When he was dropped from the London production, it opened a window for him on what would become My Fair Lady. If Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe had not come into his life, he said, he would surely have given up on the theatre. Meanwhile, the duo could conceive of no one else to design the costumes for their highly stylised musical version of Pygmalion. ‘His very look is such,’ Lerner wrote, ‘that it is difficult to know whether he designed the Edwardian era or whether the Edwardian era designed him.’ Beaton, born in 1904 near the mid-point of Edward VII’s reign, was absolutely a product of those times – that golden summer of languor, frivolity and excess personified by the playboy king. And greatly influenced by it. As a boy, Beaton had collected glitter-coated postcards of the leading ladies of Edwardian opera and theatre, one of his greatest heroines being the musical comedy star Zena Dare, whom delightedly he got to dress when, at 70, she took on the role of Mrs Higgins for My Fair Lady’s West End run. His childhood informed his outlook on life; the observations made at an early age remained constant, he would say, while around him the world would change.
By now Beaton was entranced by Julie Andrews – ‘pretty, appealing, even heartbreaking in a milk-and-roses way’ – fully expecting her to blossom (with guidance) into the next Gertrude Lawrence, though as Andrews remembered it, they were never close friends. ‘Of course,’ he said to her after a photo session in Covent Garden, ‘you have the most unphotogenic face I have ever seen.’ She went down, she said, like a pricked balloon. And then there was the celebrated film. Andrews lost the part of Eliza to Audrey Hepburn. However, there was no doubt as to who would design the costumes and this time the sets too, ‘an explosive moment of excitement’, remembered Beaton – but it was not to last long.
For 10 months from the beginning of 1963, Beaton removed himself to Hollywood where, in the 1930s, he’d had great success as a photographer of movie stars. Despite a close friendship with Hepburn – ‘an angel of goodness’ – filming was an unhappy experience with echoes of his depressing time on The Chalk Garden. He quarrelled furiously with director George Cukor, whose approach he found undisciplined, his manner coarse. Further, his stage successes had emboldened him and he was unwilling to compromise. He also developed the habit, in breaks during filming, of taking the star off set to photograph her, sweet, pliable and willing, in each of his designs, her own and those of the extras. Already finding Beaton’s English vanities insufferable, Cukor was incensed at his presumption and at one point barred him from the set. Tempers simmered to breaking point. ‘Everyone’s nerves are explosive,’ commented Hepburn, ‘everyone’s on edge!’ Beaton tried to resign and in the end left the film earlier than planned. Meanwhile, Rex Harrison was positively beatific.