My Fair Lady's Special Day

Audrey Hepburn transformed from flower girl to My Fair Lady
Audrey Hepburn transformed from flower girl to My Fair Lady

by Ray Setterfield

May 20, 1956 — Though it does not appear in any official list of public holidays, the 20th May is Eliza Doolittle Day – at least according to Alan Jay Lerner, the song lyricist for the musical My Fair Lady.

In her imagination Eliza has become a friend of the King of England, who tells her:

Next week on the 20th May
I proclaim Eliza Doolittle Day.

With Lerner’s lyrics and music by Frederick Loewe, the adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion story first appeared as a stage musical in 1956 with Rex Harrison as linguistics Professor Henry Higgins and Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, the flower-girl he takes under his wing.

The show was a smash hit, setting box office records in both London and New York. It was so successful, in fact, that it came as a shock when Julie Andrews was dropped as Warner Brothers prepared the film version that was released in 1964.

She was just 20 when she made her stage debut as Eliza in New York. The problem for producer Jack L. Warner when he came to make the movie was that he thought she wasn’t “known enough” as a film actress. So the Hollywood machine swung behind Audrey Hepburn with her star appeal.

Julie Andrews was not the only member of the original cast to come under Jack L. Warner’s critical scrutiny. He also had doubts about Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins, thinking he might be too old for the part. So he drew up a list of alternative actors.

Among them was Cary Grant who, according to studio gossip, told Warner that not only would he not play Higgins, but if the role did not go to Rex Harrison, he would not even go to see the film.

In the end, Harrison triumphed and was voted Best Actor at the Oscars in April 1965 for his performance as the professor. My Fair Lady was voted Best Picture and won seven other Oscars.

Julie Andrews, bitterly disappointed at losing the Doolittle role, was adequately compensated at the same ceremony by winning the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Mary Poppins, the film that she turned to after being rejected for My Fair Lady.

Audrey Hepburn was not even nominated for an Oscar and had to sit watching Andrews pick up her award.

Behind the scenes it was said one reason for Hepburn’s snub was that when she appeared to be singing in the film she was actually lip-syncing professional singer Marni Nixon who supplied Eliza’s singing voice.

The only song that Audrey Hepburn sang almost unaided was “Just You Wait” – which contains the memorable line of the King proclaiming Eliza Doolittle Day.

The title of the film appears nowhere in the dialogue nor in any of the song lyrics and it is uncertain how it came about. It is widely accepted, though, that My Fair Lady is a clever pun.

Mayfair is one of London’s leading upmarket areas and home to the upper echelons of society. People from the East End with a Cockney accent, such as Eliza, would call it “My-fair.”

In the story, she aspires to leave behind her status as a street flower-seller and eventually she does indeed become an accepted Mayfair lady – as well as “my fair lady” to Professor Higgins.

Published: April 7, 2017

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