Emma Thompson Hates Audrey Hepburn

Emma Thompson, who’s writing the script for a remake of My Fair Lady, gave an interview to the Telegraph about the project. The link seems to be down at the moment, but the only thing anyone seems to be talking about is what she said about Audrey Hepburn:

I find Audrey Hepburn fantastically twee. Twee is whimsy without wit. It’s mimsy-mumsy sweetness without any kind of bite. And that’s not for me. She can’t sing and she can’t really act, I’m afraid. I’m sure she was a delightful woman – and perhaps if I had known her I would have enjoyed her acting more, but I don’t and I didn’t, so that’s all there is to it, really.

Eeyowitch. The first thing that I thought when reading that was that many of the girls I knew in college will now hate Emma Thompson. (I don’t know if Audrey Hepburn posters are as popular in dorms as they used to be; but in My Day, you could see her staring at you from a number of walls.) As Peter Bradshaw argues in The Guardian, Thompson is entitled to her opinion and isn’t necessarily wrong. But it’s certainly the worst possible way to get attention for the project.

It’ll also provide an extra bit of trouble for whoever winds up playing Eliza Doolittle in the remake, with Carey Mulligan currently favoured (Keira Knightley was originally talked about) The reason Hepburn wasn’t really right in the original film is that hardly anybody is quite right for the musical version of Eliza Doolittle: it has to be one of the most difficult parts in the modern theatre. The non-musical version is already exceptionally hard: the actress has to do not only Cockney Eliza and “lady” Eliza, but the in-between version seen when Higgins introduces her to his mother’s society friends. The musical has all that, plus it requires her to handle most of the really difficult singing in the show (Higgins is written for a non-singer, so Eliza has almost all the genuine “legit” vocalism loaded onto her). Plus in order to be convincing, she should be played by a young actress. Oh, and she must hold her own with a Higgins who is usually played by a very experienced actor who doesn’t need to be able to sing.

The original play was lucky enough to find the only person in the world who fit all these requirements, the young Julie Andrews, and even she — according to her memoirs — was originally not up to the acting demands, and only got there with a lot of help from the director of the play, Moss Hart. Almost every Eliza since then has been a compromise of one kind or another: usually someone who can act the part but isn’t vocally right for the part (which may apply to Carey Mulligan as well). As theatre historian Ethan Mordden noted, there are a number of people who can play Higgins, but it’s almost impossible to find a really good Eliza. Once the movie production decided Andrews didn’t have enough film experience to do it (Disney proved them wrong, of course, by snapping her up for Mary Poppins) there was really nobody they could get who was quite right, and this will probably still hold true.

Also, since Thompson wants to do a more modern, feminist take on the story I assume she’s planning to change the ending; as you probably know, My Fair Lady uses the ending that was created for the 1938 film version of Pygmalion (Shaw didn’t like the ending but said it was too inconclusive to really be objectionable). I could see someone creating a new ending that preserves a happy feeling while staying closer to Shaw’s more feminist message — that society limits the choices women can make whether she’s a “flower girl” or a “lady,” and that Eliza’s only hope is to break out of both those pigeonholes — but I don’t know if Thompson’s the person to write it.


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