My Fair Lady (1964) starring Audrey Hepburn & Rex Harrison

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Flower seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) dreams of a better life.

[1] From first frame to last, the film is slick, graceful, gorgeous to behold, with costumes and sets richly evoking the Edwardian era…

[2] The acting from Rex Harrison deserves high praise, it is effortless and believable. The same can be said for Audrey Hepburn… 

…despite his success, the experience of tutoring Eliza has humbled him. The end of the film where they show respect and care for each other was a masterstroke as no romance was needed.

[3] What Higgins is, in reality, is a misanthrope. A misanthrope basically dislikes and distrusts everyone! Watch the film and you’ll notice that Higgins treats everyone with the same disregard…

[4] The songs are extraordinary in their ability to enrich our knowledge of the characters… Eliza’s father, who calls himself one of “the undeserving poor” is one of Shaw’s best comedy creations… 

[5] It’s a momentous film but it has its subtle points: watch the way in which Eliza’s eyes are centered on Higgins when she enters at the ball, and the way in which the two of them stare at each other for a few seconds at the top of the stairs a few moments later.

-Excerpts from various IMDB reviews 

This is a musical that I’ve seen MANY times (usually w/ my family as a kid); I esp. like the songs and costumes. This is one of my mom’s fave films; she’s a big Audrey Hepburn fan. The play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw was inspired by a Greek myth by Ovid. Pygmalion was a sculptor from Cyprus who carved a woman out of ivory. This statue was so beautiful and realistic, he fell in love with it. When Aphrodite’s festival day came, Pygmalion made offerings at the altar of the goddess of love, and wished for a bride who would look like his statue. When he returned home, Pygmalion kissed the statue, and found that its lips felt warm. He kissed it again, and found that it was transformed into a real woman. Aphrodite had granted Pygmalion’s wish. He married the woman (named Galatea) w/ Aphrodite’s blessing. 

You see this creature with her curbstone English? The English that will keep her in the gutter till the end of her days? Well, sir, in six months, I could pass her off as a duchess at an Embassy Ball. I could even get her a job as a lady’s maid or a shop assistant, which requires better English. -Professor Henry Higgins declares to Colonel Pickering 

Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) is no marble Galatea lacking agency; she is a single working-class woman in early 1900s London who has a job (selling flowers), rents her own room, and lives a morally upright life (she insists: “I’m a good girl, I am!”) She dreams of having comfort and love, as we hear in the song Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?  Some lyrics below:

All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the cold night air
With one enormous chair
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?

Someone’s head restin’ on my knee
Warm and tender as he can be
Who takes good care of me
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?

Even in this early scene, it is Eliza’s will that drives the plot; Higgins might have tinkered forever with his phonetic alphabet and his recording devices if Eliza hadn’t insisted on action… It is her ambition, not Henry’s, that sets the plot in motion…

Eliza’s escape from the “lower classes,” engineered by Higgins, is a revolutionary act… It is a lesson that resonates for all societies, and the genius of “My Fair Lady” is that it is both a great entertainment and a great polemic. It was actually about something. 

-Roger Ebert

After meeting Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), Eliza wants lessons to get rid of her (Cockney) accent. She wants a better job working in a florist’s shop. Eliza even offers to pay, BUT the elderly/kind Col. Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) insists on providing the funds (even getting her new clothes). Higgins only thinks of Eliza as a challenging project, NOT an individual w/ feelings and dreams.

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Eliza enters high society by attending a horse race with Higgins.

Over 6 months, Eliza works w/ Higgins (and Pickering, serving as a cheerleader) to improve her pronunciation, vocabulary, and manners. At the races, she looks gorgeous in her fitted white and black gown, and catches the eye of Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett). Eliza makes polite small talk w/ some society people, BUT then launches into a funny/inappropriate story from her old life. We see that though Eliza can pronounce the words, she hasn’t yet learned which words to choose to speak in high society. However, the young/handsome Freddy gets a huge crush on Eliza, as we hear in On the Street Where You Live:

Does enchantment pour
Out of every door?
No, it’s just on the street where you live
And oh, the towering feeling
Just to know somehow you are near
The overpowering feeling
That any second you may suddenly appear

Higgins (who Eliza gets to know by living in his house) doesn’t praise the hard work Eliza has done or see how naturally pretty she was (underneath the soot and rags). On the other hand, Freddy (a mere acquaintance) is VERY happy to bring her flowers and get a glimpse of her face. It makes more sense that Eliza would end up w/ Freddy, NOT Higgins. 

At the ball, Eliza is stunning (hair, jewels, gown, her dancing, etc.)- even fooling Zoltan Karpathy, the blackmailing language expert (and former student of Higgins). However, she is dismayed/saddened when Higgins gets ALL the credit (You Did It). Eliza becomes sophisticated, transcending the parameters of the professor’s test of social engineering. She resents this, so she throws slippers at Higgins. Eliza sees that he has his own social and emotional limitations. 

Higgins seems unaware of the place of women; in his mind, Eliza’s worries are over. Eliza asks him what she is to do with herself, now that she has become a lady. He says that she could marry.  Eliza’s answer shows that lower-class women MAY have a stronger sense of morality than most “ladies.” She never before thought of selling herself into marriage.

I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else. -Eliza explains to Higgins 

Eliza goes off to Mrs. Higgins’ house for advice. Sure, we know Freddy wants to marry her, but she’s NOT sure that’s the right step. (Notice how she tosses, then later retrieves, the ring that Higgins gave her?) The relationship between Mrs. Higgins (Gladys Cooper) and her son is humorous b/c the mother’s attitude toward her son is eccentric; she expresses herself w/ as much honesty as her son. Mrs. Higgins is filled with tolerance, intelligence, and imagination. Like Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, she was VERY concerned over the fate of Eliza from early on in the story.

Eliza’s hard work resulted in her developing an intense devotion and loyalty towards Higgins (and also Pickering). Maybe she’s NOT feeling a romantic kind love, BUT a strong desire to please? When the film ends, the audience is left to ponder what will happen to the characters later.  Now, for my younger sister, it was a foregone conclusion that Higgins and Eliza would marry. I was NOT 100% sure though; it’s an ambiguous ending. 

When Eliza emancipates herself – when Galatea comes to life – she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end. When Higgins takes your arm on ‘consort battleship’ you must instantly throw him off with implacable pride; and this is the note until the final ‘Buy them yourself.’ He will go out on the balcony to watch your departure; come back triumphantly into the room; exclaim ‘Galatea!’ (meaning that the statue has come to life at last); and – curtain. Thus he gets the last word; and you get it too. -George Bernard Shaw in a 1920 letter to actress playing Eliza (Mrs. Patrick Campbell) 

Shaw asserted that such a wedding is absolutely impossible. He subtitled his play a “romance” b/c the technical meaning of “romance” refers to anything that was highly improbable (EX: the transformation of a flower girl into a duchess in six months). A romance can also suggest a “happy ending,” and Shaw is not interested in that. He wouldn’t allow his creation, Eliza, to marry such a misfit as Higgins simply to satisfy the whims of the sentimentalists of the world, even though these people outnumber the realists. But we know Broadway, then later Hollywood, had other ideas! 

 

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3 thoughts on “My Fair Lady (1964) starring Audrey Hepburn & Rex Harrison

  1. I just saw this like a week ago on TCM? I think. I like the musical even though it offends a number of my political sympathies, but I’d have liked to have seen Julie Andrews in this role. I don’t think Audrey Hepburn was very good in this — she was surrounded by performers who were storied veterans of the musical stage and it’s obvious that her style doesn’t fit in. She was good once the first 2/3 were over and Eliza was more upper class, but to me she doesn’t execute well in the first parts where she’s a “guttersnipe.”

    I think the musical wanted us to think they’d get married, but I can’t imagine they would’ve — or if they had, they’d have been miserable.

    • I saw it last week, too. Julie Andrews MAY have been more realistic as the flower girl, BUT Hollywood (usually) goes more for star power. I always thought Julie did the songs, BUT it turned out to be Marni Nixon (don’t know much about her). As the lady, Audrey Hepburn did pretty well (IMO). The BEST character in the story is Eliza’s slacker dad (LOL)!

      • Yeah, I agree about her dad — kind of what I mean by “storied veterans.” Stanley Holloway had been on stage in comic roles since before WWI. Same for Rex Harrison and the artists who played Mrs. Higgins and Col. Pickering and many of the minor characters as well (notably Ted Bikel whom I almost didn’t recognize). They really know what they’re doing in a production like that and they leave Hepburn in the dust. I think she’s okay, but I saw, I think, seven films of the ones TCM showed and this was not my favorite performance of hers.

        Julie won the Academy Award that year for Mary Poppins, so I don’t feel too bad for her, just would have liked to have seen her in the role.

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