The songsmith duo of Lerner and Loewe are back six years after Gigi, their first best picture winner. Director George Cuckor’s adaptation of their stage musical began as an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. The story centers around Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) a poor Cockney flower girl and the arrogant phonetics professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who claims he could teach her to speak “proper” English so eloquently she could pass herself off as a lady in the high society of Edwardian London.
Higgins first encounters Eliza in the market of Covent Garden on the evening where he first meets Col. Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White). Pickering is a fellow famous linguist (because it’s 1912 and that’s apparently a thing) and Higgins insists he come stay with him while in London.
Higgins gets the chance to prove his boast when Eliza shows up on his doorstep willing to pay for the lessons he alleges can get her out of the gutter and into the kind of life she dreams of. Pickering doubts Higgins’ assertion and offers to pay for the lessons himself as a kind of wager.
I was explaining this plot to someone after I’d watched it and they said, “Oh, so it’s basically Trading Places.”
Um… yeah… sort of. Although if Eliza Doolittle is Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) there isn’t a Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) counterpart.
But the film is charming and engaging, especially in the first act, although not terribly sophisticated. The most heartfelt moment occurs when Eliza and the other merchants of Covent Garden sing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” They dream of what things might be like if they had been given a different lot in life.
“All I want is a room somewhere
Far away from the cold night air
With one enormous chair
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?”
I really made the emotional connection to this woman and her world. I understood why she would want something more, something better for herself and appreciated that she was willing to work to get it. The wager between Pickering and Higgins really isn’t a driving force in the story and is superfluous.
Higgins runs Eliza through a battery of speech training from marbles in her mouth to reciting her vowels for hours on end to speaking into a cone that fans a flame when she pronounces the letter “H” correctly.
Higgins’ approach is harsh and personally inconsiderate to Eliza. She makes little progress, but just when she looks like a lost cause and they’re all about to throw in the towel Higgins gives her a pep talk and… by George she’s got it!
She instantly begins to speak with an impeccable upper class accent.
But honestly, how long can you hold down Audrey Hepburn? She’s barely believable as the “guttersnipe” Higgins sees her as. So when she finally sheds her cockney disguise you don’t hear me complaining.
After a trial run at the horse track goes a bit sideways Eliza is finally ready for the big ball.
Good gravy. When she appears at the top of the stairs in her ball gown she’s absolutely breathtaking. Pickering is a nervous wreck, hitting the bottle before the ball. Higgins is much more composed (for the most part) which allows Pickering to deliver one of my favorite lines in the film.
“At a moment like this, with so much at stake…it’s utterly indecent that you don’t need a glass of port.” – Col. Pickering
She of course passes with flying colors but during the after-party back at Higgins’ home Pickering and the staff give Higgins all the credit and he gladly accepts.
This creates a rift between Higgins and Eliza and she leaves him for Freddy (Jeremy Brett), a young well-to-do man she met at the horse track who fell for her. She also tries returning to her old life at Covent Garden but nobody recognizes her and she feels as though she no longer fits in.
She winds up at Higgins’ mother’s home where she encourages Eliza that she is better off without Henry. The next day she leaves and Higgins finds himself with a void because, as he sings…
“I’ve grown accustomed to her face.” – Henry Higgins
Wow! The passion just leaps off the screen! He’s grown accustomed to her face? Ladies, doesn’t that just make your heart melt? What could be more romantic than a declaration that “I’m more or less used to you being around.”
In the end Higgins returns to his study where he listens to a recording of Eliza he made the day she arrived, her voice still thick with her Cockney accent. She walks in unseen, turns off the recording and repeats the next line just like she did that day.
Higgins spins around, stunned and overwhelmed with gratitude that she’s returned to him. He runs to her, takes Eliza into his arms and promises to never treat her poorly again and he will love her for the rest of his days.
Oh wait… no… that’s not what happened.
Without even turning around he grins slyly before asking…
“Where the devil are my slippers?”
I’m sorry… what?
OK, I think I know what’s going on here.
There are two things I know about Lerner and Loewe:
- They sure can write a catchy tune!
- They have no clue about women.
Although this isn’t nearly as reprehensible as Gigi, it’s clear that their perception of male-female relationships is pretty whack.
Even the subtle, yet eye-roll inducing fact that whenever Eliza starts to stand up for herself and threaten to leave all Higgins has to do is wave a tray of chocolates in front of her face and she becomes mesmerized, incapable of thinking for herself. Because chocolate.
You can read what I wrote about Gigi here but it’s more of the same with Eliza Doolittle. Even when she stands up for herself (as Gigi did too) in the end she comes back to Henry Higgins. She swore she wouldn’t… and he knew she would! And she did.
This movie would have been 10 times better if she just left him. OR… if he actually had to change in order to win her back.
Some might say that the relationship between Henry and Eliza isn’t romantic. There’s an argument to be made that it’s 1912 and her options are few. Her coming back to him is still her choice and she does it for what she gets out of it, financial security and stability.
But the film goes to the trouble of demonstrating Eliza’s fondness for Higgins because they danced together for like 10 seconds (following which Eliza sang “I Could Have Danced All Night’).
Either way, Henry Higgins doesn’t have a story arc.
He’s the same at the end as he was at the beginning: rude, self-absorbed and misogynistic.
The script is heavy-handed, predictable and often redundant.
For example, after about 30 minutes or so Eliza’s “I’m a good girl, I am” catchphrase starts getting old. Thankfully it doesn’t last much longer. But songs like “You Did It” and “Get Me to the Church On Time” seem to just go on and on repetitively.
There’s also some king of subplot about Eliza’s father that adds nothing to the story except a nice performance from Stanley Holloway. Not only would Holloway score a best supporting actor nod for his work it would be the pinnacle of his career.
Like Rex Harrison, Holloway was reviving the same role in My Fair Lady he played on stage. You can tell these actors are in their sweet spot. You can understand why when you watch the film. It’s not to the same degree as West Side Story, but the soundstages feel like you’re watching a play. This look always stands out to me in many of the musicals from that era. But Cuckor’s direction keeps it from looking like you’re just watching a video of a stage play.
As has been evidenced during the late 50s and now into the mid-60s, “grandeur is grander” was their battle cry.
This is an opulent film with some striking imagery, and I don’t just mean Audrey Hepburn. But I would have gone with Becket, starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, as the best picture of the year. It garnered 12 nominations, same as My Fair Lady and one fewer than Mary Poppins.
It was the first time that three films received 12 or more nominations.
But in the end Becket only went home with the Oscar for adapted screenplay.
On the other hand, My Fair Lady won 8 awards that night, including picture, director and actor.
Audrey Hepburn, although great in this film, did not receive a nomination for best actress. There were two reasons for this. One is political and the other is artistic.
First, the political. Many members of the Academy were bothered that Julie Andrews wasn’t chosen to reprise the role she had played on Broadway (and London).
Second, the artistic. Unlike Julie Andrews, Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice wasn’t good enough for the role. So it was dubbed by Marni Nixon, the same singer who dubbed Natalie Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr’s in The King and I.
Oddly enough, Julie Andrews was nominated and won the best actress Oscar for Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins was also up for best picture which turned out to be the last Oscar nomination of Walt Disney’s life*.
Walt still holds the record for most Oscars won by an individual having raked in a mind-blowing total of 22! In context, the second place for most wins is art director Cedric Gibbons with 11. That’s fitting as he is credited as the designer of the Oscar statuette.
*In 1968 Disney would receive another nomination and win posthumously for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) for Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day.