Thursday, 20 January 2011

My Fair Lady (1964)

After I watched George Cukor’s “My Fair Lady” on the big screen for the first time I was more than ever convinced that I should watch as many old films at the cinema as possible. It was an amazing experience – for the first time I was noticing details I couldn’t see on TV: minor changes in expressions and details in the costumes and decors, including the wall paper details. This was a film designed to fill screens that were bigger than ones at the average multiplex – and it shows: the film has loads of long and medium shots that showcase these elements. Far from being obsessive fan behaviour, it actually helped me understand in today’s shrinking cinema screens what might have been to experience a film in the grand theatres of the 1930s – I would love to see something half decent at the Radio City Music Hall in NY (which hardly shows films these days) if I ever go there again.

Thanks to the BFI ongoing Audrey Hepburn season I got the chance to see it projected again. It’s interesting to consider the film history in her career – from something tainted from her casting over Julie Andrews (who originated the role on Broadway) to being the most loved of all her films. It’s sadly not a full performance, as the dubbing robs us its full impact of her Eliza, despite Marni Nixon’s very good Audrey inflections. (There are two songs with her audio on the WB DVD, which I think were created from multiple takes but leave me wanting for more. On the other hand I also heard some really weak takes).

Another major criticism generally made is that she’s never a flower girl. I think Audrey the myth works against her – hardly anyone can go there without knowing her in Givenchy, not the dress of choice of cockneys in Victorian London. Personally I think she’s not half as bad as all that. Moreover, I don’t think she’s less convincing than most actresses who would have been considered for the part in 1964. And do people really believe that Julie Andrews’ flower girl be more realistic in what really is a piece of stylization? Andrews’ singing would of course be astonishing, as can be proved by listening to the original Broadway Cast Recording and personally, my favourite Eliza is Wendy Hiller. Of course, as time went on, and Audrey became less of an actress and more of a deity (I like the actress, but I am not willing to idolize her) the whole polemic died down and this became the great opus in her career. However, watching the film again I was mesmerized not by her, but by Rex Harrison who, on each new viewing, has becoming my favourite thing in the film.

I’m not going to bother anyone by telling the film’s storyline – It’s pretty much on public domain. What I am going to do – and this might shock some people – is explain why I actually like the film versions (whether musical or not) far more than I like Shaw’s play. The play is a satire on the British status quo from both ends: on one hand, the upper classes kept the lower classes uneducated for their advantage; and on the other, it highlights the position of women in society, and how the higher up they were the tighter the corset of options was so that in the end they could trade in themselves – or as Somerset Maugham put it, they became “prostitutes who do not deliver the goods”. There is no romance other than a minor hint of infatuation, and in the printed versions Shaw writes the most depressing of epilogues on how he expects Eliza to end. My problem with Shaw is that he seems to write plays only as a vehicle to his politics – which works brilliantly on paper but less so on stage. The worst offender among the four or five plays of his I saw staged were the last twenty minutes of “Major Barbara” where the characters preach endlessly to the audience. “Pygmalion” is not as bad but it still drags immensely at times. The worst example in both this and the musical is Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle (yes, that name…). Since the first time I saw the film more years ago than I remember, and afterwards read and saw the play, I keep wondering what is the point of the character from a dramatic point of view. Yes, I understand why he is there from Shaw’s perspective – his is another finger being pointed at the audience – but dramatically, well, I can’t stand him.

The films cut all that fat to the minimum but the satire is there (although they keep Doolittle) – in “My Fair Lady”, listen to the words to “Why Can’t the English” (very Shavian) or look for the confrontation between Eliza and Higgins, when she tells him that in Covent Garden she’d sell flowers, not herself. I admit I am a romantic at heart, and I really like the romantic element of the film. I like to think that Eliza and Higgins will, somehow, find a balance in their relationship – maybe not marry, maybe strictly platonic – but still something that allows the two of them to find something in the other.

Along with Hepburn and Harrison, the third key player in the film is not Cukor but rather Cecil Beaton. His work here won him deservedly two of the film’s 8 Oscars (Cukor also got one) for his costumes and decors. Higgins house feels incredibly real, as much as Ascot is made belief. However, he made one huge mistake – and I taking the director’s cue here: Eliza’s dress in the Ascot is way too magnificent for the scene. It should have been an oppressive dress that highlighted the discomfort of her situation. Instead, it’s the best known of her dresses and makes her evening dress look poor by comparison – which should never be!

Finally, a hitherto unnoticed bit of Britishness in the film that made me smile. When Doolittle goes to Higgins house, Stanley Holloway, the actor, makes a rather rude but very English gesture involving two fingers. I am pretty sure that was only allowed because it I suspect most American audiences were not aware of its meaning (I wasn’t until I came to the UK).

4 comments:

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Very interesting discussion of the film. Though it's a fun movie, I admit I'm also partial to Wendy Hiller. Thanks for a great post.

Judy said...

I grew up on Julie Andrews singing Eliza's role, as my mother had an LP of the Broadway show (smuggled into the UK!), and I only saw the film years later - must admit that for me Hepburn and Nixon never quite match Andrews. Having said that, it is a great film and I would love the chance to see it on the big screen - I've managed to see a few classics in that way recently and agree with you that you gain a lot compared with watching on TV. Really enjoyed your review.

Miguel said...

Judy, why did the LP had to be smuggled into the UK? You caught my attention there.

And thank you both for the comments.

Judy said...

I am slightly hazy about this (and was probably exaggerating with the word 'smuggle'!). But I believe the LP was not available in the UK and that there was some kind of copyright problem, so my Mum got a friend who was visiting America to bring her a copy back.