However suave and sophisticated he was on stage and screen, Harrison’s performances often had a noticeably and, at the time, amusingly ‘curmudgeonly’ edge which only added to his appeal. Unfortunately, it was just the tip of his true nature. Hollywood legend Patrick Macnee said of him: “He was one of the top five unpleasant men you’ve ever met.” Notoriously strong-willed Charlton Heston called him “thorny.” The actor, who was born on this day in 1908, was so famously rude that his own butler threatened him with a shotgun. When he was struck by an autograph hunter he had offended, the headline ran “fan hits sh*t.”
Roddy McDowell said: “He was emotionally unstable, like a wanton child. You always had to approach him with a firehose. He was an exquisitely impeccable actor but a basic hysteric—and unconscionable to his fellow actors.”
It wasn’t just fellow Hollywood stars who struggled with Harrison. The actor had been praised for joining the RAF in a non-combat role during World War II. However, Eileen Younghusband, who was a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer and served alongside him said: “He treated us like dirt. We were nothing because we didn’t have anything to do with his film career. He really thought he was someone special.”
She also described how he would loudly make phone calls to various lovers, despite being married to his first two wives, Noel Margery Colette-Thomas and Lilli Palmer throughout the war.
Harrison was only the fourth choice to play Higgins on Broadway, after Noel Coward, Michael Redgrave and George Sanders, and was, by his own admission, not a singer. Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, Rock Hudson and Laurence Olivier were all approached for the film role. Yet, Harrison was always absolutely convinced that the show, and subsequent film, was all about him.
Andre Previn was the musical arranger on the movie and later said: “He felt whatever fuss was made about Audrey or Julie was pointless, because nobody was interested in the girl. They were only interested in him… Rex Harrison, who gave one of the most transcendental performances ever, was—and I don’t say this lightly—the most appalling human being I ever worked with. He was charming and funny and a great raconteur but, Jesus Christ, what he did to people. Rex didn’t like Audrey very much. He was mean about her, not to her. That was very much more his style.”
Hepburn famously faced a backlash when she took the big screen role, with many loudly declaring the part should have gone to Andrews, who had received huge acclaim for her performance on Broadway. In public, Harrison was suitably sympathetic, while managing to also stick the knife in.
He said: “I’d done the show for so long in the theatre with Julie that any new leading lady was going to be a problem. Audrey also had to weather a great deal of adverse press publicity about how much she was being paid, for most of the press had sided with Julie, and had wanted Julie to get the part. Audrey is a very sensitive person, and could not fail to feel all this. It quickly leaked to the press that she was being dubbed and wasn’t ‘really’ singing the part she’d wrested from Julie and for which she was being so highly paid.”
Note how Harrison reinforces the contentious issue of Hepburn’s singing voice being dubbed (by Marni Nixon), something which she herself had been very unhappy about. He also repeatedly refers to how much she was being paid, implying that she didn’t deserve it, and somehow makes it sound like an aggressive Hepburn “wrested” the role from poor Andrews.
In fact, Harrison has raged behind the scenes that he was only be paid $250,000, one quarter of Hepburn’s fee. It was later reported that he slowly warmed to her on set, but only because all the continuing bad publicity for the actress and her own distress over being dubbed gave him an even greater opportunity to dominate the production.
The two actresses certainly weren’t alone in their experiences with Harrison. Jared Harris, who was also his stepson, reported how Harrison struggled to keep staff: “He could never find one who would stay, because he was so appalling. He used to send the wine back from his own cellar and then rip into the butler for serving it to him.” One butler was so enraged he stormed back in brandishing a shotgun.
Perhaps the most horrifying story of all is the allegation that he left actress Carole Landis, one of his many discarded lovers, to die. She had taken an overdose on July 5, 1948, and the official report states that Harrison discovered her body on her bathroom floor. However, many have disputed the order of events and suspect that Harrison arrived before she died but made no attempt to save her.
Published at Sat, 05 Mar 2022 16:08:00 +0000