I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1964 winner, My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor and starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.
My Fair Lady is a musical version of the classic tale of Pygmalion, where a man transforms a woman of humble origins into a refined lady. This classic movie is sometimes slow-moving but contains some unforgettable moments, as well as some classic songs.
The other competitors that year were Becket, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins and Zorba the Greek.
Frederick Loewe wrote the music and Alan Jay Lerner the lyrics and the screenplay, based on a play by George Bernard Shaw.
As the movie opens, we meet Henry Higgins, a phonetics professor who reviles the sloppy speech of the common folk (which, admittedly, bothers me, as well, although I tend to be more forgiving than Henry). We also meet Eliza Doolittle, a poor Cockney flower girl. Their paths cross, and Henry is naturally repelled by her way of speaking. He makes a bet with a colleague that he can turn her into a cultured lady within a certain number of weeks.
For Eliza, this seems like a great opportunity to see how the other half lives. Little does she know she will exchange the relative leisure of sitting on a corner selling flowers for a grueling regime of speech exercises and etiquette lessons.
Not surprisingly, Eliza begins to hate Henry and his demands, as she expresses in the song, "Just You Wait, Henry Higgins" (by the way, this video mistakenly attributes Hepburn's singing voice to Julie Andrews, when she was in fact dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Maria in West Side Story). The audience likely shares Eliza's view: misogynistic Henry treats Eliza as an object, beneath contempt, like he might a common farm animal. He yokes her, teaches her the paces, and sees her only as a means to an end.
Naturally, this being a musical and a nearly four-hour one at that the relationship grows more complex, especially after Eliza's successful introduction into society. Could this fractious relationship really have evoked tender feelings in the boorish snob Henry? Goodness knows he's the one who can truly use some training in manners.
Shot on sound stages with lavish costumes and scenery, the film has a classical movie musical feel, complete with elaborate dance numbers and dozens of chorus members. Truly, there are some gems in the score, such as "I Could Have Danced All Night" and "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." Some songs, however, go on about two verses two long, such as "I'm an Ordinary Man," where Henry complains about what he sees as the vices of women.
Hepburn is entertaining as Eliza, although she received much criticism from her contemporaries for both her attempts at a Cockney accent and for the fact that she won the part over Julie Andrews, who originated the role on the stage. But Hepburn sinks herself so completely into the role that she's virtually unidentifiable as a crude-sounding flower girl. Then, as she transforms, she manages to appears, at the same time, cultured and graceful, while also secretly surprised at herself.
Undoubtedly, Hepburn's performance is aided immeasurably by Nixon's vocals, who reinforces the transformation. Incidentally, if you're interested in hearing Hepburn's actual singing voice, watch this video of "I Could Have Danced All Night," with the vocals taken from a rehearsal tape. The choice to use Marni Nixon becomes crystal clear. Snatches of Hepburn's original vocals do appear in the movie, such as the first verse of "Just You Wait, Henry Higgins," a brief reprise of the song, and the sing-talking parts in "The Rain in Spain."
If Lerner had had his way, Andrews would have played Eliza, but Warner Brothers didn't want to cast a stage actress in such an important film. The producer, Jack L. Warner, reportedly also voiced concern that she wasn't attractive enough.
Harrison as Henry is such an insufferable snob that the viewer wishes, like Eliza, to call "Off with his head." He is the perfect foil for Eliza, and their interactions are both humorous and a deft commentary on both the cultural divide and the gender gap. It's no surprise Harrison played the role so well: he originated it on Broadway, opposite Julie Andrews. However, before he was selected, Peter O'Toole, Cary Grant, Noel Coward, Michael Redgrave and George Sanders were reportedly all considered for the role. The only reason Harrison was initially not considered was that producer Warner had seen him in Cleopatra and felt he looked to old to play Hepburn's love interest. However, new publicity photos showing him without his Cleopatra makeup convinced Warner.
Although My Fair Lady is set in Victorian England, the themes of class warfare and gender stereotypes are still relevant. If for Harrison, Hepburn (and Nixon's) remarkable work alone, this film is well worth watching.
Rating (4 out of 5): ****
There's no pleasing some people.