The Fairest of Them All
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.