Friday, November 11, 2011

MY FAIR LADY (1964)



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MY FAIR LADY (DIR: GEORGE CUKOR)  (SCR: ALAN JAY LERNER, BASED ON THE PLAY PYGMALION BY GEORGE BERNARD SHAW)

The Academy's choice for best picture of 1963 was a safe and easy one: an enormously popular adaptation of a Broadway musical, directed by a Hollywood veteran (George Cukor) and featuring one of the biggest stars in the world, Audrey Hepburn.  And, while MY FAIR LADY has a mostly terrific batch of songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and lovely costumes by Cecil Beaton (who won an Oscar), the film sags at two and half hours, and it often feels stage bound with it's painfully artificial sets. Compared to 1960's WEST SIDE STORY, which had dynamic dancing and beautiful location shooting, it seems stodgy and old fashioned.  Cukor's direction won him an Oscar, but I can't see why, it feels like all he tried to do is recreate the Broadway show on screen instead of making a real movie.  And Hepburn, for all her legendary loveliness and charm, was miscast and gives an uneven performance.
The film's story first began in 1914 as the play PYGMALION by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, which was very popular and revived numerous times.  It tells the story of Henry Higgins, a wealthy English gentleman and bachelor, who bets that he can turn a lowly flower girl, Eliza Dolittle, into a proper English lady in six months.  A film version was made in 1938, with Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Dolittle (Howard co directed the film with Anthony Asquith).  Personally, I find the earlier version of the story superior, with Hiller making a far more believable English flower girl than Hepburn.  What's surprising when watching both films back to back is how little Lerner and Lowe added to the story other than the songs: the plots are nearly identical, and whole chunks of dialogue (including the famous last line) are taken verbatim from the earlier film.

MY FAIR LADY the musical first opened on Broadway in 1956, with Julie Andrews as Eliza and Rex Harrison as Henry, and it played successfully for six years.  Film producer Jack Warner saw the premiere and immediately made plans to adapt it, paying a record five and half million dollars for the rights.  Harrison was cast to repeat his role, as was Stanley Holloway as Eliza's father Alfred.  But Andrews, not yet a proven star, was replaced by Hepburn ("I knew Hepburn had never made a financial flop" explained Warner).  Cukor was tapped to direct after Warner's original choice, Vincent Minnelli, wanted too much money.  (I think this is a shame, as I imagine Minnelli, who directed GIGI and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, would have made the film in a more lively manner than Cukor did).  The film was a very big production, with large 1912 London period sets being created while Cecil Beaton made over a thousand costumes for the huge cast, pushing the budget to over sixteen million dollars. But, buoyed by its success on Broadway and Hepburn's star power, it was an almost sure fire hit, earning well over seventy million dollars at the box office.

Audrey Hepburn


Thirty years after her last starring role, and twenty seven years after her death, Audrey Hepburn remains one of the most popular movie stars ever, with posters of her iconic, chic, "look" from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S hanging in bars and cafes while her famed movies like CHARADE  and SABRINA are shown at revival houses and on TV constantly.  Much of the attention she garners seems to be more for the way her sleek body could easily be draped in some of the most stylish clothes of her era than for the quality of her movies or her acting ability.  And, while I enjoy most of her films, and  can appreciate the way she wears a dress, I think the only movie she made that could be considered truly great is Willam Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY, for which she won a best actress Oscar.  There, her immediate charm and likability was used perfectly.  One problem I have with many of her movies is that she was often paired up romantically with male stars who were literally decades older than she was (in CHARADE, for example, she was 32 and Cary Grant was 64) while this was nothing new for Hollywood, Hepburn's waifish features and little girl voice made it all the more noticeable, and a bit creepy.  Returning to MY FAIR LADY, I've already mentioned that I think Hepburn was miscast in the film, with her poor flower girl's shrill Cockney accent that often sounds painful to listen to.  Also I find it disappointing that, although she trained to do her own singing, the vast majority of it is dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also dubbed Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY and Deborah Kerr in THE KING AND I), and the transition from Hepburn's natural speaking voice to her singing voice is often jarring.  Still, once she loses the accent I find myself warming to her performance, even if I think that Julie Andrews would have been a better choice.   Andrews would have the last laugh though, as she wound up starring in MARY POPPINS instead of this film, and she won an Oscar for best actress for it, while Hepburn wasn't even nominated.

Rex Harrison

My favorite performance in the film is Stanley Holloway's as Eliza's ne'er do well father Stanley; he brings great energy and humor to the roll, and his two big songs ("With a little bit of Luck" and "Get me to the Church on Time") are the musical highlights of the film (and he does his own singing!).  And of course Rex Harrison, who won a best actor award, is also good, in a role that that he had literally portrayed thousands of times on Broadway.  With his beautiful voice and emphatic talk-singing style, not to mention his superior, English gentleman manner, it feels like the role was written for him, and he clearly delights in delivering Shaw's sharp, clever lines ("Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!").  He's also good towards the end of the film, when he finally realizes he does have feelings for Eliza, thoughtfully singing "I've grown Accustomed to her face."  But this leads to a big problem I have with the end of the film: while I can totally believe that he would find himself missing her, I cannot for the life of me understand why she returns to him.  Higgins spends most of the story insulting and belittling her, pushing her harder and harder to learn her lessons, and then he doesn't give her a single word of praise after he wins his bet. He is a sexist, pompous, classist, egotist, and Eliza, who has a number of other options in her life, chooses to go to him of her own free will, presumably to marry him. And the fact that the last line of the film is an outright order to her ("Where the devil are my slippers?"), shows that he intends to continue to be condescending to her; honestly, I don't think he deserves her. Interestingly, I am not the only one who's ever felt this way; in the original 1914 production of PYGMALION, Eliza defiantly does not return to Henry at the end.  Clearly George Bernard Shaw, an ardent socialist, did not want a happy ending for a snob like Henry, but, sadly, stage directors starting changing the ending almost immediately, giving audiences a more conventional happy ending.  This enraged Shaw, who, even as late as the 1938 movie, was trying to make sure that his version of the ending got made.  Unfortunately, he lost that battle, and I think that this famous story is all the weaker because of it.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Clearly, I am not a big fan of this only middlingly pleasant trifle of a movie; really, if the Academy felt that they had to reward a musical, why couldn't they go with the far more original Richard Lester film  A HARD DAY'S NIGHT?  Along with the great Beatle music in that film, its clever style still has an influence on MTV to this day.  Perhaps even better is Stanley Kubrick's cold war comedy classic DR STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE THE BOMB, which, unlike MY FAIR LADY, holds up wonderfully, and features a great triple performance by Peter Sellars.