Friday, June 20, 2014

My Fair Lady (Best Picture 1964)

My Fair Lady was one of the most famous and popular Broadway shows and Hollywood films in the late Fifties and early Sixties. There is something about it that must have represented or mirrored its time in the same way that Perry Como, Dinah Shore, or Red Skelton did. Which means that because it was such a huge part of that zeitgeist, I firmly believe I would not have belonged there, as I absolutely hate this film.

I talked about how I do not like the Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe movie musical, Gigi, here.
After Lerner and Loewe became famous in 1956 for writing My Fair Lady for Broadway, they worked on Gigi for MGM. There are similarities between the two works, and in a very real sense "if you've seen one, you've seen them both." Both feature the "teaching" of a younger female character for the pleasure of a man. Both feature strongly misogynist older gentlemen as the leads. Both feature costumes and scenes over characterization. And to my ear, both feature similar music and lyrics. And I thought Gigi was the worst Best Picture I had ever seen.
If you've been following this series of reviews then you may be happy to hear that David Niven and Cantinflas in their 1956 Best Picture winner, Around the World in Eighty Days, have moved up AGAIN from the basement. Although My Fair Lady the show came before Gigi the movie, so therefore should have some claim to being an original, the film Gigi is so much better a film than My Fair Lady the movie that it's really no contest. Yes, My Fair Lady is my newest candidate for Worst Best Picture Ever.

Why do I hate My Fair Lady so much? I am very glad you asked me that, as I have a whole list of good reasons. Basically they fall into one of three reasons: 1. the story and main characters are unpleasant; 2. the music and lyrics are poorly presented; or 3. the film is technically ordinary.
1. The story and main characters are unpleasant
First of all, and most important to me, is that this film consists of spending three hours (THREE HOURS!) with two very unpleasant people! Rex Harrison plays Professor Higgins, a linguist in London who meets up with Colonel Pickering, another speech theorist just home from India (played by Winfred Hyde-White). Together they happen to meet Eliza, a common flower girl living on the streets. Eliza is played not very convincingly by Audrey Hepburn. They eventually challenge themselves to mold her into a Lady. Pickering is an easy-going gentleman, but the other two are loud, obnoxious, self-centered, and annoying. Higgins is a cruel bully with an unbelievable ego. Eliza begins the story as an idiot, screaming and carrying on over the smallest of things. Although by the end of the story she has learned some self-esteem, she still seems awfully silly. As for Higgins...the things he says to her! He calls her baggage a few times, for example, and that was one of the less evil things he says. As the older gentlemen (?) attempt to teach her how to speak and carry herself as a Lady, at one point the staff sings a song, "Poor Professor Higgins." The lyrics are about the efforts that he is making on her behalf, but the scenes we see show all the efforts that SHE is making. Is this supposed to be funny? Later, after the three of them go to a Royal Ball and Eliza manages to convince people that she is a foreign royal, the house staff and Pickering sing, "You Did It" to Higgins, never mentioning Eliza at all! If this is supposed to be some sort of comedy about Class Warfare or Gender Stereotypes or something, I just don't get it. As it is, it's just cringe-inducing. Who can watch this and not feel Eliza's pain at being treated so callously?
At the end Eliza finally challenges Higgins on how he treats people; he basically says that he is mean to everybody, and Eliza eventually seems to go along with this. However, there is a huge difference in how he talks to Pickering and how to talks to Eliza. In "A Hymn To Him" he complains about women in general, yet Eliza has done none of the things he complains about; in fact, all she has demanded is to be treated with respect~! I thought it was telling in the confrontation scene at Higgins' mother's home, Higgins appears to be pouting in the corner because the women aren't doing what he is telling them to do! At the end I guess we are supposed to understand that Higgins has come to enjoy Eliza's company much in the same way that he enjoys Pickering's, and that knowing this is enough for her. If this is the case I would have liked it spelled out more clearly. Frankly, I was hoping she wouldn't go back. To me it seems too much like an abusive relationship.I know that sounds harsh, and I have re-read this twice to figure out some way to write it more softly, but it's really how I feel. Higgins is a cad and a pompous ass, and I don't "get" his attractiveness as a character.
2. The music and lyrics are poorly presented
My parents had a copy of this LP around the house when I was a child, but tellingly, it was of the Broadway show (starring Julie Andrews), not the motion picture soundtrack. There are a few songs here that have become well-known Standards. However, I would argue that none of the versions for this film were done very well. For one thing, Audrey Hepburn very obviously is not singing here; the singer is Marni Nixon, who also famously dubbed for Deborah Kerr in The King And I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. Unfortunately, the voice of Marni Nixon doesn't match Audrey Hepburn's speaking voice at all. So even the songs that I do like ("The Rain In Spain," and "I Could Have Danced All Night") don't fare very well in this version. For another, Rex Harrison doesn't sing his songs, either, choosing instead to speak-sing them. One or two of these types of presentations might have been nice, but all of them? Plus, most of Higgins' songs are as unpleasant as Higgins' personality is ("Why Can't The English" is just snobbery set to music, and "I'm An Ordinary Man" is misogynist rhetoric). As a side-note, was that really Hyde-White's voice singing along with "The Rain In Spain" and "You Did It?" Pickering has a deep bass singing voice which doesn't match Hyde-White's high, nasal speaking voice at all. So whether it was his actual voice or not, it was very incongruous. Lastly, I really like the romanticism of "The Street Where You Live,"  but the version here by Jeremy Brett as Freddy is not to my liking. I'm not sure why, but of all the versions I've heard, this is one I don't really like. So this film's music just leaves me cold. 
3. The film is technically ordinary.
The Overture takes four minutes and what do we look at while it is playing? Flowers! When the action finally starts, where do we go but to an obvious sound-stage representing London. Say what I do about the quality of Gigi, at the very least it was filmed mostly on-location in Paris. Those scenes that were not actually in Paris certainly did not look as much like a sound-stage as My Fair Lady's London does! Also, the choreography of "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" is pedestrian in the extreme, and of course it doesn't help that you can tell the buildings supposedly one block over are painted back-drops. The horse race scenes specifically are awful! Does anyone believe that this is really London? Sure, I might be spoiled what with actual NYC in West Side Story and the actual Sahara in Lawrence, but, really, isn't that what helps make a film Best Picture?  There were no scenes that stood out as having been especially well shot. The whole thing just felt very very pedestrian.
Believe it or not, there were certain parts of the film that I did like. The costumes, of course, were magnificent. Everyone LOOKED great! The Study in Higgins' home is a wonderful set, what with its multiple floors and spiral staircase. All of the scenes played there were fun to watch, even if the dialogue or singing were off. One of the best scenes is between Higgins, Pickering, and Eliza's father, played by Stanley Holloway. He has heard that Eliza has come to live with Higgins, so he wants to try to extort money from him. Their playful banter back-and-forth is the best part of the show. When he shows up later, a victim of inherited money, "Get Me To The Church On Time" is another fun moment.
After I watched this film again (I saw it years ago in college and hated it then, too) I tried to read other reviews and commentary on it to see if my point of view was somehow off. From what I could find, many people seem to think the affection between Higgins and Eliza is more strongly implied than I did. That must be, because otherwise Rex Harrison won Best Actor for one of the most unpleasant lead characters I have ever had to endure.

Speaking of winning awards, "Eliza" on Broadway was played by a newcomer named Julie Andrews. Warner Brothers did not want to risk this film on her because she was then unknown. So they signed Audrey Hepburn to play the part instead. That freed Andrews to sign a contract with Walt Disney and make a little film called Mary Poppins. Julie Andrews ended up winning Best Actress for that role, while Hepburn was not even nominated for My Fair Lady. Wasn't that "loverly"?
My Fair Lady
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1964*
Produced by Jack Warner
Directed  by George Cukor
Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

Based on the Broadway show 
produced by Herman Levin 
Music & Lyrics by 
Lerner and Loewe
Based on the play "Pygmalion"
by George Bernard Shaw

The only "trailer" I could find was this five minute
"Mini- Making Of..." that you might like


...if you're like me, you'd prefer this satirical take on
both My Fair Lady AND Mary Poppins.
I have to say actress Dawn Wells does just as well
here in Cockney as Audrey Hepburn does...!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Dr. Strangelove or, 
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb
Mary Poppins
Zorba the Greek
It seems that 1963 was the opposite of 1939 Hollywood: if that year had a plethora of wonderful films getting made, this year....didn't. Really, were any of these films worthy? No wonder My Fair Lady won. In hindsight, I would have picked Dr. Strangelove, I guess. Stanley Kubrick's classic satire on the atomic bomb stands the test of time. 

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