Contrary to what current box-office would say, there was a time when musicals were the most profitable “genre” in Hollywood. Beginning in the late ‘30s and all the way up to the ‘70s, musicals were bona fide blockbusters that drew the crowds to movie theaters on a weekly basis, perhaps because they were always huge spectacles that demanded to be seen in big screens.
During the ‘60s alone, four musicals were named Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and twice as much received Best Picture nominations. Titles such as West Side Story, Funny Girl and The Sound of Music, have entered the collective consciousness, even if nowadays audiences seem unable to process what made musicals so special.
One of the landmark movies made during the musicals’ golden era was My Fair Lady, an adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe stage show, which was itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s timeless Pygmalion. The simple story deals with the snobbish Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a misogynistic phonetics professor living in Edwardian London, who believes a person’s way of speaking determines their place in society. Bragging about his talents, Higgins goes as far as to say that he can pass off any woman as a duchess, at an upcoming ball, just by teaching her how to speak properly. Higgins chooses poor, flower-girl, Eliza Dolittle (Audrey Hepburn) as his subject and most of the film devotes itself to watching her transformation from an unkempt urchin to, well, a fair lady.
Even if the story is quite simple the film, as directed by the legendary George Cukor achieves various levels of depth, particularly because of the way in which he turns it into a keen gender study. It’s easy for people to merely concentrate on Higgins and his almost positively Frankenstein-ian experiments on Eliza, but the story subtly moves beyond that, even if Harrison’s gargantuan performance seems to overpower the more delicate themes.
Cukor was always considered one of the best “women’s directors”, because of the way in which he approached his actresses needs over almost any other element in the production. His films feature some of the most notable female performances of all time, including Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, Greta Garbo in Camille and Judy Garland in A Star is Born. He was so beloved by his actresses that, legend has it, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland almost quit Gone With the Wind after Cukor was fired.
Historians have said that some of their best scenes in My Fair Lady are Cukor’s work. Unlike many of his contemporary directors, however, he never came up with an auteur vision or any sort of visual trademarks, but he still remains an iconic figure, if only because women thrived under his direction.
What then, you could ask yourself, did Cukor see in this story so famous for its depiction of misogyny? For starters, he sets his entire film in sets that create an initial rejection of reality. Through the sets and elaborate costumes (mostly work of Cecil Beaton) the director creates a barrier between his audience and the story at hand. We are constantly reminded that the events on the screen not only take place in a distant century, but they also reek of self-conscious artifice.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the film has Higgins taking Eliza to a racecourse, which at first we could’ve confused for a fashion show. The camera takes its time absorbing the richness in the costumes and places the people watching the show as nothing else than objects of our attention. They too are part of a horse race. By establishing these parallels between old-fashioned values and cinema’s ability to convey fantasty, Cukor is inviting us to disregard any of the moral clauses invoked by Higgins and his kind.
Why then, you might wonder next, does the movie insist on delivering a romance between Higgins and Eliza? The question might best be answered by recurring to the excuse of Hollywood politics, since it would’ve been impossible for Cukor to change the film’s central love story without displeasing studio heads. In fact the movie borrows its ending not from Shaw’s play, but from a previous movie version in which romance was the road to happiness.
Cukor, however, doesn’t seem satisfied with this easy excuse and what he does is subvert the notion of romance. Since he couldn’t change his heroine’s fate, he takes the road less traveled and leads us to wonder if love after all is something other than a financial transaction. The lack of chemistry between Hepburn and Harrison is palpable (but then again who could fall for Higgins?) and one can say that Cukor sabotaged the screenplay’s romantic intentions with this very purpose. Almost every romantic pursue in the film is marked by either disillusion, ulterior economic motives or capriciousness.
Eliza is courted by the picture perfect Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett) who performs the breathtaking “On the Street Where You Live” after realizing he loves her, but Eliza chooses to remain with the man who first treated her as a guinea pig, perhaps aware that Freddy’s beauty shall pass and she would have to share her life with someone who’d become as detestable as Higgins or her own father (played by the hilarious Stanely Holloway). By choosing economic security and peace of mind, Eliza makes a choice that predates the deterministic feminism of the Sex and the City gals: she chooses to love and protect herself over anyone else.
The main attraction is the movie itself which looks absolutely astonishing in high definition. The Blu-ray edition pretty much recycled bonus features from the 2-disc DVD edition released by Warner Brothers a few years ago. It’s truly a shame they didn’t recycle that version’s cover image as well… but anyway, features include a making-of documentary which offers the behind the scenes backstabbing that went on when Audrey was cast instead of Julie Andrews, as well as the tough time Harrison gave the crew with his reluctance to be dubbed.
There are trailers, smaller features about the style and best of all (and what once were the jewels on any release of this movie) are the outtakes where Audrey does her own singing. Producers decided to use Marni Nixon to dub her singing voice onscreen. Nixon shows up on the feature commentary, and showing pure class, she does nothing but compliment Hepburn.