The Fairest of Them All

Audrey Hepburn by Cecil Beaton for My Fair Lady (1964)

For those of you of an age to recall the scandalous publicity resulting from Audrey Hepburn’s selection as Eliza Doolittle for Lerner & Lowe’s film My Fair Lady over the popular favorite, Julie Andrews, who had made the production a stage success, it appears the controversy has softened these many years later. With new casting for the upcoming remake of the film slated for 2010, promising the beguiling Keira Knightley as Eliza and Daniel Day-Lewis her phonetic protagonist, Higgins, it is interesting in the annals of film, when characters and the actors inhabiting them, are literally immortalized, to carefully consider the choices leading up to those historically weighted decisions.

For example, when movie mogul, Jack Warner made the unpopular call to choose the cinematic star power of Hepburn over Broadway’s more deserving Andrews, critics were livid. While most believe audiences would have flocked to see the film regardless of who played the scrappy posey-picking Eliza, it was reported that Warner didn’t think Andrews would be photogenic enough. History may have proven him right, though, alas, the legendary movie titan was, ultimately, to lose his clout and his position in Hollywood as a result. Unquestionably, Andrews was an exceptional talent and, certainly, the more gifted songstress, but consider the long lasting effects of Audrey Hepburn in the title role.

While the transformation of Julie’s flower girl to a refined lady onstage was memorable and convincing, Hepburn was required to assume a much more exaggerated transformation, approximating that of a fairy tale, which George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was based on. Exaggerated by the idealized sets, elaborate staging and breathtaking costumes of Cecil Beaton, Hepburn, as the lead, was required to not only shoulder the whole of the production, but elevate the narrative beyond the real to the imaginary. Hailed as “one of the best musicals of the century,” and the winner of eight Academy awards, My Fair Lady created a cinematic vision of an enchanting and stylized world, where everything was magical and beautiful, where song emanated from thought, and a lowly guttersnipe, with pluck, fortitude and a demanding task master, could become a certifiable duchess. It was a world where such a transformation was not only possible but likely, where the masses could find comfort in fantastical escape.

Julie Andrews, who continues to enthrall to this day, has an earthiness to her acting style–a very accessible naturalness. There is none of this in Audrey Hepburn. She was a divine creature, totally inaccessible, exactly the type of fairy tail princess of lore and legend. It was this very ephemeral quality, this celestial presence, that elevated her performance and subsequently the film to a level that far surpassed the wonderful stage musical. It is not surprising that Keira Knightley who bears the same “slender, elfin, and wistful beauty” of Hepburn, and who can alternately appear both “regal and childlike” has been chosen to walk in Eliza’s silk brocaded shoes.




~ by eaesthete on 11/30/09.

10 Responses to “The Fairest of Them All”

  1. Audrey Hepburn was perfection. I loved her in this-as with everything she touched. I didn’t know the remake was on-singing? If so-certainly they will do their own this time. I would dearly love them in the straight GBS Pygmalion. gt

  2. It is hard to imagine Eliza AS ANYONE other than the sublime Miss Hepburn. While I am sure Miss Andres would have put in a stellar performance she has a more “Homely” appeal unlike as you say the fairytale quality of Audrey. Will be interesting to see what they do with a modern re make, will it be a musical ?

  3. Daniel Day-Lewis sounds interesting, but personally Keira Knightley hassets my teeth on edge. What a shame the wonderful Wendy Hiller’s (non-singing) 1938 Eliza is so overshadowed by Audrey as to be all but forgotten. After all, it was GBS himself who cast her!

  4. So true about the excellent Andrews feet-on-the-ground quality –
    even if she did float primly as befitted her role in Mary Poppins. We are both on to the fairy tale aspect of AH. Your title is so apt! Almost all her films are about transformation! I’m utterly in agreement that we must cite Audrey if the the end result of MFL was more than just charming. Now, what are your thoughts on Marilyn Monroe vs. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. She didn’t feel the part right for her; it wasn’t the greatest success at the time, and yet…

    • Le Style,

      I was horrified to learn that Truman Capote had Monroe in mind when he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve read a great deal on Truman and greatly respected his work, but was rarely in agreement with his opinions or judgments and this call for Marilyn in the lead was, in my estimation, lunacy. Fortunately, no one of any influence shared his casting choices and we are forever blessed with that magnificent image of AH, perfectly poised, coiffed, and gowned outside the windows of Tiffany’s.

  5. Too true! There’s more than one Eliza for me (and actually I think Julie would have been more than adequate) but Audrey’s the only Holly I can envisage.

  6. Flabbergasting, isn’t it? I read the book so long ago, but in reality I can’t say how I would have imagined the character – AH drowned out any other images.

  7. Thanks for another Audrey Hepburn post. The EA is too kind. I’ve always been a fan of both of these Ladies. While Julie definitely had a far better singing voice, and is a superb actress, Audrey possessed an ethereal beauty that… well, just look at the photo (thanks for the photo, BTW). Audrey was upset when she learned that Marnie Nixon would voice the songs and I’m sure that had Jack Warner had confidence in her, the movie would still have been a great hit. So Jack thought that Julie wasn’t beautiful enough and that Audrey couldn’t sing well enough; he was probably wishing that Marilyn was still around…
    –Utah Mixologist

  8. Thank you for posting that magnificent photo. Images such as these teach us so much about style. Would that women with such character make it to the cinema once again.

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