MY FAIR LADY (1964)
Many see My Fair Lady as a charming, light romantic musical. Having revisited My Fair Lady now, I'm surprised to find how nasty some elements are. It still is a sumptuous visual feast with some extraordinary music, but perhaps time has dulled my enjoyment of it.
Haughty linguistics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) encounters Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) one night. He makes an offhand comment to Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he could pass this lower-class woman as a duchess at an Embassy Ball with his elocution techniques. Taking him at his word, Eliza goes to Higgins' home and offers to pay for lessons.
Higgins takes her on and puts her through a brutal set of techniques. He's an absolute terror to Eliza, with only Pickering's rather fussy manner to tamper down Higgins' worst excesses. Eliza's father, Alfred Doolittle (Stanley Holloway) is no help: he has no problem 'selling' Eliza for five pounds.
Eventually Eliza does adopt a more posh manner of speaking, but one can't quite take the Cockney out of the girl, as a disastrous debut at the Ascot races proves. Despite this flop, Eliza has enchanted Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett), who is besotted with her. A little more tinkering and Eliza adopts an elegant persona which leaves even Henry Higgins astonished. Once the ball is over, both Pickering and Higgins seem to have completely forgotten about Eliza or her future.
Eliza finds she has no future with Higgins but cannot return to her roots as she's now too posh. With few prospects, she contemplates marriage to Freddy, but first stops at Mother Higgins' (Gladys Cooper) home for refuge. Higgins is astonished Eliza would defy him. Could he actually have fallen in love with his own creation? At the end, Eliza does go to Higgins' home, where he appears enchanted and asks where are his slippers.
As I saw My Fair Lady with perhaps a more critical eye, I was surprised to see not just how brutal Henry Higgins was, but how pretty much everyone was towards her. Higgins really was a lousy teacher. He never showed Eliza any patience or even basic instruction.
For example, he never bothered to explain why her Cockney vowel pronunciations were not the same as his more refined ones. Rather than show how changing one's lip movements shifted her Cockney 'ay' to the Queen's English "A" all Higgins does is shout "A" at her. To her mind, she was pronouncing "A" correctly even if she wasn't. Essentially, Eliza was meant to learn by osmosis.
The staff too didn't show Eliza any sympathy or kindness. One of the weaker Lerner & Lowe songs, Poor Professor Higgins, express sorrow for what he (and by extension the staff) is enduring, but not once do they see or express any sense that Eliza is essentially being bullied and yelled at for hours or even days on end.
That was the unexpected discovery in My Fair Lady. The fact that Higgins is a brute, in his own way a snob and a sexist bordering on misogynist is not. Higgins expresses his disdain for the fair sex in two songs: I'm An Ordinary Man and A Hymn to Him, while his contempt for people in general comes through in Why Can't The English Learn to Speak?.
As a side note, it's curious that at least two of Higgins' numbers revolve around questions: Why Can't The English Learn to Speak? and A Hymn to Him, where he asks variations of the question 'why can't a woman be more like a man?' Perhaps this was to help Harrison, who was not a singer and didn't pretend to be. In order to carry a tune, he essentially 'talked on pitch', speaking within the melody without carrying notes.
After some thought I think Harrison did the part correctly as the ever arrogant, ever dismissive Higgins. I still struggle to be convinced that Harrison's Higgins actually ended up falling in love but in his recreation of his Broadway role Harrison did much better than I first thought.
It's an unfair slam on Hepburn, who in some parts was simply divine. Of particular note is when we see her coming down the stairs for the Embassy Ball and she is breathtakingly beautiful. She is also quite adept at the comedy elements such as the Ascot Gavotte sequence where her efforts at small talk sound posh but bonkers.
Having said that though, at times Hepburn is simply too posh and elegant to be a believable Cockney flower girl, particularly when we first meet her. Hepburn comes across as too intelligent to be seen as ignorant. Also, Eliza's hysterics and surprisingly Victorian prudishness became more irritating than endearing (though her screams when the female staff demand she take her clothes off for a bath while keeping to censors by having the steam rise is hilarious). That aspect of her performance was on her. The dubbing was not, and here we come to a more damning problem.
Hepburn's singing was done by professional dubber Marni Nixon, which was a terrible mistake. Nixon's voice is elegant, crystal clear and pitch-perfect, but that's the problem. It is simply too perfect, too elegant, too posh and worse too articulate to come from a Cockney flower girl. The contrast between Eliza's speaking and singing highlights the difference. Nixon could not master sounding like a Cockney, so in the Wouldn't It Be Loverly number Eliza sounds as if she already has mastered Higgins' elocution. Eliza's singing sounds very refined and technically skilled. It just doesn't sound right.
The highlight in performances is Holloway, like Harrison recreating his stage role. We shouldn't like Alfred P. Doolittle, but Holloway makes him a charming rascal and a chance to belt out two great songs from the musical: With A Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time.
Other roles were played well and in the correct manner: fussy Pickering, unamused Mrs. Higgins, cartoonish rival phonetic instructor Zoltan Karpathy (Theodore Bikel).
For a musical, the songs are what make or break it. My Fair Lady has an extraordinary catalog. There's the sweetness of Wouldn't It Be Loverly, the joyful cynicism of Get Me to the Church on Time, the faux-elegance of the Ascot Gavotte. We also have a curiosity in that we don't have love songs per se. The two closest, On the Street Where You Live and I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face are not-quite love songs. They are more 'besotted' and 'what am I going to do without you' songs respectively. I Could Have Danced All Night, another highlight, is also not a straight love song. She herself says "I'll never know what made it so exciting, why all at once my heart took flight".
Director George Cukor brought all these elements together in an excellent form, though perhaps more credit should begin to choreographer Hermes Pan and costume designer Cecil Beaton for their respective work than has been.
However, for every I Could Have Danced All Night there is a Just You Wait, for every The Rain in Spain there is a Without You. Those songs are hardly bad, but sometimes we get too much of a good thing.
I'm surprised at how My Fair Lady did not enchant me as it has on other viewings. It's still a wonderful adaptation of the Broadway musical, with beautiful sets and costumes, a magnificent score and strong performances. However, I think perhaps people have loved it more than perhaps is reasonable, though how can one resist Audrey Hepburn at her most regal and stunning?
If anything, Audrey Hepburn is My Fair Lady indeed.
1965 Best Picture: The Sound of Music