Looking at My Fair Lady, I can’t help but be filled with nothing but questions. Primarily, what in god’s name made this stodgy enterprise such a durable cultural sensation for decades? How did it clean up so many awards on the stage and screen, especially Rex Harrison as the disgustingly crusty Henry Higgins? Did no one mind the blazing misogyny back in the day, or was the original stage production smart enough to make Higgins the butt of his own jokes? As a film, this is a vexing object to me, as gorgeously dressed, set, and scored as it is unrepentantly gross, classist, and packed to the brim with godawful songs for its men to mainly inflect to rather than actually sing, certainly not the way Eliza Doolittle has to sing. And yet, Audrey Hepburn and Marni Nixon’s creation was bafflingly the only component of the film not to get recognized by an Academy voting body that had the gall to including Gladys Cooper in about three sequences of warm, haughty nothingness. Even more confusing than the film’s reception is the film itself, mounted with so little shaping or cinematic might by director George Cukor, a director I’ve only met twice (The Philadelphia Story and the 1944 Gaslight) but know well enough to be sure that he’s capable of far more than just lazily plopping a stage production in front of the camera. For sure, art director Cecil Beaton took plenty of advantage in making the film to create extravagant, visually resplendent sets and unbelievable gorgeous outfits that are the only facet of the film ever willing to mock itself, in the form of absurdly large and ornate hats. But the beauty of it all can’t hide that there’s barely a character I wanted to be around or listen to for a good portion of the film’s three hour running time, devoid of most things that a viewing audience might call “appealing characters”, “bearable politics”, or “pleasant lyrics”, even as I felt currents of the film sweeping me up and gaining my attention. It’s far more fascinating to me as a cultural object than a film, possessing such a dubious combination of merits and demerits that the sheer size of its success is as hard to buy as the series of decisions that turned it into a filmed staging with none of the life a staged production could’ve brought it?
The deadly miscalculation of the whole thing announces itself almost instantly, once Higgins has his first encounter with Cockney street urchin Eliza Doolitte selling flowers to other rich people. After taking records of her accent and how she speaks, the film’s first song begins as he verbally abuses her for the way she speaks, saying she should be slain and bemoaning the state of how the English learn the English language. A lot of My Fair Lady’s most obvious comedy comes from the way Higgins and other members of British high society react to (mainly berate) Eliza’s manners and accent, and even if the Pygmalion tale is as much a joke at the expense of Higgins as it is Eliza, the film is too enraptured in Henry’s point of view to really fight him or make him the butt of the joke. It’s one thing to point out that Harrison’s cantankerous performance is without any self-humor, but the problem mainly lies in Cukor’s direction and tone, taking the whole thing to earnestly and without much wit or farce. Singin’ in the Rain was more than capable of balancing itself as both those things, as well as being a damn sterling musical that could accommodate a sweet, sweeping romance, and turning every one of its characters into jokes at one point or another. My Fair Lady has almost none of that dexterity, retaining itself entirely from Higgins’s point of view even in sequences focusing on Eliza and her arc. The whole film feels prescribed from Henry, damning itself in the process.
It doesn’t help that Cukor doesn’t guide the film’s two female performances into giving much bristle against Harrison, or frame them in any interesting way. Gladys Cooper is filmed at such an alarming distance we can barely see her face, and her droll disdain for her son and kindness to Eliza cannot combat how little Cukor’s camera is interested in her. I don’t know how much to call Hepburn a problem in the same way, given that her interpretation of Eliza is neither deeper nor shallower than Harrison’s, and hers is clearly the more demanding part. For sure Hepburn’s performance is the most entertaining thing the film can give us, and she’s a game actress when it comes to lip-syncing to the glorious Marni Nixon’s singing of Eliza’s songs. Hepburn’s acting in these scenes is full of energy, not just because Eliza’s songs are practically the only ones that allow her interpreter to belt, or really sing actual notes instead of the “I’m doing to do vocal inflections in this patter song” that are exclusively Higgins’s lot. Her physicality is invigorating, and convincingly “sings” in each of these scenes. Hepburn is especially fun when she has to be angry at Higgins, and she’s certainly charming, but Hepburn’s interpretation is a limited as Harrison’s is, albeit within a much larger range of feeling. She does exactly what’s asked of her, but she doesn’t add anything to Eliza’s complicity, or hatred, or romance, or really anything.
Still, Harrison isn’t in any way more compelling than her, and his schtick is immediately grating in every respect. It’s not just that his songs are barely songs at all, but the character of Higgins is so repellent that a more agile performer than Harrison would need to do a lot of work to make him even remotely bearable. A stronger director would’ve made that load easier to bear too, but Cukor’s lack of shaping makes Harrison even more culpable in his flat, uninspired performance. This is what he thinks Henry Higgins should be? This is what he thinks My Fair Lady is about? He is at least more bearable than Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father Alfred, who is given one completely forgettable song and two that are astonishingly grating and seemingly endless. The end point of his arc is funny, sure, but it’s baffling that this character is given such lavish attention from any point of view. If anything, Alfred’s views on his daughter and women are more overtly awful than Henry’s, confined as they are to smaller doses that have to make up for lost time by being more reprehensible. The sheer kindness of Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Eliza’s late-in-the-game suitor, is the only beacon of light this film has in presenting a version of a straight man that is, in any conceivable way, bearable to be around. And for the record, yes, I have forgotten everything about Colonel Pickering as a character, except for his being the primary subject of the film’s remarkably homoerotic ode to the stability, reliability, and all around betterness of men in comparison to women.
That song, perhaps the nicest thing Henry Higgins has sung or said to anyone that isn’t himself up until that point, is distinctly homoerotic for the same reason that everything else up to that point had been so blatantly unpleasant. My Fair Lady is a witless film without much by way of subtext, and because it presents everything it does at face value, so must we take it as such. This may not even be as problematic as it is if we didn’t have to suffer through the film’s odious ending, given how much the film’s second act is entirely devoted to Henry’s realization that barely anybody in his immediate circle really likes him, especially the young woman he’s fallen in love with while molding her, berating her, and using her as a servant. After successfully flaunting Eliza at a ball and congratulating every single person but her for turning her into a believable noblewoman, his inability to grasp her anger as she demands a future from him and rejects the ways that he’s used her – even if she did agree to sign on with him – is the strongest confrontation these characters have had up to that point. His crucial lack of self-awareness could have been a fascinating character point had the film not been complicit in it too, one that rears itself again in what should have been his final encounter with Eliza at his mother’s house. Higgins is not wrong in giving himself credit for Eliza’s diction, but his chronic blindness towards the contributions of anyone else in his work – look at how shocked he is when it is Colonel Pickering who Eliza credits for learning how to be a noblewoman, not Henry – is too damning to be overlooked, and no cringy, I’m-13-and-just-got-a-blog excuse of “I treat everyone horribly” is enough to compensate for his stunning lack of character. Even as Eliza taunts him with her own independence he cannot help but make it about him, only realizing how much he values her until he’s shredded every possible inch of goodwill he could have left. That My Fair Lady ends the way it does is surely a tribute to its own lack of self-awareness, one that damned any of my own goodwill while watching it.
And yet, in spite of myself, parts of it have lingered with me. Cecil Beaton’s extravagant costuming and set design is surely the highlight of the film, visually stunning across characters of every social rung, and the only part of the film that’s willing (or smart enough) to make a joke out of itself. The sheer insanity of the outfits worn by the rich folk at the horseraces is all we need to know that these people aren’t meant to be taken seriously, as confined as they are refined, and still the scale of it all shows real imagination and craft on Beaton’s part. The men are dressed with a much care as the women, and every location is given gorgeous detailing. Then again, if you’re so repulsed by My Fair Lady’s characters that you’d like to look away for a little while, the score is wonderfully orchestrated, carrying emotional beats with greater force and earnest feeling than anyone else in front of or behind the camera. Even if I’ll contest many of the songs are bad, clips of them are still in my head, especially since most songs are just the same phrases repeated about a third of the time.
But of course, when should aesthetic merits ever compensate for ghastly politics and inadequate realization, especially in a film that has so many issues in both of those areas. It’s a slog to sit through. I only felt any energy from it when Eliza got mad, and even that was mostly because I agreed with her more than the film really did anything different in her scenes. My Fair Lady is a gross object, but only because it doesn’t seem to have any deeper understanding of itself, nor is anyone involved interested in fighting against the piece and dig into it. There’s enough good here, and what’s good is actually pretty fantastic, that I don’t mind giving it the C grade I’ve currently bestowed it. The general misunderstanding of the text feels more catastrophic than any one correct decision can recuperate it, and even if it hums along fine on its own, misbegotten terms, it takes a long while for the narrative to really pay off. And who can forget how all of that goodwill evaporates as soon as the film ends the way it does, suggesting a romance the previous twenty minutes had done everything in its power to repudiate. George Bernard Shaw raged against that ending, publishing asterisks and post-scripts into subsequent copies of Pygmalion so that his critique of it could live on well after he died. Thank god that it has. There are points of view about art and literature that I’m fascinated to hear about, to discuss and to try and understand. But I’m very, very thankful that I don’t have the disposition to enjoy the way My Fair Lady ends, or to go along with anything that this dullard of a film winds up saying about men and women, about class hierarchy, about respectability. Or rather, the way that even all this is muddied by that horrific finale. My Fair Lady is somehow a witless and self-contradictory object, pleasurable in some respects and still dubious in others. I’d be perfectly fine never seeing it again in my life, and if I do, I better start now. If I don’t start early, it’ll go so long I’ll never have time to watch another movie again.