Oscar flashback: Before ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ there was ‘Poppins’ Revenge’ for Julie Andrews

Magical nanny Mary Poppins is about to return to movie screens, this time with Emily Blunt in the title role. The character brought Julie Andrews an Oscar as Best Actress for “Mary Poppins” (1964) in what is perhaps one of the single most fascinating awards derbies ever. Dubbed “Poppins’ Revenge” by pundits, Andrews won the Oscar the same year she was denied the chance to recreate on-screen her role in “My Fair Lady” which made her a star on Broadway.

“My Fair Lady” was a sensation on the stage. The original production ran six years and won six Tony awards. The original stars of the production were Rex Harrison and a then relatively unknown Andrews. The two each played the role for over a year on Broadway and then for an additional year in London.

As is often the case though, when the play was going to be adapted into a film the original Broadway cast wasn’t the first choice. Producer Jack Warner felt he needed movie stars. Instead of Harrison, the role was offered to a number of actors including Cary Grant, who told Warner he didn’t want it and that if they didn’t hire Harrison he didn’t even want to see the movie. With Harrison signed on, the search for a leading lady began. Andrews met with the producers but reports vary as to what exactly happened.

Some say Andrews was told she wasn’t photogenic enough for movies while others think Andrews was perplexed as to why she was being asked to audition when she had played the role on stage for so long. Regardless of which story is true Audrey Hepburn was offered the role and only accepted when she realized that if she didn’t take it Elizabeth Taylor probably would have. Since Andrews wouldn’t be in the film either way, Hepburn took the part.

What producers didn’t anticipate was that there would be a backlash against Hepburn taking the role especially since most of her singing was dubbed by another woman. Nowhere did the backlash display itself more prominently than at the Oscar ceremony where the film received 12 nominations yet its leading lady was left out of the Best Actress category. Making the Oscars even more interesting was the fact that Andrews managed to be cast as the lead in “Mary Poppins” and was nominated as Best Actress for that film.

On Oscar night “My Fair Lady” won all the top awards including Best Picture, Director, Actor for Harrison and five others. The winner for Best Actress, in what became known as “Poppins’ Revenge,” turned out to be Andrews so in the backstage photos of that year’s Best Actor and Best Actress the original “My Fair Lady” stars were reunited forever.

Hepburn proved herself to be a class act and despite not being nominated she flew in from Europe to present the Best Actor award to the expected winner, Harrison, while the camera caught images of Andrews in the audience. Harrison closed his acceptance speech by thanking his “two fair ladies.”

One thing that got lost in all the Oscar results is what a fine performance Hepburn gave in the film. Her “commonness” at the start of the movie and her anger at the end when Harrison takes all the credit for her transformation are extremely powerful moments. In contrast to Hepburn, the current Broadway revival which features a much more sedate interpretation of the character. Whatever the quality and Oscar success of “Mary Poppins Returns” it is doubtful it will create as much drama on Oscar night as the original film did.

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