Since Darryl Zanuck had reassumed control of 20th Century Fox, the studio’s situation drastically improved. Not only had CLEOPATRA been making back its costs at the box office, but Twentieth Century Fox Television experienced an upswing.
Adapting the 1957 melodrama PEYTON PLACE into a regular series with Dorothy Malone and a young Mia Farrow proved to be a good idea. The program aired several nights each week on ABC-TV, and it was an immediate hit with audiences. Its success, combined with the popularity of another Fox-produced television show, Daniel Boone, indicated strong financial gains for the studio. By the end of 1964, Zanuck announced to shareholders a profit of $11.5 million.
Worried about taking risks on big-budget epics, most studios decided to focus on what they considered sure bets. In 1964, the sure bet was now a big-budget musical. Executives were encouraged by the fact that recent adaptations of Broadway hits like WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY had done very well with audiences. So Warners forged ahead with its film version of MY FAIR LADY. Though it cost over $5 million to secure the rights, the picture easily made that amount back thanks to George Cukor’s direction and Rex Harrison’s performance as Professor Henry Higgins, a role he earlier played on the New York stage.
Harrison’s costar from the Broadway production, Julie Andrews, was passed over in favor of Audrey Hepburn. But Andrews quickly bounced back by signing on with Walt Disney, who made a big budget musical of his own, MARY POPPINS. Andrews would earn the Best Actress Oscar for her work as P.L. Travers’ title character.
Meanwhile, there was a shift in how studios were promoting actors. The old star system of the 1940s and 1950s had radically changed. Performers like Clint Walker who had developed substantial followings on television were all the rage. And actors who had done well for years in character or supporting roles were given opportunities they never had before. These less expensive “movie stars” were cast in expanded B-pictures that often used recycled scripts, and were shot in color and widescreen.
The more expensive stars of yesteryear were being eased off the big screen. They either retreated to television or into early retirement. A few of the more stubborn ones, like Bette Davis, refused to call it quits. She used what drawing power she still had left to make horror films. A new sub-genre was born– the psycho-biddie. It was a last moment of glory for the actress whose status was diminishing. Her power as a movie star was inevitably slipping away from her.