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Three loverlies October 12, 2007

Posted by Jeff in 1961 through 1989, Movies, Musicals, Theater.

Almost from the moment his studio announced they had purchased the movie rights to My Fair Lady, Jack Warner started stepping in one bad publicity mess after another.

First, the word got out that they were talking to actors other than Rex Harrison about Higgins. There is no record of Laurence Olivier’s reply, but Cary Grant said publicly that if Harrison didn’t get the role, not only would he not take the job but he wouldn’t even go see the movie.

Saner minds prevailed, but not when it came to Eliza. There was great shock and dismay when the studio announced Audrey Hepburn, on the grounds that Julie Andrews was not well-known enough. Walt Disney quickly stepped into the breach and picked up Andrews for Mary Poppins, which seemed a definite comedown as the studio wasn’t known for prestige live-action musicals.

But Poppins was better than expected and a surprise hit, and Andrews got the ultimate revenge: she won the Best Actress Academy Award while Hepburn wasn’t even nominated. To the delight of the Oscar audience and Warner haters everywhere – Harrison and Hepburn probably included – Andrews thanked Jack Warner in her acceptance speech.

Having shot themselves in the foot with the dissing of Andrews, Warner Bros. reloaded and fired again: they decided to use Marni Nixon to dub Hepburn’s singing. The film was in production before Hepburn found out, and she was understandably crushed. Nixon was known as the singing voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno in West Side Story.

The studio probably intended the dubbing to be a secret, but the contrast between Nixon’s operetta soprano and Hepburn’s distinctive singing voice, already heard in Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, would have given it away at once. As it turns out, although the soundtrack album is 100% Nixon, in the movie Hepburn sings “Just You Wait” and large parts of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

So, who’s the best Eliza? Let’s judge for ourselves, with three versions of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverley?”

From a 1961 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, Julie Andrews, five years after her Broadway triumph and fresh from her West End run:

Here’s the version used in the film, with Marni Nixon’s dubbing:

Audrey Hepburn overdubbed her own voice for this version, in the vain hope of getting the studio to reconsider:

Seeing and hearing Hepburn’s version next to Nixon’s makes the disconnect of voice to visual even more remarkable. Nixon has the better and more professionally trained voice (and she’s proved a very durable performer — she’s still performing her cabaret act at the age of seventy-six, and she just published her autobiography). Nevertheless Hepburn’s is the better performance of the two; there’s no doubt in my mind that the overdubbing cost Hepburn an Oscar nomination if not the award.

But of the three, there’s no contest: Julie Andrews owns the role, now and forever.

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