MY FAIR LADY (1964)

  • Director: George Cukor
  • Writers: Alan Jay Lerner, based on the stage musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and on the stage play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
  • Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, and Mona Washbourne
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#91), 8 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – George Cukor, Best Actor – Rex Harrison, Best Adaptation Score, Best Cinematography – Color, Best Art Direction – Color, Best Costumes – Color, Best Sound), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Stanley Holloway, Best Supporting Actress – Gladys Cooper, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Netflix, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

My Fair Lady is perhaps the most erudite of the big, colorful studio musicals, and feels like it should be 100% my thing. Roger Ebert called it “the greatest and most unlikely of musicals,” which seems to be about the consensus. I’d seen it once before, many years ago, and I remembered liking it. But I don’t know. I couldn’t get past the fact that, first, I found myself pretty much hating both of the lead characters, and, second, how a lot of the songs are basically spoken word poetry more than, you know, songs. I’d also say it, for the most part, lacks the visual panache of many of its counterparts. There are a handful of almost avant garde moments, but there are no big dance numbers or anything, and is very noticeably all on Hollywood sound stages despite being set in what I guess is Edwardian London.  I mean, despite, again, the leads frequently grating on me I enjoyed My Fair Lady. I’m just not sure if I’m on board with those pushing it as the “greatest of musicals.”

The Broadway smash of its day, My Fair Lady was brought over to film basically wholesale directly from Broadway. Most of the original Broadway cast was even used in the movie, including Rex Harrison as the male lead, Professor Henry Higgins. The main, somewhat infamous exception was the replacement of Julie Andrews, who originated the role of Eliza Doolittle, with Audrey Hepburn, at the insistence of MGM. Hepburn was one of the biggest stars in the world, and Andrews had never been in a movie before. Originally, Hepburn sang all her songs, but after actually hearing her the studio was unconvinced, and ended up dubbing most of Hepburn’s singing with the great Marni Nixon.

My Fair Lady is a fairly straightforward musical adaptation of the 1913 play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. For the unfamiliar, the original greek myth of Pygmalion was about a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he made of a woman. Shaw’s story is about a “confirmed bachelor” linguistics professor who makes a bet that he can teach a lower class “flower girl” with a strong Cockney accent to speak and act indistinguishably from a duchess. He then, of course, falls for her, but is he falling for the actual her, or the her that he’s “created.” Or has she created herself basically in spite of him? The inherent commentary here about the English class system in the early 20th century that was likely the entire point of Shaw’s play is not entirely missing from the musical version, but its resonance doesn’t quite hit home in the same way in a 1960s Hollywood spectacle.

Higgins is an entirely oblivious jerk, who has to be corrected after he keeps referring to Eliza as “it” and works her day and night on pointless exercises, with barely a break for meals. When he wins his bet, he celebrates with a song about how “I Did It,” never thinking to give Eliza even the tiniest bit of credit for anything. I don’t know if Harrison could sing or not, but here he “talk-sings” far more than Johnny Depp’s much discussed performance in Sweeney Todd

Eliza is less a bad person and more just a super-annoying person, at least until she has her transformation. She freaks out in this screamy voice at every tiny thing, and comes off not as a fish out of water but a complete idiot. There’s one scene where she gets upset that the maid tries to get her to take a bath which is absolutely excruciating, less for the concept that this lower-class girl in 1910s England wouldn’t be used to baths and more because of Hepburn’s very screamy performance. She is far more in her element in those parts of the movie where she gets to play a composed, upper-classy character. I like Hepburn as much as the next classic movie fan, but this seems like the sort of role a different actress could completely knock out of the park, and she’s just sort of fine in it. It is a famous footnote that, after being dropped by My Fair Lady, Andrews was immediately cast by Disney as the title character in Mary Poppins. Andrews would win Best Actress the same year that My Fair Lady swept most of the other major categories at the Oscars, while Hepburn wasn’t nominated.

Probably the most famous bit of My Fair Lady is the song “The Rain in Spain,” as in “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” That song is the moment in the movie where Eliza suddenly has a breakthrough and gets past her cockney accent. There is no transitional period where she is only sort of good, she completely doesn’t get it and then she has it down pat. Unusually for a Broadway musical, there is no big ballad where a singer gets to show off. Eliza gets a few songs where she gets to at least sing a bit, but as I said there’s no big production number. Otherwise, the songs range from catchy to barely songs. I would probably describe the better ones as “jaunty.” I always take it as a bad sign when I finish watching a musical and I have trouble remembering any of the songs, though I’d at least say that’s less of an issue here than usual. And I mean, memorable songs isn’t really enough all by itself (see Cats).

One of those “jaunty” songs is “A Little Bit of Luck,” performed blithely by veteran character actor Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s scoundrel of a father (the song includes him getting preemptively thrown out of a bar multiple times). Holloway is great in this, including in what, for me, is maybe the most interesting scene in the movie, when he shows up at the Higgins house and basically asks to be paid in exchange for risking his daughter’s virtue with this strange man. That is, he doesn’t actually care about her at all, and everyone involved knows it, he just thinks he has a good excuse to ask for money. Higgins gives it to him, seemingly more in appreciation of his hubris than anything else. 

Another Oscar nomination was received by Gladys Cooper, who has a relatively brief role as Higgins’ mother (who he uses as a sort of guinea pig for Eliza’s entry into society). Cooper had been working since silent films, and had received two previous Oscar nominations back in the 40s. From my perspective her most memorable role came the same year as My Fair Lady, in an episode of The Twilight Zone, playing an old lady who fears that Death is looking for her but takes in a wounded policeman who shows up on her doorstep, played by none other than a young Robert Redford (spoiler you guys: Robert Redford is actually Death).

Anyway, I have a strong feeling that most of you are likely way higher on this movie, and I can’t really blame you. I like it perfectly fine, but it never really “sings” for me, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase. It’s biggest appeal rests, I’d say, in being seen as the most “intellectual” of the big production-heavy MGM musicals of this era. Which, I mean, it is, the question is whether that’s enough for you. Your mileage may vary.

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