Wednesday, March 30, 2022

#2,731. My Fair Lady (1964) - Classic Musicals Triple Feature


It is, without question, one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. George Cukor’s film version of Lerner and Loew’s smash Broadway hit (which was itself based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion), My Fair Lady is the pinnacle of screen entertainment.

Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison, reprising the role he made famous on Broadway) is a master of the English language, and he makes a friendly wager with fellow scholar Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White) that he can take rough-around-the-edges cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and, with a little training, transform her into a sophisticated, well-spoken young woman.

After reaching an agreement with Eliza’s philandering father (Stanley Holloway, also reprising the part he played on-stage), Higgins spends the next several months instructing Eliza on the finer points of speaking the Queen’s English. While their first public test of the “new” Eliza (at Ascot racetrack) doesn’t go quite as planned, Eliza does eventually become the refined British woman Higgins intended. But while Eliza is understandably ecstatic about her new personality, she can’t help but wonder if there’s more to her and Higgins’ relationship than teacher and pupil. If there isn’t, then what’s to become of her when the lessons are over?

Produced by Warner Brothers, My Fair Lady was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning eight including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (for Harrison, who strikes the perfect balance between snobbishness and brilliance, making us both admire and detest him as the story unfolds). Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and rightly so; in a movie filled with one extraordinary musical sequence after another, Holloway’s two numbers, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church On Time”, are my absolute favorites.

That said, Audrey Hepburn’s snub in the Best Actress category is almost unfathomable. I realize Julie Andrews made the role of Eliza Doolittle famous on Broadway, and there were those who wished she had played the part on film, but Hepburn is wonderful as both the “Cockney guttersnipe” (which Higgins calls her on occasion) and the Regal sophisticate who dominates the second half of the film. In fact, the scene at the Ascot Racetrack, where we get a glimpse of both sides of Eliza’s personality, results in the movie’s single funniest line (ironically, Andrews won Best Actress that year for Mary Poppins).

Also good are Wilfred Hyde-White as the sympathetic Colonel Pickering, Eliza’s confidante and supporter when Higgins gets a bit too intense; Gladys Cooper (also nominated for Best Supporting Actress) as Higgins’ mother; Mona Washbourne as loyal housemaid Mrs. Pearce; and Theodore Bikel as Zoltan Karpathy, a former pupil of Higgins’ who now fancies himself a professional linguist. Also amazing are the film’s costumes and set pieces, which bring the time and setting (London in 1912) convincingly to life (My Fair Lady also took home Oscars for Art Direction, Cecil Beaton’s Costume Design, and Harry Stradling’s expert cinematography).

As for the songs, there isn’t a bad one in the bunch! Along with those I already mentioned, highlights include Eliza’s “I Could Have Danced All Night” (Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Higgins’ undoubtedly sexist (and borderline misogynistic) but oh-so-fun rendition of “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?)”.

Of the four musicals that took home Best Picture Oscars in the 1960s (along with My Fair Lady, there was 1961’s West Side Story, 1965’s The Sound of Music and Oliver! In 1968), My Fair Lady is easily the best. More than timeless, My Fair Lady actually gets better with age!
Rating: 10 out of 10

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