My Fair Lady: Cukor Got Minnelli’s Job

When George Cukor saw the musical My Fair Lady in New York, on July 6, 1956, it did not occur to him that one day he would be asked to direct the film. At the time, it just seemed a nice way to celebrate his birthday with his friends Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady was a mega stage hit. Acclaimed for its witty book out of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the melodic sweep of its score, the musical received a sensational reception on its l956 opening, enjoying a record run of 2,717 performances in NY. Not surprisingly, the struggle to acquire the film rights from the Shaw estate went on for years. In February 1962, Jack Warner paid an all-time record price of five and a half million dollars.

The most expensive musical ever made, My Fair Lady was initially budgeted at $12 million, but by completion, its cost rose to $17, an extravagant figure in the 1960s. Jack Warner announced that he personally would supervise the production, using the finest talent available for the most ambitious project the studio has ever launched.

Audrey Hepburn was cast in May l962, a few months before Cukor was engaged. Cukor was not the first director to be offered the film. Both Lerner and Warner wanted Vincente Minnelli, who had directed many successful musicals, among them Gigi, which swept most of the l958 Oscars. But Warner thought they should have an alternate, just in case he couldn’t make a deal with Minnelli. “I jumped in,” Lazar recalled, “and suggested Cukor, who was my client and had a big reputation for doing good movies.”

Negotiations began with Minnelli, but as Warner suspected, a deal was not easily cut. Badly advised by his agent, Minnelli demanded a lot of money and final cut of the picture. “He knew that Lerner wanted him,” said Lazar, “but mistakenly thought nobody else could direct the film. Minnelli underestimated Warner’s power, he thought he had him in a bind.” Warner’s decision was also influenced by the fact that Minnelli’s last film, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was a flop.

Warner called Lazar and said, “I’m having trouble making a deal with Minnelli. What about George Cukor How much do you want for him” “Jack, whatever you say, I’ll take,” Lazar said matter-of-factly. Lazar knew that Cukor needed the picture desperately, it was a bad time for him, Heller in Pink Tights was a failure, and Chapman Report barely recouped its expense. According to Lazar, “George wasn’t easy to sell, because his popularity had declined, getting My Fair Lady was the most important thing that could have happened to him.”

Lazar knew that Warner’s offer would be fair–when the mogul offered half a million, he immediately consented. “It was fantastic that I got the job for him, it was a very big coup of mine.” Cukor was ecstatic.

The first conversation about the film between Warner and Cukor took place on an airplane, on their way to a preview of The Chapman Report in San Francisco. “How would you like to do My Fair Lady” the mogul said. Without a moment’s hesitation, Cukor replied, “I’d love too–and let me tell you, Mr. Warner, you’re making a most intelligent choice!” There were good reasons for hiring Cukor. Known as one of the best women’s directors, Warner hoped he would “handle” Hepburn, bring the best out of her. And it helped that Cukor’s last film for Warners, A Star Is Born, was a musical and, more importantly, a huge success.

Because Cukor was having difficulty in finding properties and maintaining artistic control over them, he decided in l962 to establish his own company, GDC (George Dewey Cukor) Enterprise, with the goal of acquiring stories and preparing scripts. It was also good for tax purposes. In July, Cukor’s law firm, arranged for GDC to lend his services to Warners to direct My Fair Lady, his 47th film. The basic deal was 52 weeks for 500,000 dollars, Cukor’s highest fee to date.

A day after he was signed, Cukor cabled Audrey Hepburn, “At long last, I’m delighted at the prospect.” The actress was ecstatic: “We waited the longest and got the best.” Determined not to lose any time, Cukor sent her an edition of Pygmalion and suggested that she look carefully at the l937 British film, which starred Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.