My Fair Lady: Cukor’s Clash with Cecil Beaton

Audrey Hepburn was not the only artist to be involved in the project when director George Cukor came onboard. Another major contributor was Cecil Beaton, the noted art designer, whose involvement in the film was secured at the onset by William Paley.

Beaton had created only the costumes for the stage production (the set design was by Oliver Smith), but they so richly evoked the Edwardian era that he garnered a lot of publicity. Cukor realized that not only were Hepburn and Beaton engaged before him, but their participation was perceived as more crucial than his–two hard facts his ego had to swallow.

Cukor told Beaton that he planned to shoot some exteriors in London, trying to correct the impression that he was against working abroad. True, in the past, Cukor found Metro’s studios at Elstree disorganized, but he had no preconceived notions. Now he went along with Paula Strasberg’s immortal phrase, “My Lee says, ‘It’s what’s on the screen that counts.’ (which she said on the set of Somethin’ Got to Give, when Monroe appeared once in 3 weeks). “It really is what’s on the screen that counts,” Cukor noted, “and to hell with everything else.”

Cukor agreed that it was important to get as many scenic shots of London as possible. Realizing that Warner would not do any interior shots there, he proposed to get extras in Hollywood who carry off the style of the period. This could be done, if they got “tough” with the hairdressing and make-up department. Cukor also urged Beaton to use his long-time art director, Gene Allen, who was practical and experienced. Starting as a blueprint boy years ago, Allen knew all the ins and outs of the industry. Allen understood that Beaton was the designer, but he was anxious to lend himself in any way. With such praise, and a bit of informal pressure, Beaton consented to use Allen.

On September 9, Cukor, art director Gene Allen, and Beaton had a thorough look around London, wishing to see if they could find streets that, in a long shot, might pass as London circa 1910s.

But that night, the market was deserted, except for a few policemen hanging around in the empty arcades. The three men wondered around Covent Garden, looking for “local color,” before attending the evening performance of My Fair Lady at the Drury Lane. Beaton wanted to impress Cukor, to overcome his dislike for making pictures in England. Many scenes, Beaton felt, should be filmed with the authentic look and sound. “Yes, yes, we will certainly shoot some of the scenes here,” Cukor said. But Beaton sensed he still needed extra conviction, knowing of Cukor’s old complaint that the “English are always breaking for a cup of tea”.

Trying his hardest to stage-manage the outing, the lack of market life in the evening struck Beaton as a personal affront. As often happens when one assumes responsibility, Beaton even had trouble locating some favorite landmarks. “I think St. Paul’s church is at the end of the arcade,” he said, “but just in case it isn’t, I’ll ask the policeman.” “You are a fine guide,” Cukor said reassuringly, trying to calm him down.

A snob, Beaton was unimpressed with Gene Allen, whom he described as “a former policeman, stocky and apple-faced, with a bullet head and a child’s starry eyes of wonderment.” But he liked Allen’s idea to take an effective shot of the Opera House facade, with the green-wrought-iron framework of the market buildings alongside. A semblance of the film was beginning to take place, and Beaton’s fears, that the real London might not be used, were momentarily allayed. From London, Cukor and Allen went to the Ascot racehorse to see old pictures of the place.

In May l963, Audrey Hepburn arrived in Los Angeles for pre-production work on My Fair Lady. Realizing that millions in the world has seen the musical, her challenge was tremendous. Cukor was aware of the challenges facing Hepburn: Possessed of beauty and elegance, her portrayal of the lady was not problematic, but Eliza’s Cockney accent, so crucial in the film’s first half, proved to be an obstacle. In preparation for the role, Hepburn had been taking diction lessons, working really hard with a voice coach.

One Sunday afternoon, Cukor, Lerner, and Beaton were invited to Hepburn’s house. The conversation was cordial, and the star was, as always, charming. After some small chat, she came straight to the point. “Are you going to use my voice for the songs” she asked, indicating it was an issue of great concern to her. Having sung in several of her films (Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), she wanted to do her own singing in My Fair Lady.

What the actress didn’t know was that by that time Marni Nixon had been secretly approached for the job. Nixon had previously sung for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Cukor explained that, perhaps some of her singing would be interpolated with another voice, so that her voice would be matched in the higher notes she could not sing. He told her that Minnelli had used this technique with Leslie Caron in Gigi quite effectively. But Hepburn said she would continue to work hard on her voice.

Later in the afternoon, Hepburn again ruffled her guests, though unintentionally. “This picture is one we must all remember,” she said, “Wonderful talents, everyone right, everyone happy.” “It’s the high spot for all our lives, let’s enjoy it!” Cukor was a bit annoyed, but tried to conceal it. This was the kind of speech ordinarily delivered by the director or producer, not the star, and it was prematurely stated.

Lerner was indeed upset; he never liked the idea of Hepburn as Eliza. When the film went into production, Lerner kept his visits to the set to a minimum. His associates later claimed that he really hated the film.

On June 4, l963, Cukor and his stars attended a press conference, whose purpose was to announce the movie’s auspicious beginning. It turned out to be a nightmare. Beaton, fussy and particular, was appalled by the low quality food and plastic flowers. With the two stars at hand, the press ignored Cukor, who sat there like an uninvited guest. At one point, a photographer screamed at Cukor when he walked in front of Rex. Uncomfortable to begin with, Cukor yelled back.

Cukor became so sensitive to his film that when Truman Capote wanted to do a piece on “My Fair Lady,” his initial reaction was to oppose, fearing Capote might do something satirical. But Capote clarified, that what he had in mind was a brief piece, to accompany Beaton’s photographs, nothing in the vein of his long articles for the New Yorker. Assuring Cukor that Hepburn, Harrison, and Beaton were all friends of long standing, Capote wouldn’t consider hurting them in any way. Noting his solid respect for Cukor, Capote promised to show him the piece before publication.

Beaton spent many months in Hollywood designing the sets and costumes and overseeing their execution. Beaton worked hard–he spent hours examining periodicals and visiting museums–but he accomplished wondrous things. In the first weeks, working closely with Cukor, he showed respect for the director’s professionalism, enjoying the “greatest creative experience” of his career. Horrified by the sets of other Warners films–“the Himalayan mountains of bad taste and artificiality”–Beaton kept a very close eye on the work as it progressed.

During the shoot, Lerner and Beaton often launched around Cukor’s pool and “sparks of brilliance” emerged from Lerner amidst endless digressions. “We seem to trigger him off and he enjoys our help after working in solitary confinement,” Beaton noted. Out of such meetings came the film’s more inspired moments, like the idea to open the film with a flower sequence.

Admiring Beaton’s taste and expertise, Hepburn knew that it was Beaton who made her look beautiful. Enchanted by his sketches, she immediately wanted to parade in her costumes. One day, Beaton showed her a mannequin of herself wearing Eliza’s shabby green coat and a black straw boater. Completely taken by the costume’s authenticity, she started to cry.

Soon, Beaton was behaving like a svengali, giving orders about more or less eyelash, selecting a brooch or a trinket. Insisting on authenticity, Hepburn legitimized Beaton’s tendency to argue over every detail. Examined by Beaton’s rigorous scrutiny, every scene had to be tested and retested, because the essence lay in Hepburn gradual transition to a lady. Hepburn sat for hours with the makeup people, then gave up lunch time to work with her coach. She was patient and polite, but Cukor could tell she was really tense.

Beaton was disappointed that there were not going to be location shots of London. Increasingly homesick, he began to feel imprisoned in Hollywood. That Cukor gave too many instructions–in a stream of bad language– only made things worse. Cukor’s habit, to begin talking before entering a room, seldom completing a sentence, also upset him. “I can’t think how I will feel about George at the end of it all,” Beaton confessed.

There were severe tensions between Cukor and Beaton. A snob, Beaton decorated his office with photographs of himself with Jackie Kennedy and his pictures of the Queen and Garbo. Beaton was a dandy, wearing Edwardian suits and broad-brimmed panama. His mannered flamboyance was a marked contrast to Cukor’s ordinary gray slacks and open shirt. “Cecil was too fussy,” Harrison said, “Cukor was more modest and down-to-earth.”

The main problem was that Beaton never saw himself working for or under Cukor. He considered his position in the production quite independent of–if not superior to-Cukor. Opinionated and imperious, both men enjoyed temper tantrums; their spats often sparked derisive comments from the crew, “these two queens” or “these two fags.”

“George was very anxious about the look of the film,” Rex Harrison recalled, “but, at the end, he let Cecil have his way. Otherwise, there would have been one constant clash of two very strong personalities.” Once the film’s visual conception was established, Cukor didn’t have to speak to Beaton anymore. And he didn’t.

Beaton was a master salesman of his work, which became an additional source of strain. “At first, Cukor failed to realize that Cecil was selling himself,” Harrison said, “but soon he began to resent the publicity Cecil was getting just for himself.” “Why don’t we take a tip from an artistic friend of ours,” Cukor once suggested to Harrison, “who is getting an awful lot of mileage from My Fair Lady.” Apart from the sales of his photographs, articles in Ladies Home Journal and Vogue (and their foreign versions), Beaton designed textiles and wallpapers and made drawings for galleries–all while working on the film.

Beaton’s habit of coming onto the set to take publicity photos showed his lack of sensitivity and deference to Cukor as a director. “The long photo sessions would irritate George,” Harrison recalled, “they were a waste of time.” Gene Allen, who worked closely with Beaton, concurred. “There are all kinds of ways and times to do publicity shots, but you don’t interrupt the director’s day to do them. That’s never taken place in the history of the business. It may be with some lesser directors, but you don’t take Audrey Hepburn away from George Cukor.” “George was used to working with professionals,” Allen said, “which is completely different from photographing celebrities. Cecil saw no reason why he couldn’t take Audrey off the set. But you can’t have somebody come in, because he’s a great personality on his own, and disrupt the making of a movie.” In Allen’s view, that was one of the “big blow-ups” that developed between the two men.

“George got really furious, he never wanted to see Cecil again,” Allan Davis said, “He wanted Audrey, when she wasn’t shooting, to be resting.” “This is the most important part that applies to whenever George was working on a film: Nothing else mattered except the job in hand. This was George’s great strength–the work, and what it called for, dominated his life.”

Allen worked with Beaton the same way he always did on a Cukor film. “I would design, show George, and then get Cecil’s approval. It was certainly everything through Cukor first.” Allen doesn’t know exactly when they stopped getting along, but it happened quite early. “I never had one ill word with Cecil,” he said, “I just didn’t have time to get involved in any personal problems, it was such a big picture, there was so much to do.”

“George didn’t tell me what an evil man Cecil was,” he said, “and I don’t know how the actors felt about it. Audrey was as sweet and lovely actress as there ever was one, and so fond of George. But I’m sure she could be just as fond of Cecil, for his contributions. Some of those egos may have gotten between George and Cecil.” They were not on speaking terms at the end; Beaton left Hollywood before shooting was over.

Cukor actually resented the fact that Hepburn was closer and more dependent on Beaton than on him, and he could never get over the fact that Beaton was hired before him. The perception that Beaton was more vital to the film than he was made the rift between them greater. Cukor would have preferred to work with Huene, his frequent consultant and friend.

Beaton also violated a sacred norm of Cukor’s code: as soon as he departed from Hollywood, he began to trash Cukor and the crew. Cukor resented Beaton’s tales of the “absolute truth” about the “strains” and “despairs” of working on My Fair Lady–how against all odds, he managed to put some taste in the picture. Beaton spoke most patronizingly about Hollywood’s “skilled technicians” (not artists) on the order of Gene Allen.

It was a ticklish subject from the beginning. When Cukor talked to Allen about My Fair Lady, he foresaw that, for all the work he would do, there would be little acknowledgment. Cukor didn’t realize then how greedy Beaton was. Allen contributed a lot to the picture, way beyond art direction: He supervised the construction and painting of the sets, shot the main titles, did second unit work, and helped with the cutting. Allen confirmed that he’s never been so busy shooting a picture of that size. “In addition to designing sets, I worked with George on how the picture was going to be filmed, shot by shot, frame by frame.” Cukor felt guilty that Allen was never given the recognition he deserved.
In later years, Cukor pigeon-holed Beaton CCC, “Classed as Cunt by Cukor.” “We were happy making it,” he would tell his friends, “with one minor, but very irritating, exception: The initials are C.B., and it’s not DeMille.” Alan Jay Lerner reproached Cukor for making such snappy judgments about Beaton in public, but Cukor thought he was very witty, considering what a “black-hearted villain” Beaton was.

Still, when Mel Ferrer mentioned the possibility of Beaton designing Cukor’s next picture with Hepburn, he assumed a professional approach: “whatever’s good for the picture is okay by me.” The reason why they didn’t get along, Cukor told Ferrer, was because Beaton failed to realize that a picture was a collaborative effort. Cukor would try to elevate Allen’s stature, improve his contract, feeling that “art director” was inadequate for him.
Despite the strain with Beaton, it was a relief for Cukor to work on this picture. After the “madness” of Monroe and Fox, anything seemed easy and smooth. He was impressed with Hepburn’s hard work and beautiful and considerate manners. She was never late and always knew her lines, which was a blessed relief. Hepburn had none of the usual selfishness, stupid demands, and tiresome suspicion of other movie stars–she had Cukor eating out of her hand. “All is going smoothly, ‘unsberufen, ‘Progress, Harmony, and Peace,” he reported after shooting began.

Once a decision was made not to shoot exteriors in London, Cukor moved toward greater stylization. “It’s not a realistic picture,” he said, “people don’t walk up and down Wimpole Street and sing.” Indeed, the race scene was deliberately excessively stagey. Cukor decided not to be adventurous, grabbing as much as he could from the stage production. But taking elements from the stage and make them flow on the screen was not as easy trick as it seemed.

Surprisingly, it was the London Times that spoke rather disparagingly and unfairly about Beaton’s contribution. What a pity, its critic charged, that Huene didn’t work on the picture. Cukor could not figure out why a marked clipping was sent to Huene by–of all people–Beaton himself!