Emma Thompson Hates Audrey Hepburn - Macleans.ca

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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Emma Thompson Hates Audrey Hepburn

  1. I find Audrey Hepburn fantastically twee.

    Well, I certainly found her character in Breakfast at Tiffany's fantastically twee, but I attributed that to acting not the woman's character.

    • In context, she was speaking of Hepburn as Eliza, not Hepburn as herself.

  2. I think Audrey Hepburn was a fine actress. Maybe not the best in the world, but she could certainly act. With all due respect to Miss Thompson, Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar and was nominated for, I think, five more and even the BAFTA's recognized her so Miss Thompson's claim is really unfounded. Hepburn is not an icon today because she couldn't hold her own on screen, to claim she couldn't act is ludicrous!

  3. Audrey Hepburn did all right for herself for a performer who could act or sing, didn't she? Five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (including one win). A Tony for Best Actress, and a second Special Achievement Tony. A Life Achievement award from the Screen Actor's Guild. A Golden Globe award for Best Actress. A BAFTA Award for best actress. Imagine what she'd have accomplished if she could act! She might be some sort of Hollywood icon or something!

  4. I'll give Miss Thompson a pass on this one. She's clearly referencing the fact that Hepburn was cast in the musical role despite the fact that she needed to be dubbed and was selected by the studio over several more accomplished actor-singers.

    Audrey Hepburn was loved by the camera and by audiences. She was graceful (as the dancer she was) and LATER in her career, could even deliver strong performances that weren't soaked with melodrama. Wait Until Dark was probably her finest film performance, though this came many years after her fame had been established. But to suggest that her acting prowess was strong in her early films — the ones for which she won so much fame and acclaim and so many "awards" — is to ignore some of the major dreck that came out in post-war Hollywood, especially the early 1960s.

    She didn't really act in Roman Holiday (she played herself, and even appears to dance some of the scenes). Sabrina is positively cringe-inducing to watch today … not just because of her blank performance, but because of the casting. She was placed opposite William Holden (36) and Bogart (at 55!) … who both look like leering old men trying to score with a child (Hepburn was 25, but looked like a teen). Bogey also remarked that she took 50 takes per scene in that film, and he wasn't impressed. Most of Hepburn's early success comes down to her charm and Hollywood's promotion machine. And don't toss in the Oscars and Golden Globes as evidence, given that outcomes for the former were directed by the studio heads via their unions (whose members were the bulk of the voters then) and the Globes could be had for cash.

    That said, the camera loves who the camera loves — some of the world's great beauties in real life are flat on film, and those who are average in real life can light up the screen (Catherine Deneuve was quite eloquent about the unfairness of the camera in relation to real beauty). The camera — and audiences — loved Hepburn. Her humanitarian works off screen also endeared her to many. Audrey Hepburn was, in the face of a Hollywood still recycling leading men from the 30s and 40s, a fresh and refreshing face. She also represented a bit of European glamour in the midst of the greyest depths of the Cold War. A great actress she was NOT — but she wasn't really cast as one, either.

    • I don’t believe anyone is trying to argue that Audrey was the greatest actress ever. I’ve yet to come across one person defending her against Emma’s attacks who makes such a grandiose case. But to say that Audrey couldn’t act at all (those were very much her words, and she meant them generally, not just in reference to MFL) is just as much of an exaggeration. Yes, her earlier and more well-known films were basically fluff fests, but that was the studio exploiting her looks and charm rather than developing her talent. She can’t be blamed for that, it happened a lot (Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, just to name a few). But when she got comparatively meatier roles later on in her career (Green Mansions, The Unforgiven, The Children’s Hour, Two For The Road), she showed that did possess acting skills, and her talent though not great, combined with her unique charisma and charm is what made her so alluring. And it’s those personal traits that makes an actor unique. Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn were three of the finest actresses to ever grace the screen, but in addition to their immense acting abilities, they all had presence and charisma, and that is what made them even better actresses. Without personality, you can spend years training at the most prestigious acting school, it won’t make you stand out as an actor, because there is nothing particularly unique or noticeable about you. It’s the same argument that is brought up when debating why a widely-acclaimed guitarist is held in such high esteem when he isn’t the most technical player. It’s about both technique and style, and while of course you must have some talent to be considered good at all, I think having a unique style that cannot be duplicated is a bit more important. Well, the same thing applies to acting, as it is both technique and style, and Emma should know that. Fair enough if she doesn’t like Audrey as actress, but her harsh criticism was a bit uncalled for.

      • I think yours is a fair position, and well expressed. My point was that much of her acclaim — and awards — did come at the start of her career when she, and the material, were simply not very good. Many of her defenders point to awards and iconic roles that, to be fair, were more about publicity than talent. True, she managed to grow as a performer and fuse her personality with her craft, and in later roles this was compelling. And she was a classy lady.

    • What was the Catherine Deneuve quotation? It sounds pretty interesting.

  5. First, the title of the article is misleading. "Emma Thompson hates Audrey Hepburn". "Hates" is too strong a word in my opinion. Miss Thompson never said that she hated Audrey Hepburn, she said that she did not like her performance in "My Fair Laady" which is a valid point, since I believe although I like Audrey Hepburn very much that she was miscast in the part and as many people believe the role was tailored-made for Julie Andrews. On the other hand, saying that she cannot act, that is unfair (but she has a right to express her opinion). She was a fine actress and a magical screen presence and one of the most beloved movie stars of all times. She was not, I believe all things at the same time as Garbo was, for example who was at the same time a great screen actress, a great star and an unparalleled erotic goddess, but she was, nonetheless, a true, a great star who could act very well as she proved in films like "Wait until dark", "The nun's story" or the delightful "Roman Holiday".

    • I think Jaime was being tongue in cheek with the title. It's deliberate humourous hyperbole, not a "misleading" headline, imho.

  6. The Brits use the most infantile expressions – mimsy mumsy, willy nilly, shilly shally, googoo gaagaa, …. how very sophisticated.

    • I've always found people who use the adjective "twee" to be so… twee.

    • I went to England and the people I met actually weren't like that. I was surprised at the pictures I saw on the walls of some of their pubs. John Wayne, Elvis Presely, James Dean, even John F. Kennedy. From what I've seen Emma Thompson doesn't reflect the British anymore than Mother Teresa would reflect say, the Nazis. I would recommend anyone in the U.S. going to England at least once in a lifetime. It has a rich history going back from our time. I found some family history there I didn't know I had as I suspect a lot of us would.

  7. To each his own as they say — there were some performances where Hepburn came across as a bit twee because there wasn't enough, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, THERE there. But whatever her problems with singing in MY FAIR LADY, catch her in the absolutely wrenching scene after she has won Higgins' bet for him and doesn't know what to do next. Hepburn is deeply moving, believably angry, and utterly without a trace to twee to her. Indeed, she was fine in all of the non-musical scenes in the film, giving a perfectly credible performance as Eliza Doolittle. She was also superb as the heroine of THE NUN'S STORY, as the terrified but resourceful heroine in WAIT UNTIL DARK, and as the confused heroine of ROMAN HOLIDAY. She was not right for the role of Holly Golightly because she was (a) too old and (b) George Axelrod's script cleans up the character too much (not precisely by shying away from the fact that Holly is an expensive hooker–the hints are there–but by making the character less of a psychopath than Capote did in his novella).

  8. When Thompson has the goods to unpack Hepburn's suitcase, then serve her her tea, call me.

    Till then … mowwwwww.

  9. Did it ever occur to this jealous cow that "pixie"-type acting was Hepburn's signature? Hepburn did not need to disguise her voice or appearance to be considered a good actress, as many, many, many do today. She based her performances solely on charisma and her light and fairy-like personality. This is her equivilent to the edgy quality the other Hepburn, Katharine, possessed. Yes, it was hidden under character, but it was always there.
    As for Emma Thompson: well, where to begin? Should I start on her forced, one-note, overrated English period films hardly proves her to be a fantastic actress, let alone a credible critic.
    A TERRIBLE way to publicize the remake. I am almost confident that Hepburn fans, who are aware of Ms. Thompson's harsh comments, will not bother seeing it.

  10. Emma Thompson may be right in that Hepburn was not exactly a dynamo of an actress. But she was, in her time and much later, too, a symbol of grace, unconscious style and a charmingly whimsical actress who delighted her audiences–and is now a classic icon of both fashion and understated elegance.

    I love Emma Thomson's superb acting abilities and natural talent and she will always be on my A= List! For how can I forget that glorious performance in the HOWARD'S END cinematic wonder. Substance and style were so happily married in that film, thanks to a large part to her performance, and the million-buck Ivory Merchant sets…But I digress.

    Thomson, yes, I agree with the commenter above, is generous in spirit and wealthy in stardom to have afforded our beloved Audrey a bit more charitable treatment. It was a bit "twee"…..

    But her punishment should be watching nightly one of Audrey's fave "twee" pics, you know, the one with George Peppard, that broke-forever gigolo scribe in the whimsical *and* witty "BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S"! And perhaps Emma could find her inspiration for a more feminist, and thus truly more worthy of Shaw's philosophy, ending to "My Fair Lady", eh? A journalistic career for dear Eliza…

  11. Emma Thompson missed a good opportunity to shut up! I can't stand an artist putting down another artist.

  12. And now she analagizes with Clint Eastwood and his "ilk". Sheeesh! And I'll bet ol Clint just sweats buckets over that, huh Emma? Ever occur to you that Audrey played opposite the best of her time? Do names like Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Albert Finney, Fred Astaire, George Peppard or Sean Connery ring a bell to you? Nah, probably not. Oh, and most of them also won oscars and unlike you they're all household names. And she didn't just play opposite older men. She happened to be older than Finney and Connery.

  13. Julie Andrews had good looks and a great voice. Audrey Hepburn had great looks and a good voice. Too bad we couldn't have melded them back in the 1960's. Thompson has…..er,… what does she have???