In refined jargon more becoming of Eliza Dolittle at the denouement of her development, My Fair Lady might aptly be limned as an elegant critique on the British class system, delivered with ticklish wit and subtle romance. In a crass outburst more likely to usher forth from Eliza the squashed cabbage leaf, My Fair Lady could succinctly be summed up as one hell of a movie that kicks ass baby!! It’s been years since I last watched My Fair Lady, and I’m pleased to report that time has done nothing to alter it of its charm and sparkling energy. The opening scene where Freddy carelessly collides with Eliza, sending her basket of violets sailing into the street, instantly teases out a smile that never takes an intermission throughout the entire film. I don’t hesitate to say that it’s a flawless cinematic work. This may be an overstatement to say about anything, let alone My Fair Lady, but the devil may care! I’m going to say it and stand by my words, old sport. Any blemishes that may besmirch this film are of such a minor classification that they are completely outshined by the sheer level of enjoyment this film delivers; akin to a tempting tray of chocolates.
Directed by the brilliant George Cukor, the original director of Gone with the Wind before being replaced by Victor Fleming, My Fair Lady is toplined by the irresistible Rex Harrison and the intoxicating Audrey Hepburn, with supporting turns by Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Gladys Cooper. The film walloped the Academy upside the head for 12 nominations, eventually dancing all night to the tune of eight victories, including Best Picture in 1964. In perhaps one of the biggest, if not bitchiest, snubs ever recorded in the ledgers of the Oscar’s history was the omission of a Best Actress nomination for Audrey Hepburn. Many attribute this neglect to the fact that Hepburn famously didn’t do her own singing in the film. Another reason often brought up in connection to this nasty oversight is the fact that Hepburn was awarded the role of Eliza Doolittle over Julie Andrews, who had originated the part on stage. Both irony and fate seemed twain to meet on the night of the Oscars when Julie Andrews went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress in Mary Poppins. I don’t begrudge the outcome of the category in Andrews’ favor because MP is a great role. It really is, and she played it to spit-spotty perfection. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of a nomination for Hepburn, who acted her ladylike ass off in My Fair Lady. Seriously, in my opinion she hasn’t turned in a more character-driven performance in her career. The decision to have her voice dubbed over for the musical numbers was the studio’s decision, not Hepburn’s, which makes it even more frustrating that she was seemingly punished by having a nomination withheld. It’s not as though she is the first actress to have her singing dubbed for her. In fact, Marni Nixon, who provided the vocals for Hepburn, did the same for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in The King and I, for which Kerr received a Best Actress nomination. Love DK, but come on?! There is no way the quality of Hepburn’s work was even a smidgen less than Kerr’s performance alongside Yul. It just wasn’t.
Anyway, I supposed I’ve griped long enough on that point. To move one, at this point in my reviews, I usually recap the film’s plot. But in his review of My Fair Lady, Roger Ebert delivered a Henry Higgins-esque summation, writing that “it is unnecessary to summarize the plot or list the songs; if you are not familiar with both, you are culturally illiterate, although in six months I could pass you off as a critic at Cannes, or even a clerk in a good video store, which requires better taste.” I concur Roger, well said. If you don’t know the plot of My Fair Lady, then you are a cultural nitwit. The story line’s DNA has been cloned into everything from the delightful British film Educating Rita, to Pretty Woman and the teen comedy She’s All That.
But despite what Roger says, I do want to take a minute and gush over the music of My Fair Lady. I’ve always been a fan of movie musicals. Music was such an integral part of my mother’s life. She loved music, and as such, would often bring home a musical two to watch on the weekend. But I’ve consistently found that with musicals there always seems to be one or two numbers that I typically will fast forward over because they are dull and slow. But the soundtrack to My Fair Lady is a hit parade from start to finish and top to bottom. Not only do I not want to fast forward through any of the songs, but I find myself wanting to rewind and watch them again. If you put a gun to my head and made me chose a favorite, I would nervously confess it to be Ascot Govette, the stuffy, aristocratic number at the horse race, delivered with such a supreme sense of snooty vulgarity that one could never tire to witness it. Another rollicking number that is always fun to behold is Henry Huggins' anthem to bachelorhood, I’m an Ordinary Man. The lyrics maneuver about with such dexterity and sheer cleverness, moving at such a cunning pace that it’s impossible to appreciate every astute rhyme captured within its verses. “Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through, she'll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome, and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you.” Genius, old sport. Mad genius!
Equal to the film’s music are the performances that give life to it. There isn’t a weak link in the cast, and I mean that with the utmost sincerity. From the disheveled old bird that moves into Eliza’s apartment after she vacates it to Audrey Hepburn herself, everyone up the chain brings their “A” game to the screen. Whether it is for only a few seconds or the running time of the film, each actor contributes an ingredient of charm. But of course, it’s the leads that truly cap off the film with greatness in the performance department. The contrasts delineated between Eliza and Professor Higgins produces a love-hate chemistry to rival Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, albeit one that is marked by a different sort of characterization. The scene when Eliza first visits Professor Higgins about taking voice lessons is simply a divine comedic dual that Hepburn and Harrison deftly maneuver. As their relationship evolves, and the bickering is replaced by a romantic realization, Hepburn and Harrison are effortless in capturing this evolution in a way that is so fascinating to behold because their dual suddenly becomes about what isn’t being said.
I suppose this is also a testament to the film’s remarkable screenplay and direction, as much as it is to the performances. It’s so satisfying to watch a film that maintains the integrity of its characters, instead of pandering to an audience. Never once to do Eliza and Henry vocalize their love for each other, not even when they’re alone ruminating over their feelings. The closest Henry really comes to admitting his love is by saying that he’s “grown accustomed to her face.” For a romantic comedy where the two leads never kiss or confess their love for each other is quite astonishing. But in this case it is required, nay necessary because it’s not how Eliza and Henry communicate with one another, at least not within the story captured on screen.
In the end, I think the compelling nature of Eliza and Henry’s relationship speaks to the overall substance of the film. It’s that rare romantic comedy that is intelligent with a voice that has something enriching to say about society and human nature. It’s a candy-coated polemic on class systems, taking aim on British society, illustrating how the combination of simple elocution and some sartorial know-how can expose the hypocritical subjectivities that unjustly govern this revered system that allows the elites to grind their heels on the lowers classes, keeping them in the gutter. Effectively, Eliza’s transformation pulls back the curtain that belongs to the upper class, which has nothing whatsoever to do with good manners and good breeding. In a sense, it’s all a silly game that one can conquer with enough determination and drive. The skills to succeed in the upper echelons of society do not reside in some secret manual possessed by the ultra rich. They're available to anyone with the means to grab hold of them. However, the wealthy simply keep them out of the reach of the denizens of the gutter so that they may never possess them, unless they are to become the object of an experimental bet.
Furthermore, what’s interesting is how My Fair Lady demonstrates how societal classifications install within people preconceived notions of those outside of their class. In the case with Professor Higgins, he initially dismissed Eliza as a dirty baggage who made ghastly sounds as she butchered the English language. Upon their first meeting, he could have never imagined her as someone to whom he would form a romantic attachment. It isn’t until she outwardly becomes a member of his class that his ability to appreciate and love her becomes fully activated. Yet, had she remained in the gutter, he would have missed out on meeting the love of his life, causing him to be another victim of the class system’s power to mold and manipulate. As Eliza so beautifully articulates, “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”
Best Line: There are so many wonderful lines of dialogue and lyrics in this film. But for comedic punch, my favorite line is at the horse race when she angrily cheers on her horse, “Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin' arse!”