This was a fun read, but every time I intended to sit down and flip through the pictures and start reading, I would find that it was in somebody else’s hands. There are quite a generous collection of pictures of Edith Head’s costumes, which was half the fun of the book
It’s less a biography of her life than of her career. Edith Head started writing it, but passed away before she could finish. Paddy Calistro essentially finished the book, using Head’s notes as a kind of thread and template. She clarifies Head’s statements, sets the record straight when Head makes certain untrue claims, gives slightly more biographical background than Head provided, and a little more about the movies, actors, directors and other costume designers.
There seems to be some disagreement about whether or not Edith Head really was a great designer. She was not great at sketching, took credit for designs by her employees and was an indefatigable self-promoter – which is why she is the most well-known of all Hollywood costume designers.
Calistro points out, however, that if she was not a great designer, she had a knack for making the stars look good, making them comfortable in what they wore, and matching the costumes to the characters. Many were so happy with her work that they would have her design their costumes even when they were not making a picture at Paramount Studios (where Head worked). Several even wanted her to design their personal wardrobes.
Edith Head seems to have known she wasn’t a great designer like Adrian (who worked at MGM), but felt that certain designers got carried away; that it would sometimes be more about the dress than how the actor looked.
In the book, she talks about the actors and their figures and their personal preferences (Ingrid Bergman did not like lots of jewelry or extra adornments; Grace Kelly loved gloves), as well as the directors she worked with (she had a wonderful working relationship with Alfred Hitchcock and did many of his films) and what she was thinking when she designed certain clothes.
The 1950s was her real heyday. She was part of some wonderful films afterwards, but she bemoaned the end of the studio era, because she said it made her job far less interesting. With the increased emphasis on realism, stars wanted to get clothes at a store instead of have them designed for them. Glamor, she felt, had gone out the window.
It’s by no means a comprehensive book; but it’s fun to read – especially now that I’ve seen many of the movies she refers to – and gives the reader a small look into the making of films in Classic Hollywood.
With Disney’s upcoming release of the live-action film, Maleficent, with Angelina Jolie in the title role, I thought it would be refreshing to revisit the classic villainess in her original incarnation from the 1959 Sleeping Beauty, as well as to celebrate the woman who gave her voice: Eleanor Audley.
Maleficent is a classic villain, much in the way that Darth Vader is classic: timeless, formidable, iconic – iconic appearance, iconic voice. Everyone loves to love (or hate) a villain that embodies sheer menace and evil (though Darth Vader’s villain-ness kept getting murkier as the movies went along – he eventually wound up as a petulant boy! I suspect a similar dilution of Maleficent’s evilness in the new film).
And perhaps she’s only a cartoon, but what is Darth Vader: part triangular helmet with black cape and suit, part imposing posture, and part awesome voice.
What I loved about Maleficent is that she is a villain that’s female. That sounds a little obvious, but what I mean is that she is a villain first, who happens to be a woman (I guess, technically, a witch). She is not a femme fatale or vamp, sashaying through the story, swinging her hips and breathing down the necks of every man she encounters; she is just a villain. She’s the only one I can think of whose villainy is separate from her femininity. Men get to be villains, who incidentally are men; why not women?
There is no explanation for why she is evil; she just is, and because she is not invited to the celebration of Aurora’s birth, she curses the child. It seems she so embodies evil, that her mission in life is to wreak destruction. It’s a living, I suppose.
To savor her sheer awesomeness, here is a clip of various scenes from Sleeping Beauty with Maleficent in them
Of course, what makes Maleficent truly come alive is her voice (surely the most menacing voice in cartoon history – she could make a laundry list sound frightening). She was voiced by Eleanor Audley, who had, seven years earlier, also provide the voice for Cinderella’s evil stepmother in Disney’s 1950 animated Cinderella (click here for video of her Lady Tremaine).
Eleanor Audley mostly did radio and TV, as well as providing the voice for several animated films. Sadly, I cannot, for the life of me, find any information about her personally. She started in radio in the 1940s and 50s, and appeared multiple times in “Father Knows Best”and “My Favorite Husband” (as the mother of Lucille Ball’s character’s husband).
In the 1950s and 60s, she seems to have turned up in practically every popular TV show running: from the TV version of Father Knows Best to I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Wagon Train, The Beverly Hillbillies, My Three Sons, Green Acres, and quite a few more. She made the most appearances in Green Acres (14 episodes), as the mother of Eddie Albert’s character, Oliver Wendell Douglas.
Since I grew up hearing her as a voice, it was fun for me to go back and find some of these TV episodes, just to see her in person. Here’s a clip of her in the Beverly Hillbillies. She plays a head schoolmistress dismayed when Jethro tries to enroll in her school.
Notes: Here is the trailer for Maleficent. It looks like a Lord of the Rings, “Wicked,” fairytale mash up, to me (are those creatures escapees from LOTR?), but I’m trying not to be prejudge… too much.
Part Book Review and Part Tribute to A Great Singer
I’ve often read of Marni Nixon described as “The Ghostess with the Mostest,” a phrase which came from Time magazine. It’s very appropriate; though Marni Nixon is much more than a ghost singer for famous Hollywood stars.
Though you have to admit that as a ghost singer, there’s no one quite like her. Most famously, she dubbed Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice in My Fair Lady. She also dubbed Natalie Woods (and Rita Moreno for the one song “Tonight”) in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in both The King and I and An Affair to Remember. She was the singing voice of Grandma Fa in Mulan. When Margaret O’Brien had to sing a short Hindu song in the 1949 The Secret Garden, they got Marni Nixon (she was seventeen at the time and it was her first job dubbing for anyone). She was all three geese who sing during the chalk picture interlude “Jolly Holiday” in Mary Poppins. And if you happen to notice that Marilyn Monroe hits some unusually lovely high notes in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that is because those notes belonged to Nixon.
Marni Nixon, singing a trio with herself in Mary Poppins
Marni Nixon was not a huge star, like Julie Andrews, but it was fascinating to read her autobiography I Could Have Sung All Night: My Story (2006). She seems to have done nearly everything there is to do in musical entertainment (and even non-musical entertainment) and there’s scarcely a medium she didn’t try (stage, film, radio, television, recordings; she was a dialect coach and teacher), and in the process she encountered many diverse people. It’s a wonderful look at the performance world: the stars, the composers, the music directors, the actors, the directors, agents, musicians, the writers. One comes away from the book with a wonderful sense what a lifetime of work is like – not as abstract art or glamorous jobs – but what it really means, in all its glamorous and un-glamours aspects to
She is quite honest and open in her book, about her personal life (like her nineteen year marriage to the composer Ernest Gold, who wrote the scores for Exodus and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World), her choices, her disappointments and her successes and triumphs. She started young, as a child. While participating in choral works, concerts and shows, she also worked as an extra in movies, such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, In the Good Old Summertime.
As an adult she did everything from working with Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein to recording television jingles. She sang in operas, did a tour with Victor Borge ( pianist and comedian) and with Liberace in Las Vegas. She did musicals, playing the role of Eliza Doolittle and Anna Leonowens on stage. She had a solo career and recorded several albums (for example, Disney asked her to record an album of the songs from Mary Poppins) and also appeared on the radio. Also, look for her, in person, as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music.
She had a beautiful soprano voice; very clear and bright, and she had perfect pitch, even as a child. Conductors would tell her to sing an A and would tune according to that. She could sight read nearly any piece of music, including difficult modern composers like Arnold Schoenberg, and this ability led her into circles where she met and recorded for Igor Stravinsky.
Of course, it’s for her ghosting that she is most remembered and nowhere is there a better example than in The King and I. Unlike with Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, who both desperately wanted to sing on their own and took lessons while preparing to film (though studio heads were ultimately unwilling to allow them to sing) Deborah Kerr knew that she could not sing the role of Anna Leonowens.
She and Marni Nixon worked very closely together to blend their sound. Marni Nixon would shadow Deborah Kerr while she was blocking out how each song would be choreographed, even imitating hand motions, to try and get inside the character. Marni Nixon also worked very hard to match her voice to the timbre and accent of Deborah Kerr’s speaking voice (Nixon’s various accents in films include proper British, Cockney, Hispanic, and Irish – as well as a song sung in Hindi). They wanted to know exactly how Deborah Kerr was going to act the song, so Marni Nixon could record it to match.
The most brilliant example of their work together can be heard in the song “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You,” which was cut from the movie, though the song can still be heard on the soundtrack. The song alternates between full out singing and talking on pitch and Deborah Kerr and Marni Nixon rehearsed the song over and over again until they could record it, each in separate recording booths. Deborah Kerr started it off, then pointed at Marni Nixon, who would sing the more sustained parts, then point back at Kerr, who would take over the more talking parts; and they did this back and forth for the entire song. (Note: I can’t show the video on this site, but you should definitely watch it, here; which shows when Deborah Kerr is talking/singing and when Marni Nixon is singing).
Sadly, on all three of the top selling albums, The King and I, West Side Story, and My Fair Lady, Marni Nixon’s name was nowhere to be seen (even though her singing made up more than half the music) and she had to fight to earn any royalties at all from West Side Story and My Fair Lady and received none for The King and I.
In all, I Could Have Sung All Night was a very engaging book and I enjoyed learning about her life. She always seemed to be expanding, trying new things, taking opportunities, working to improve her art. She had a remarkable and utterly unique career that was a pleasure to read about.
Notes: for an excellent article about how Marni Nixon went about her work dubbing the singers, see this one in The Guardian, “Standing in for the stars – the art of dubbing singers”. She also makes several spot-on observations about how, in recent movies (like Les Miserables), there has been a dramatic shift from the extreme of the excessive use of dubbing (without credit) to no use of any vocal help for the actors, when they really could use some help. I couldn’t agree with her more on that.
Below, is the clip of Margaret O’Brien, “singing” a Hindu lullaby to her cousin, Colin. MGM had brought in an Indian swami to teach Marni Nixon how to sing the words properly.
Click here for an interview with Marni Nixon, about her dubbing and how the studios attempted to keep it a secret that their stars were not actually doing their own singing, about how the stars felt about her dubbing their voices, and more about how she went about her dubbing work. And it is lovely to finally see her in person and hear her own speaking voice.
If you’re curious what Audrey Hepburn sounded like in My Fair Lady, click to hear the clip of her, in her own voice, singing “Show Me.”