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!

Watching the Silent Version of “Roman Holiday”

The other night I arrived at a restaurant about 45 minutes before my dinner companions, which led to an unusually gratifying wait. Above the bar was perched a mega-size high-definition television, but the sound was off and only gentle jazz issued from the speakers in the ceiling. As my shiraz arrived, William Wyler’s 1953 classic Roman Holiday began on the screen.

Perhaps film schools make students watch great sound-era films without sound. If not, they should, it’s a fascinating exercise. The lack of sound highlights the myriad ways that mega-watt stars can convey emotion, tone and character, while drawing the viewer in.

Gregory Peck, the tall dark man of action and romance, turns out to have a tremendous gift for comedy. In the silent version, his jaunty walk, the way he talks rapidly out of the side of his mouth, his gimlet-eyed stares and dancing eyebrows create an explosion of mirth. The fellow a few seats down at the bar, as entranced by the silent spectacle as I, kept bursting into laughter while watching Peck’s silent magic, and I couldn’t stop joining in (not that I tried).

And then of course the viewer meets Audrey Hepburn. It is hard to imagine now given her iconic status, but no one knew who she was when Roman Holiday was released. Yet within a minute, millions of Americans were rooting for her to find that shoe. She doesn’t need words to convey vulnerability and to elicit from the viewer adoration and a desire to protect. As former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper once said “Falling in love with Audrey Hepburn is an essential, civilizing experience for all human beings”