, that year went to none other than Andrews for her screen debut role in Walt Disney’s ‘Mary Poppins’ (1964). Justice, in Hollywood’s eyes, had been accorded to a ‘wronged’ but deserving actress. It is said that even Walt Disney offered to delay filming on ‘Mary Poppins’ until the summer of 1964, if Julie Andrews was cast as Eliza.

When the rest of the casting for ‘My Fair Lady’ began, Warner Bros again by a peculiar decision decided to drop Rex Harrison from the screen version and started toying with the names of Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton and John Gielgud for the role of Professor Henry Higgins. The decision came with a justification that although Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison had been undeniably wonderful in their original stage roles, their names were simply not big enough for the multi-million dollar production. Peter O’Toole was considered for the role of Professor Higgins, but his salary demands were too high. Later, Warner Bros favoured either Rock Hudson or Cary Grant for the role, both of whom wisely turned down the offer; Grant even going to the extent to inform Jack L Warner that he would not even go to see the film if anyone but Harrison played the role. Warner finally bowed to Grant’s superior judgement, and Harrison’s portrayal of screen Higgins brought him his first and only Oscar Award.

The principal casting, meanwhile, was completed by Stanley Holloway repeating his original role as Eliza’s anti-social dustman father – Alfred Doolittle, and Wilfrid Hyde-White replacing Robert Coote as the urbane anchor man – Colonel Pickering. Stalwart director, George Cukor, who was a genius at directing women and understanding the feminine mind, was selected to direct the production.

Meanwhile, a more-than-happy Hepburn started studying singing and learning how to acquire a Cockney accent, as soon as she arrived in Hollywood in May of 1963. She wanted to play it honest and do her own singing. However, the studio felt that her voice wasn’t strong enough and choosing to ignore her impressive vocal achievements, allowed her to provide only two per cent of Eliza’s singing voice; the remaining ninety-eight per cent being dubbed by songstress Marni Nixon, who had previously done most of the singing for Deborah Kerr in ‘The King and I’ (1956) and Natalie Wood in ‘West Side Story’ (1961).

All the songs in the film namely “Why Can’t the English?”, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”, “I’m an Ordinary Man”, “With a Little Bit of Luck”, “Just You Wait”, “The Servant’s Chorus”, “The Rain in Spain”, “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “Ascot Gavotte”, “On the Street Where You Live”, “You Did It”, “Show Me”, “Get Me to the Church on Time”, “A Hymn to Him”, “Without You”,  and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, besides the instrumentals “The Embassy Waltz” and “The Flower Market” made their way from stage production to screen.

Cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr, who had shot the 1938 straight filming of the play, ‘Pygmalion’, was selected to film ‘My Fair Lady’ to be produced in Super Panavision 70 format. The large format technology not only supported the artistry behind the film, but helped Cukor employ the innovative use of wide angle lenses during some interior scenes as well as the Super Panavision 70 format during many exteriors, specially musical numbers.

The efficiency of Cukor in directing films ensured that the shooting of the film was completed in less than four months. Filming began in August 1963 and ended in December. After screening the rough cut of the film, Jack L Warner, who had not wanted to cast Harrison, rose in silence, turned to the actor and bowed.

The Academy Award winning art direction of the film was one of the major highlights of the film. Stage and costume designer Cecil Beaton’s inspiration for the library in Professor Higgins’ home, where much of the action takes place, was a room at the Château de Groussay, Montfort-l’Amaury, in France, which had been decorated opulently by its owner Carlos de Beistegui. Innovative hats for the characters were created by Parisian milliner Paulette at Beaton’s request.

While the movie received generally favourable reviews, critics were divided on Hepburn’s performance; while some were critical of the fact that she was dubbed, others such as esteemed British dramatist, Sir John Gielgud went on record to say that “Audrey Hepburn was better than Julie Andrews in the role!” ‘My Fair Lady’, produced at a budget of $17 million, garnered $72 million at the box office. The film was re-released in 1971 and earned North American rentals of $2 million. It was re-released again in 1994 after a thorough restoration, which took six months and cost $600,000.

A remake of ‘My Fair Lady’ was planned in 2008 with Keira Knightley in the lead role as Eliza, while George Clooney and Brad Pitt at odds for the role of Professor Higgins. The film however did not materialise.

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