The Oscars Project: Week 7 – My Fair Lady

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

My Fair Lady (Best Picture, Best Director and six others)

“Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative, and musical mixtures of sounds. And that’s what you’ve set yourself out to conquer Eliza. And conquer it you will.”
— Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady

Apologies for the week off; I’ve spent the last few days in Disneyland, which seems like an appropriate place to prep one’s self for My Fair Lady. After all, the musical (based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion) fits right in with Disney’s princess fantasies in its broad strokes. Just like all the little girls wandering around in their Belle and Snow White dresses dream of doing, at least generally, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) transforms herself from a guttersnipe flower-seller to an elegant princess, a radiant beauty who can catch the eye of even a Transylvanian prince (not a vampire, lest you get your hopes up).

I’ve always had an aversion to those stories. I’m not sure what it is, but it probably goes back to Pretty Woman, a movie I’ve never actually watched in its entirety, but one that I developed a dislike of back when I thought girls were icky and kissing on camera made me cover my eyes. (Full disclosure: it still sometimes does.) The story arguably reached its peak in She’s All That, where glasses and overalls were the only thing standing between loner status and goddesshood for Rachel Leigh Cook, but Pretty Woman came at a more pivotal time, when I was sure to be against anything even remotely girly. That’d also explain my irrational dislike of Richard Gere, whose presence I automatically associate with cheap, low-budget romantic sagas, despite the fact that he really hasn’t done many of those. My dislike of Julia Roberts, for the record, comes from her generally terrible acting.

The point is, I went into My Fair Lady with trepidation, largely because I still associate that sort of gutter-to-glamour story with everything I’m supposed to dislike about chick flicks. The presence of Hepburn helped, given that she’s probably the single most beautiful woman ever to grace the screen (yes, I have a thing for her), and the heaps of critical praise over the years didn’t hurt, but three hours of better-living-through-elegance didn’t really bode well.

Fortunately, the story takes a far more specific approach to self-improvement than the general courtly manners of Gigi, which is from the same authors. It’s about, in a word, linguistics. Hepburn’s Doolittle has a ghastly Cockney accent, a mix of nasal whines, dropped H’s and words that sound something like “ghaaarn.” She’s overheard by Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a doctor of phonetics, who makes a bet with a friend that he can transform Doolittle from her low position to a duchess in a mere six months, and just through changing her accent. What struck me about it wasn’t so much Higgins’ plan, which is just a variant on a perennial trope, but his passion for language. Or, more accurately, his disdain for anyone who even slightly mangles their English.

Now, I’m as pedantic as the next professional editor, and I’ve been known to point out misplaced apostrophes and poorly worded placards to folks who couldn’t be less interested if they tried, but I’ve got nothing on Higgins. In his first song, he claims that anyone with an accent outside “proper” English might as well be hanged, as they’ll be stuck in low and unsatisfactory lives anyway. Harrison’s sing-speaking might not be as impressive as other semi-operatic Broadway shows, but he crams a lot of character into a minimal melody.

It’s a great introduction to a perfectly misanthropic character. Despite what the quote at the start of this essay might indicate, Higgins isn’t one for inspirational speeches. From his opinion of women (“Their heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags. They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags!”) to his casual cruelty to everyone he encounters, to his clear disdain for most of the rules of polite society (the fact that he believes accent is the key to class distinction betrays a strong distrust of British high society), Harrison’s Higgins is a right bastard. His interest in Doolittle is purely academic; when he takes her on, he openly says he’d be content to toss her back in the gutter as soon as he’s done, and orders his maid to beat her if she disobeys him. But he’s a likeable bastard.

As a bit of an aside, that’s apparently what Harrison was like in real life. In the excellent Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris talks about Harrison’s behaviour on the set of Dr. Doolittle, his first post-Lady role, and between his boozing and his outrageous demands (he essentially forced the producers to fire Sammy Davis Jr. because he was worried about being upstaged) he makes Higgins look like a proper gentleman. Even at his kindest, he’s a bit of a dick. The closest he comes to an apology is “I’ve learned something from your idiotic notions, I confess that; humbly and gratefully.” But, that bit of acid is just what a movie like Lady needs.

It’s hard to picture anyone else in the role, but he wasn’t actually the producers’ first choice. In bringing the play to the screen, Jack Warner (head of Warner Bros. and producer of Lady) wanted to replace the entire beloved cast with Hollywood ringers. Cary Grant turned down the part of Higgins. James Cagney turned down the part of Doolittle’s charming drunkard of a father. Almost every part ended up being cast with the original stage actor with one key exception: Julie Andrews was out, and Hepburn was in. I won’t go too much into the controversy around that decision, but it did lead to an interesting chain of events: Hepburn, despite her best efforts (some of which are included as bonus features on the DVD), couldn’t handle the songs and her voice had to be dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed parts in West Side Story. That “half-performance” was enough to make it that Hepburn was the only principle cast member of Lady not to get an Oscar nomination. Andrews, meanwhile, used the attention to get the part of Mary Poppins, in the Disney film that ended up outgrossing Lady; that part earned her a best actress Oscar. Apparently there were no hard feelings, and Hepburn presented one of the Oscars at the broadcast, but the debate as to who would’ve been the better Doolittle rages to this day wherever pointless arguments about decades-old musical theatre rages (ie. IMDb, YouTube and other sad places).

The whole argument is moot, because Hepburn’s performance is what we’re left with, and it’s plenty good enough. She starts off braying and irritating, but confident in spite of herself and appealing because of it. By the end, she’s absolutely radiant, and it’s little wonder she’s accepted by royalty. Even if she can’t sing (and she’s not at all a bad singer; the part’s just a bit too challenging), she’s near perfect in the acting scenes, and her lip-synching is impeccable. She’s at her best mid-transformation, when she knows how to speak like an aristocrat, but not how to think like one. Take the horse race scene, where she’s putting her persona to the test for the first time. Hepburn plays it appropriately stiff, like she’s still not comfortable in this skin. It’s just the right note to sell the highly inappropriate dialogue.

One thing that’s striking in Lady, and also in Gigi and the more “straight” numbers in West Side Story is the stiffness of the musical scenes. There are a few shots in Lady that could be considered show-offy, like a sequence where characters enter and freeze into tableaus to establish a London street scene, but for the most part, director George Cukor (whose Adam’s Rib and The Philadelphia Story are absolute essentials) aims for realism, despite the music. That means minimal choreography of the wave-your-arms-a-bit variety, and a little bit of the ol’ soft-shoe when the elder Doolittle is involved. The aim might be to force the focus on the lyrics, or it might just be a consequence of the elabourate costumes, but it makes things less fun than the classic Hollywood musicals.

Take one of the most famous scenes in the film, where Eliza finally pronounces her “rain in Spain” speech properly. It’s three in the morning after many a long day of using the latest cutting-edge gizmos to force her to drop her atrocious accent; until that point there’s been no progress. Suddenly, she gets it. The rule in musicals, generally, is to use songs only when the emotion of the scene demands it — the characters must be conveying something that couldn’t adequately come across in text alone. In that sense, this is absolutely an appropriate place to sing. The characters are both exhausted and ecstatic. But, a bit of frolicking aside, they’re also very staid; it’s in keeping with their nature, but it’s not exactly riveting.

Now, compare that with a semi-similar scene in Singing in the Rain. That’s admittedly probably the best musical ever to come out of Hollywood (though Guys and Dolls is up there), but the comparison isn’t entirely out of line. Both scenes are set in a speech therapist’s office; in the Singin’ scene, Gene Kelly is a movie star learning to speak properly now that “talking pictures” have hit the scene. The whole scene is just him and his buddy having a lark, but thanks to the choreography, it has more joy than the entire “Rain in Spain” sequence. Maybe that’s why the old musicals resonate with me more than any of the ’60s Oscar winners have.

That lack of energy in the songs is more than made up for by the gorgeous settings, the flawless performances and above all, an intelligent script that goes out of its way to avoid convention. For a movie that I worried would epitomize the chick flicks I hated in my not-so-distant youth, Lady is surprisingly unromantic. I hardly noticed it until I read a review of the movie by Roger Ebert, but those kisses I used to shield myself from? There’s not so much as a single one in the whole movie. Eliza does have a suitor, but she hardly acknowledges the fellow, and he’s content to stand around outside her house. Even the relationship between Higgins and Doolittle defies genre conventions: the most he can say for her is “I’ve grown accustomed to her face;” hardly a declaration of love. It’s more a celebration of Platonic respect, as Higgins has finally found a woman that he can be a proper bachelor around.

Still, my biases are still kicking — if pressed, I’d have to say that Lady doesn’t deserve its Best Picture or Best Director nods, and that both should have gone to an exceedingly cynical war satire instead. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was up for both categories, and was shot down twice. It’s a movie that I’d unreservedly recommend today, regardless of personal tastes — something that I wouldn’t do even with a particularly ornate and well-thought-out musical. But, it’s not hard to see why a feel-good rags-to-riches story would beat out a satire of American political thought so savage that some critics accused it of being a recruiting tool for communists. Politics alone would’ve been enough to keep Strangelove out of the running, and Lady is a solid consolation prize. How can you not love something this exuberantly misanthropic?

Coming up:
1965: The Sound of Music
1966: A Man for All Seasons
1967: In the Heat of the Night

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