June 1, 2007

My Fair Lady (1964)
Grade: 64/100

Director: George Cukor
Stars: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway

What it's about. Arrogant and wealthy linguist Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) bets equally wealthy Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can take a screech-voiced flower girl (Audrey Hepburn) and pass her off as an upper-class socialite. Of course, his cause is aided by choosing beautiful, delicately framed Audrey Hepburn for his social experiment. A toothless old hag would have been more difficult to present.

How others will see it. My Fair Lady is a legitimate classic, and for a generation, it was televised annually by NBC (if memory serves) which always substituted "legs" for "arse" in those pre-cable days. Classic movie fans adore My Fair Lady for its cast (Hepburn and Harrison) and its sumptuous score, costumes, and set designs. A witty script only helps matters.

The shorter attention spans of modern viewers, spoiled by ubiquitous channels of tasty if malnutrious fare, works against My Fair Lady. But while the film may be "quaint" to the hip-hop generation, it will always have a following. After all, it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

How I felt about it. There's much to respect about My Fair Lady. Its assets begin with its cast. Hepburn undoubtedly relished playing the low class flower girl, with her suspicions, ignorance, misconceptions, vague humble ambitious, and unknowingly vulgar speech. Plus, by dressing up later in the film as a great lady, she didn't sabotage future box office, like Elizabeth Taylor did with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Harrison must have been equally delighted with his role, which allowed full expression of his droll wit and biting sarcasm. It helps when the script is loaded with bon mots.

The pace of My Fair Lady is admirable. True, a whole subplot (the adventures of Eliza's loudmouth father) could and should have been cut, and the same goes for Freddy's big number, which gives the love-struck dapper the voice of Mario Lanza and the lyrics of a dangerous stalker.

But we like the fact that the film is in no hurry. Begin the film with more than three minutes of close-ups of flowers? It must have been daring even in 1964. With the exception of Gladys Cooper (who is remarkably cruel to her own son, not that he cares), everyone gets a song, even the house servants and the lavishly dressed racetrack attendees.

The songs and dialogue are sharpened through decades of English theater experience. George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, was made into a quality 1938 film, then it became a lauded stage musical, and finally this Warner Bros. showcase under the confident hands of veteran director George Cukor and studio founder Jack L. Warner. Although Higgins treats Hepburn with the insolence earned by a lifetime of linguistic mastery, he nonetheless recognizes her true value when he confides to Pickering:

"What could possibly matter more than to take a human being, and change her into a different human being by creating a new speech for her. It's filling up the deepest gap that separates class from class and soul from soul." In other words, he has proved that the difference between classes can be bridged through education.

Hepburn is a lady now. But was she a swan or a butterfly all along, disguised by her lower class upbringing? Of course, which is why Higgins shrewdly picked her for his "bet."