Eliza is a Cockney flower girl, who comes to Professor Henry Higgins asking for elocution lessons, after a chance encounter at Covent Garden. Higgins goes along with it for the purposes of a wager: That he can turn her into the toast of elite London society.
Doolittle receives voice coaching and learns the rules of etiquette. The outcome of these attentions varies between the original play and the various adaptations (see Pygmalion article).
The part of Eliza was originally played by Mrs Patrick Campbell, at that time the most famous actress on the London stage but considered by many to be far too old for the role. The unprecedented use of the word "bloody" - as a scripted intensive - caused a sensation when Campbell delivered it.
George Bernard Shaw personally requested the young English actress Wendy Hiller to repeat her stage performance and play the first film version of the character in the 1938 film Pygmalion. Her performance served as the definitive film portrayal until Audrey Hepburn played the role in the highly successful 1964 film musical My Fair Lady. Leslie Howard (Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind) played opposite Wendy Hiller, as Henry Higgins, in the 1938 version of Pygmalion.
Sir Rex Harrison originated the musical version of Henry Higgins, on stage in My Fair Lady, with Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle. Rex Harrison went on to reprise his role in the film version with Audrey Hepburn. This choice has been criticized since it was made, and at the 37th Academy Awards the award for Best Actress went to Andrews for her performance as Mary Poppins. Hepburn was not nominated. Despite such strife, many critics greatly applauded Hepburn's "exquisite" performance. "The happiest thing about [My Fair Lady]", wrote Bosley Crowther, "is that Audrey Hepburn superbly justifies the decision of Jack Warner to get her to play the title role." Her co-star Rex Harrison, also called Hepburn his favourite leading lady and Gene Ringgold of Soundstage also commented that "Audrey Hepburn is magnificent. She is Eliza for the ages," while adding, "Everyone agreed that if Julie Andrews was not to be in the film, Audrey Hepburn was the perfect choice."
Martine McCutcheon infamously played the role in the 2001 London revival of My Fair Lady. Despite missing many performances (citing health problems), having to have various understudies perform the role and withdrawing nearly five months early from the production's transfer to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, she won the award for best actress in a musical at the 2002 Laurence Olivier Awards. One of the understudies was then-unknown "First Lady of the West End" Kerry Ellis.
- ELIZA, an artificial intelligence program named after the character
- Audrey Hepburn Obituary. Telegraph
- "My Fair Lady (1964) Screen: Lots of Chocolates for Miss Eliza Doolittle:'My Fair Lady' Bows at the Criterion". NY Times
- Ringgold, Gene. "My Fair Lady – the finest of them all!", Soundstage, December 1964