The Secret Dubbing of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady

Audrey Hepburn is a justly beloved star, but when the producers of My Fair Lady passed over Julie Andrews for the role of Eliza Doolittle, they created a problem for themselves: Hepburn just wasn’t in Andrews’ league as a singer. Their solution was to turn to Marni Nixon, the magnificent soprano who had previously provided uncredited singing help to other big Hollywood stars.

The difference is night and day. Here’s Audrey in her own voice:

Here she is dubbed by Nixon:

“Audrey as wonderful singer” became part of her legend (not that she was a bad singer, but certainly no Nixon), but only for viewers who did not know of the dubbing. Multiple readers of this post report that they DID know of the dubbing of the time and some diligent angels dug up this 1964 Time Magazine article revealing to the general public that Nixon was the singer.

Nixon got no credit in the film. Not incidentally, only late in his life did Jeremy Brett, who played Freddy, acknowledge that he didn’t do his own singing either.

Was the studio’s deception ethical? Does the fact that it failed to fool many filmgoers make it better or worse, or does it not matter? Hollywood has always dealt in myth-making about stars, though today it’s more often done with uncredited stand-ins during nude scenes than through dubbed singing. I am not aware of Nixon ever publicly expressing any resentment about the arrangement, though what she feels in private moments only she knows. In any event, she certainly hit it out of the park as a singer in this and a number of other films for which she received no on screen credit.

UPDATE: Thanks very much to readers who responded to this post with information of which I was ignorant. I have rewritten it to reflect your contributions, and my agent will be in touch with you to arrange for your share of the royalties!

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

19 thoughts on “The Secret Dubbing of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady”

  1. The difference may be night and day, but to be fair Hepburn was being recorded abominably in that YouTube clip – muffled, tinny, and echoing. She'd not have equalled Nixon, but she could have been better represented.

  2. Secret? It was common knowledge when I saw the first-run film in 9th grade.

    1. To quote Jack Palace in Shane: Prove it. Rumors circulated at the time and let’s stipulate that you are an unusually smart person, but “common knowledge”, in a nation of millions who cheer on the fine athletes of the pro wrestling world? How? Nixon was sworn to silence contractually and kept her word. She got no screen credit or studio publicity.

      1. I also recall that it was common knowledge at the time the film was released that Hepburn’s singing had been dubbed, and specifically by Marni Nixon. I was in 7th grade at the time, and of course cannot rely on my memory from that time to be accurate. But see this Time Magazine item from February 1964, months and months before the movie was released.

        I hope the link works. If it doesn’t, the money quote is “When Audrey Hepburn sings I Could Have Danced All Night in Warner Brothers’ My Fair Lady, the voice on the sound track won’t be Audrey’s. It belongs to Marni Nixon, the ghostess with the mostest.”

        1. Good documentation! Thank you — the secret was clearly more out than I realized in 1964.

    2. I may be older than most of the people reading this (66), but Marni Nixon's role in MFL was fairly widely known when I saw the movie (as a first-run attraction at the sadly demolished Loew's Theater in Indianapolis) in early 1965. (Back then, "first run" was somewhat longer than a week or two.)

  3. Hi, I love the blog and am a new commenter. Sorry Keith, but anyone who saw Audrey Hepburn singing multiple songs in the musical movie "Funny Face" (1957, 4 Oscar nominations) knew what her voice sounded like. (http://youtu.be/5Bko-Sz8HV0)

    And if they missed that, there was of course her rendition of Moon River in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961, 8 Oscar nominations including Best Actress and the Oscar for Best Song). Hepburn had a singing voice as distinctive as her speaking voice. These were two very big films. So, whatever the published studio PR said in 1964, Hepburn fans – who were and are legion – knew from the first notes of "Loverly" that the singing voice was dubbed.

    1. Thanks for commenting Anna-Luc. It's an empirical question and I wonder if there are data. In retrospect, after something is revealed to be untrue, it is usually hard to find people who acknowledge not having known it all along, so we would need data from that time to know for sure. Maybe such data would surprise me and everyone indeed knew at the time about the dubbing…but on the other hand, the history of Hollywood is replete with stars about whom millions of devoted fans held completely inaccurate views.

      1. Ah, I just found a biography of Hepburn that I saw! PBS film "Extraordinary Women: Audry Hepburn" (http://video.pbs.org/video/2365119372/ available until 07/13/14). View from 34:30 to 38:30 for the My Fair Lady period. Apparently, the fact that she was dubbed was quite the public controversy at the time. Sorry, musicals have been a passion of mine since I was very young.

  4. When Lerner and Lowe did the adaptation of Pygmalion, they wrote Henry Higgins for Rex Harrison who was known to be a wonderful actor and (to paraphrase the apocryphal RKO screen test of Fred Astaire) "sang a little". The songs assigned to Higgins reflect this: they tend to be patter songs.

    Eliza Doolittle, on the other hand was intended for Mary Martin, who was at the top of her career in the mid-1950s. She was also a wonderful actor who could sing a lot more than a little. Julie Andrews was cast instead when Martin turned the part down. Andrews was near the start of her career, but was already a marvelous soprano. Again, the writing reflected the actor: Doolittle's songs have long, soaring lines and (especially in I Could Have Danced All Night serious demands in the upper register. It's a song written for a soprano, rather than a mezzo. Andrews in her prime had a voice that defied the usual fache classifications, but in my mind she was best classified as a lyric soprano.

    Audrey Hepburn, by contrast, was an actor who could sing some. While this recording doesn't show her to her best advantage, it shows what was already known: she was a mezzo with an iffy sense of pitch. The recording is almost painful to listen to at points, because she is so flat. In terms of the singing demands of the part, she was horribly miscast as Eliza Doolittle. I couldn't quite make out what Hepburn said after the song was complete, but she did not sound very happy with the take. Hollywood ran into that problem fairly frequently — Natalie Wood could no more sing the role of Maria in West Side Story than she could swim. Unlike Wood, Hepburn seemed to be aware of her limitations.

    Motion picture production allows many things the stage doesn't, and one of them is dubbing voices into the soundtrack. The only thing I think was unethical about the whole situation was failing to credit Marni Nixon. But as so often happens, the truth will come out.

  5. Audrey Hepburn had a very limited vocal range. In an interview Henry Mancini wrote 'Moon River' for Hepburn knowing she had a vocal range of about 4 notes.

    As for Mani Nixon I think she took it all pretty well. She was interviewed on NPR a few years ago and didn't sound bitter at all. She did feel sorry though for Natalie Wood. Apparently during the entire filming of West Side Story Wood was under the impression she would do her own singing. It was only at the end she discovered that Nixon would be dubbing her voice. Nixon said that Wood took it very badly.

    Julie Andrews not getting the film part was a great loss. The original cast album is stunning.

  6. Natalie Wood could no more sing the role of Maria in West Side Story than she could swim.

    I see what you did there.

    Not only could Natalie Wood not sing, she couldn’t act. She could hardly even talk. How anyone with her glaring lack of ability was able to have a wildly successful career in cinema has me stumped. I suppose some people found her good-looking.

  7. Good story. What most people do not know is Audrey lobbied extensively for the role to be given to Julie, going so far as to cook dinner for Jack Warner and other studio executives. Warner explained his reasons for not hiring Julie and told Hepburn that if she did not accept the role, he’d give it to Elizabeth Taylor. Furthermore, after months of working with a voice coach, Audrey learned at the last moment that a voice double, (Nixon), would be doing all of the vocals. Warner didn’t have the courage or decency to tell Audrey himself, but had an assistant do so.

  8. One of the most intensely annoying "controversies" ever.

    Let's just start by pointing out that the lovely Audrey sang "Moon River" better than any one else, she also did her own singing in The Fred Astaire co-starring musical "Funny Face". What she didn't have was the kind of Soprano used in My Fair Lady.
    Anyone who has seen the clips of Julie Andrews singing/ performing My Fair Lady and Camelot, will be able to acknowledge her singing but the performance is not "Legendary" or particularly enthralling. She was an unknown cinema personality, and her short lived Movie Star career indicates that although talented , she was a limited performer. ( I personally think her best performance on film was in the failure "Star".

    Audrey was a huge star at the time and her performance as Eliza is luminous and enchanting, who could wish for a more lovely Eliza?

    Why is there no controversy about how Julie Andrews was cast in The Sound of Music? She didn't originate the part Mary Martin did. She was also the originator of the Nelly Forbush character in South Pacific- she didn't get that either Mitzi Gaynor did. She didn't get it because she was not a film "Name', and while good on stage was not a cinematic "Star' as others are not. Ethel Merman, Patti Lupone, Elaine Page, Gwen Verdon, all have had great success on stage that seldom was repeated on film. BECAUSE they are different mediums.

    What about the lovely and talented Rita Hayworth, she had a whole career in musicals and never sang a note of her own songs, Deborah Kerr was dubbed in The King and I, ( the part originated by Getrude Lawrence- another no-cinematic name). NAtalie Wood sang ok in Athe under appreciated "Inside Daisy Clover" but did not have the "right " voice for "West Side Story'.

    Rex Harrison was able to "sing" his role because he was not required to sing in the generally accepted sense of the word.

    In the movie of "Camelot" there is a montage of romantic shots of the lovers while the song "If Ever I would Leave You', at one point there is a heart stopping beautiful shot of the lovely Vannessa Redgrave captured in a doorway shrouded by glowing lights an her hair, sorry but Ms Andrews talented as she is is well cast as a Nun or a governess but not as a great romantic beauty.

    Audrey's performance in My Fair Lady is lovely, read Bosley Crowther.s review in the New York Times, all these years of denigrating it, are shameful.

    1. Mary Martin should have been cast in South Pacific; it would have been good if Ezio Pinza had also been cast, but I believe he was terminally ill at the time. Julie Andrews should have been cast as Eliza Doolittle; she had the voice and was much more believable as a Cockney girl than Audrey Hepburn. Jack Warner messed up royally.

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  10. Really? Seriously, people?

    ACE2010 is absolutely right!

    Clearly, most of the disparaging remarks about Audrey's singing come from folks who have NO CLUE WHATSOEVER about the practical, mechanical realities of either motion-picture production OR singing!

    You're trying to compare a one-take, on-set, off-the-cuff recording of someone who was:

    …NOT a professional vocalist, singing WHILE dancing up and down stairs, AND around & over furniture, props and set-pieces, AND acting, AND interacting with other performers, AND hitting exactingly-mapped-out blocking positions, AND emoting to a studio full of cameras and crew, WHILE melting under a megawatt or two of lighting, and STILL looking like the proverbial “million bucks”, etc., etc., etc. …

    …with the performance capabilities of someone who was:

    …standing stock-still, alone, in the perfect singing position, on a mostly-empty, dead-silent looping-stage like Todd-AO, Glenn-Glenn or some other such post-production facility.

    REALLY???

    This is WAY past "apples 'n' oranges"… more like, "apples 'n' ASTEROIDS"!

    Had Audrey been given the opportunity to loop HERSELF under the same kind of "perfect recording studio" conditions that Marni was working with, plus the option to re-record "bad takes" and/or edit the best passages of the “good takes” together into that one, “perfect take”, guess what? While she certainly could never have been the "equal" of a trained professional with DECADES of experience, she'd have been JUST FINE in that role, thank you very much!

    During the "Making Of…" special, on the other hand, it's freely admitted that Rex couldn't carry a tune in a BUCKET, so they re-crafted his numbers into something he, himself, described as “speaking, but more-or-less on-key”(-ish). Something was said about TONS of on-set vocal coaching, as well. (His performances in this film are also credited as being one of, if not the, earliest experimental use(s) of a hidden, dynamic lavaliere mic, hung on an actor, in a "live" movie-studio environment. It was reputed to be a HUGE device! Good thing most of his costumes were just a bit “frilly” and/or “billowy” in front.)

    The facts that Audrey, with her perfectly-adequate, if “unpolished” voice, was denied that chance, while Rex was almost ENDLESSLY (and expensively!) accommodated, simply proves how incredibly STUPID the past "geniuses" of Hollywood could get, when they really set their tiny little minds to it… .

    Remember, these are the same kinds of fools who, in their infinite idiocy, decided that, "No one in 'Amurka' wants to hear that guy's Aussie accent!", so they dubbed-over Mel Gibson (and virtually everybody else) in Mad Max! (And that's just ONE example out of THOUSANDS!)

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