Hardly the Fairest of Them All
****This review contains spoilers****
- Reputations often precede themselves, especially when it comes to film. I often watch a film because I heard from multiple sources that it is a good movie or because this-or-that award ceremony brought it to my attention. Directed by Golden-Age legend George Cukor (The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star Is Born (1954)), the eight-time Oscar-winning film (including Best Picture, Director and Actor), My Fair Lady (1964) is considered a true classic. With a reputation as one of the best musicals in the history of film, getting around to My Fair Lady was somewhat of a priority for me. However, finally viewing the film proved once again that reputations can be deceiving. Although I enjoyed certain aspects of this highly regarded musical, My Fair Lady ultimately left me rather disappointed.
Director George Cukor presents a stunning visual motion picture. My Fair Lady is a dazzling film; wonderfully framed and colored with some very clever choreography. The scenery is over-decorated and the characters are overdressed - but beautifully so. Just about every major player associated with the look of the film was honored by the Academy: Cukor, cinematographer Harry Stradling (who had actually shot the 1938 version of the story Pygmalion) and costume designer Cecil Beaton (Gigi (1958)) each took home a gold statue for their work on My Fair Lady.
Naturally, this being a musical, Frederick Loewe's songs are the primary feature of the film. My Fair Lady features a number of classic songs including "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" and my personal favorite "On The Street Where You Live" (though I prefer Bobby Darin's arrangement). Of course, for every one good song in the film two or three other songs can be found that die on impact. Despite offering a few unforgettable tunes, most of the songs in My Fair Lady failed to move me; some were down-right boring. Unfortunately, a lackluster music selection is the least of the film's problems.
Based off of the 1956 Broadway musical starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews (which is itself a musical take on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion), My Fair Lady follows Cockney "gutter snipe" Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) who is taken under the tutelage of phonics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). Henry has accepted a bet that he can transform Eliza into a proper English lady in only six months' time. In the end, all it took was the promise of shiny new clothes and all the chocolate she could eat to keep Eliza cooped up in Henry's house for half-a-year learning "proper" English. It was a tough road but Eliza defies all odds (all in one night, believe it or not) and gives an unshakable performance at the Ambassador's Ball as a "proper" English lady. However, when Henry fails to rest even a sliver of the credit for the achievement upon her, Eliza runs away out of Henry's care and back to the streets. Henry tracks her down and, despite a long valid list of grievances against Henry and even after a devastating and seemingly decisive fight, Eliza returns to Henry indefinitely. The story contains a number of aspects that holds one's attention throughout but also holds some peculiar elements that, in the end, fail to satisfy.
The first thing that fails where story is concerned is any part of the film that involves the overbearing performance from Stanley Halloway as Eliza Doolittle's father Alfred. The filmmakers' first choice for the role, James Cagney, would certainly have improved the character immensely. Unfortunately, Cagney was determined to remain retired in the 1960s; he would not return to the screen until 1981. However, the problem with the character of Alfred P. Doolittle is that he is absolutely pointless inside the film in the first place. One could literally cut out every scene featuring the character of Alfred and it would not impact the story of Henry and Eliza one bit. Taking Holloway's Alfred out of My Fair Lady would have affected the film in a very positive way as it would have made the story more focused, shortened the very long runtime and saved the audience a lot of annoyance.
The other negative aspect of the story that jumped out at me is the general relationship between Henry Higgens and Eliza Doolittle. Henry is no charming misogynist who learns the error of his ways after falling in love with a good woman - or something like that. No sir, Henry Higgins is a dyed-in-the-wool verbal abuser. Henry wastes no time in calling Eliza names from their very first meeting but the relationship evolves from simple name-calling to general belittling and dismissing. Henry is eventually very happy with his work transforming Eliza into a completely different person - into the person he decided she should be - and by the end of the film is kicking back, demanding that she fetch his slippers. Some cheeky soul will no doubt come at me with some kind of flimsy retort along the likes of, "it's a snapshot of the times!" To that I say: can you picture Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis fetching some old jerk's shoes? I think not - not without that guy coming to a pathetic and particularly grisly end.
Rex Harrison's performance of the verbally abusive Henry Higgens won an Oscar. I am flabbergasted as to how this was achieved (especially considering the great list of names he nudged out for Oscar gold, including the legendary performance from Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964) which saw him play three different characters). Although occasionally amusing, Harrison's work on My Fair Lady is extremely overblown in general due to the absence of anything resembling depth in his portrayal.
On the other hand, Audrey Hepburn's performance of Eliza Doolittle is fantastic (despite her singing being overdubbed during post-production) and makes the film worth a look all by herself. Hepburn flawlessly convinces in the part, running the gamut as this doppelganger character: absolutely hilarious as the "gutter snipe" version of Eliza, delicately elegant as Eliza's lady counterpart and genuinely engaging and sympathetic in both halves of the role. When people think of Audrey Hepburn, some of the images that immediately spring to mind originate from My Fair Lady: Hepburn gazing from under that great white hat and her graceful figure standing at the top of the staircase. Naturally, Hepburn's classic performance in My Fair Lady was overlooked by the Academy as they were falling all over themselves to honor the lesser members of the cast.
Audrey Hepburn's strong performance goes a long way in redeeming much of the film; however, the abusive relationship between Henry and Eliza still poisons the overall story. My Fair Lady is nearly three hours long and yet the relationship between Henry and Eliza is incredibly underdeveloped. The fact that Audrey Hepburn has even less chemistry with Rex Harrison than she did with the also much older and miscast Humphrey Bogart in Sabrina (1954) does not help create a relationship between their characters but the problem runs even deeper. The film spends plenty of time watching Henry verbally beat down on Eliza but features nothing that bears a resemblance to a flowering relationship. Yet Eliza is seen at the end of the film - after finally standing up for herself against Henry, ready to marry the young Freddie (played by the great Jeremy Brett) - trotting back to Henry's home, preferring to stay with him. The conclusion makes no sense and is completely frustrating due to Henry's abusive nature. The fact that the film failed to define much of a relationship at all leaves the audience irritated and asking the question: is it love or simply the desire for empty but soothing familiarity that brings these characters together at the end?
So.... Mirror, mirror on the wall - which is the fairest musical of them all? Unlike many critics and film buffs, my pick is certainly not My Fair Lady. Audrey Hepburn and George Cukor's visual team put on an enjoyable show; however, plenty of negative aspects exist within the film to take me out of the picture and leave me generally disappointed.
CBC Rating: 6/10