MY FAIR LADY (1964)
Today’s Red Carpet Roulette is brought to you by the letter ‘H’.
A night in London, some time after the introduction of automobiles and electric lighting. Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), an unrefined flower girl with a pronounced cockney accent, notices someone surreptitiously recording her words. It is linguistic professor Henry Higgins, making notes on her pronunciation, which draws the attention of Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), himself an expert on languages of the Indian subcontinent. Snobbish Higgins decries what he sees as the degradation of English. After Eliza requests instruction in refining her speech, Higgins wagers Pickering he can pass her as a lady, and begins a grueling crash course to purge her street-level mannerisms.
This story is loosely based on the Greek myth Pygmalion, as many of you probably know. Pygmalion tells the story of a man who falls in love with a sculpture he has made, which then comes to life. In My Fair Lady, Higgins similarly takes on the task of “sculpting” Eliza – molding her in the image of a woman of high society, retraining her speech and even dressing her. He takes on a bet that he can eventually pass her off as such high society and that her history will not be detected. Throughout the course of his “training” of her he is often arrogant, dismissive and downright rude – though from time to time, in large part due to her unbreakable spirit, they manage to have a little fun along the way. As Eliza progresses and can sense her own achievements, particularly as concerns formal English, a rapport grows between the two of them.
OK, so it seems that My Fair Lady is a film adaptation of the wildly successful stage musical, that was itself an adaptation of a 1938 film, which was in turn an adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion. I haven’t been this confused by a film’s lineage since Chicago.
While I appreciated the ambiguous nature of Eliza and Henry’s relationship, I found the ending a bit unsatisfying. It seems that all Eliza does is return to Henry without securing any concessions or reaching any mutual understanding. Henry, for his part displays no personal growth. He admits to himself that he’s sad and misses Eliza, but that’s about it; I see nothing to tell me he understands himself better or sees himself as others see him. Which brings me to the character traits of Professor Henry Higgins. While the terminology was certainly not common in 1964, let alone 1913, he is pretty clearly on the autism spectrum. He is almost bafflingly unaware of the the emotional states of others, his functionality in social situations is uncomfortable and odd, and he pursues his area of special interest so unrelentingly that he exhausts even his guest Pickering, himself an expert on language. As an Edwardian aspie, Henry Higgins could be put forth as an example of his condition, much the same way that Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction has become the go-to example for borderline personality disorder.
And what about Freddy? While I take no issue with the story in having Eliza pass up a guy who is a sad, creepy stalker, the movie does invest a lot in a character who is ultimately left to dangle. Where did we leave him? Is he just standing on the street somewhere, waiting for Eliza? What I totally missed while watching is that he’s played by Jeremy Brett, who would probably become most well known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, which I enjoyed very much as a kid watching Mystery! on PBS.
Speaking of secondary characters, I must single out Stanley Holloway, playing Eliza’s father Alfred, as the most entertaining human being in this motion picture. Which is funny because, when you look at it, Alfred Doolittle is one of those characters who does absolutely nothing in regards to the plot. Doesn’t matter. Did he get the best musical numbers or does Holloway just really run with the material he’s given? Someone should re-edit My Fair Lady down to a 20 minute version with just his scenes entitled Alf Runs Into His Daughter a Couple Times. With a little bit of luck, someone will make this for me. (Get it?)
Our son danced a lot while this film was playing in the background, which to me is its own mark of greatness. Additionally, I hadn’t seen this film in probably twenty years, but still somehow remembered a number of the songs enough to sing along. The last time I experienced that was at a Rancid concert!
I am typing this on Mouse’s birthday and I have to say I just laughed in my seat reading his last blurb. There is joy in marrying a smart, funny man. I am now thinking we should coin a term – the “mandangle” – in honor of Freddy the Creeper. Wait! Maybe he then turned into Freddy from Nightmare on Elm Street!
On a more serious note, I have to concur about the ending. It was very disturbing to me, honestly. I jumped right up and said to Mouse, “No way! She just happily comes back to fetch his slippers and he doesn’t apologize or acknowledge any of the hurtful things he’s done? Doesn’t promise to change?!” I was glowering for some time after this. I know “it was a different time” and all of that, but – c’mon. I did NOT want her returning to him under those circumstances. I’d rather she sang and danced her way off alone with a handful of flowers.
I think the term ‘mandangle’ already has an existing definition, but this being a family friendly blog we shall leave it at that.
Interestingly one of the Best Picture nominees in 1964 was Mary Poppins. I somehow doubt it was pure coincidence that two of the year’s nominees were musicals about Edwardian London, especially considering the fact that Julie Andrews- Miss Poppins herself- had originated the role of Eliza on Broadway. I wonder what the story is there? I will say that My Fair Lady is everything that Gigi aspired to be.
Ah, I didn’t realize that about Mary Poppins! There is something so deeply embedded in my childhood memory about these songs sung in British accents. I was born in Oxford and spent the first two years of my life there. These sounds occupy a special place in my heart, and even when plot points and gender representation beguile me, I think I will still be whistling the tunes of both films for all my days.
I had one final thought, as we close out the blog. Mouse referenced Higgins’ characteristics which probably point to a location on the autism spectrum. I don’t disagree. I did, however, want to mention that I think there are many people on the spectrum with greater self awareness and a commitment to working within a different wiring to be more careful with others and overcome obstacles in this department. Unfortunately, while Higgins may have been on the spectrum, I don’t know if that was the whole story. He may also have been a narcissist. It seems like a both/and rather than an either/or to me. I hope their golden years were filled with more love and respect than he showed Eliza early on. She deserved it.
Also nominated in 1964:
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Zorba the Greek
Next film: THE APARTMENT (1960)