The undergirding of My Fair Lady – new on 4K from Paramount, and streaming on Netflix – has been recycled and refurbished so many times, from Pretty Woman to She’s All That to, most memorably, The Opening of Misty Beethoven, that it’s important to remember that it was already an adaptation, of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, when Lerner and Loewe turned it into a stage musical in the first place. And why, exactly, is the story of a rich man classing up a scuzzy girl so durable? Well, you could write entire volumes on the subject – and plenty of feminist writers have.
Nevertheless, George Cukor’s 1964 stage adaptation of My Fair Lady remains a classic of movie musicals, and for good reason: the songs are memorable, the dances are thrilling, and the dialogue is razor-sharp. Rex Harrison (who originated the role on Broadway) stars as Professor Henry Higgins, a master of, in his words, “Simple phonetics, the science of speech! That’s my profession, and also my hobby.” His introduction is a prototype for those scenes in ‘90s Matt Damon movies where he walked into a room or bar, and read everyone in it; here, eavesdropping on a gathered crowd, he’s able to correctly guess everyone’s background based on their dialects. “I can place him within six miles,” he brags. “I can place him within two miles in London.”
But Eliza Doolittle, played by Audrey Hepburn (who, famously, did not originate the role on Broadway), is a Cockney flower girl with a dialect that is less speech and more “crooning like a bilious pigeon.” She’s insulted by his cracks, but he also gets into her head – the idea that better speech equals a better life might be too simple to be true, but it suddenly feels like a skeleton key to her. She turns up at his impeccable home (“Has she an interesting accent?” “Simply ghastly!” “Good, let’s have her in!”), and becomes the object of a wager between Higgins and fellow phonetics expert Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White): Higgins will teach her to “speak like a lady,” and in doing so, “I’ll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe!”
He also says, “I’ll make a queen of that barbarous wretch!” and ya gotta give him this: he never runs out of nasty names for Eliza, who follows suit (“I couldn’t sleep here, missus,” she says to his maid, when shown her room. “It’s too good for the likes of me!”). For the contemporary viewer, however, the oddest aspect of My Fair Lady is that the earthy, Cockney community that she seeks to escape looks like a hell of a lot more fun than the fancy life she aspires to. We have plenty of time to reflect on that; the picture’s main flaw is that most of the material concerning the father Eliza has left behind could go, “Get Me to the Church on Time” or no; we end up spending most of those scenes waiting for Cukor to get back to Eliza and Higgins.
What we get from their scenes, at first, is an extended battle of wills and wits, and it’s not that she’s an unwilling participant, but it takes quite some time to undo these habits. Higgins finally breaks through, and it’s worth noting that they don’t sing a duet – “The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain” (‘By George she’s got it!”) –until they’re finally in sync with each other. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as one breakthrough; Higgins takes her to his mother’s box at the races, where her slightly labored, precisely replicated “How do you do” raises eyebrows, and she’s ultimately unable to fully stifle her personality (bellowing “C’MON DOVER! MOVE YOUR BLOOMIN’ ASS” at a losing horse). Eliza and Pickering are both ready to give up after that fumble – yet Higgins is the one who still believes in her, because he’s come to recognize her value.
And when she finally makes her big high society debut, she does too; the explicit affirmation of her “betters” does give her some sense of confidence. But it’s brief, and quickly thereafter, she sees things more clearly. “I sold flowers, I didn’t sell myself,” she tells him. “Now that you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else.” It’s a devastating line, and the bigger ideas at play here – of commodification of people, and selling oneself to survive – forge an unexpected connection to Hepburn’s other iconic role of the era, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
This is thorny stuff, in other words (given an extra jab by the fact that Higgins immediately returns to calling her “a heartless gutter-snipe”), and some of it is about both time and place; after all, the text is deeply rooted in Britain’s all-consuming class system. And as far as time and place goes, one can’t help but wonder if 1964 was the last moment My Fair Lady could’ve been made, released, and been the hit it was, since that was also the moment the Beatles took over the world, a quartet of working-class British lads with accordant accents and manners and sensibilities. And yet everyone, especially Brits, still loved them, just as Freddy is still taken by Eliza – because a) she looks like Audrey Hepburn, but also b) she’s still charming and funny, and these surfaces ultimately don’t matter. And soon enough, Higgins is taken too, as he walks through London trying and failing to talk-sing himself out of caring about her. (It remains funny that when Hepburn couldn’t sing, they painstakingly dubbed Marni Nixon over her, and when Harrison couldn’t sing, they shrugged and let him speak the lyrics.)
The outcome of their push-pull was also dictated by the times, which means (as is the case with so many films of the times) the ending lands with a bit of a thud these days. Yet there’s still so much to love about My Fair Lady, in the charisma of its leads and the charm of its songs, and most of all, the skill of the filmmaking craft. It’s just so elegantly staged and blocked for camera, and the cutting is so smooth; there’s a sleek professionalism and elevated craft that makes the current purveyors of the movie musical – your Robs Marshall, your Toms Hooper – seem even more incompetent. Once upon a time, they made musicals like this all the time, and that seems even more foreign and distant than anything in the text.