My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady. Warner Bros. Pictures 1964.

Before watching the movie:

Funny story: when I was planning September’s musicals theme, I counted the number of Fridays in the month three times and got five twice. So I queued five movies. Unfortunately, while I was looking forward to this one, circumstances prevented it from being included then. But I still have it, and I’m doing it now.

Nothing is original. This is a film adaptation of a stage musical that was based on a play that was inspired by a Latin poet’s story. To take it a step further, it’s been directly parodied relentlessly. I’m familiar with many parodies, the basic story, and I’ve read the original Latin. I know many of the songs, I know the upset in casting that made Julie Andrews available to play the legendary Mary Poppins, but how it all comes together is something I’m excited to watch.

After watching the movie:

Linguist and phonics teacher Henry Higgins is found taking notes on a Cockney flowerseller’s accent on a London street, and in the course of explaining himself to the crowd attracted by the scene she makes about it, declares that he could teach her proper elocution and pass her off as a high-class lady in six months. After some indignation, she realizes she’d quite like to be a lady and goes to ask him for lessons. With her training paid for by Higgins’s wealthy new friend as part of a bet, Higgins and Eliza spend long, agonizing months of him berating her and her consistently failing to live up to his expectations, until finally she masters the Received Pronunciation and wins the bet for him. But after all that time and effort, they’re now faced with the question of what happens next.

This is a musical, so a complaint about the length and choice of songs is obligatory. However, this one, while it’s altogether long, is very well integrated. I don’t think I can point to a single number I would cut. The scenes with Eliza’s father are irrelevant and could be cut, but they are too charming to dream of it. Pretty much every song goes on two or three verses after its point is well-established, but if they were cut down to only what was necessary, they would feel too short. Yet again, the most resonant song for me isn’t one of the ones that entered the zeitgeist on their own, like “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly”, “The Rain in Spain”, or “I Could have Danced All Night”, but the simple song about love, “Show Me”:  “Stop wasting my time talking about the strength of your love and just show it”.

This is essentially the story of turning a Cockney flowergirl played by Audrey Hepburn into… well, Audry Hepburn. In the early days after her training, Hepburn plays some insecurity into the role, like she’s exceptionally conscious she doesn’t belong there, but that fades much more quickly than it seems it should. A similar awkwardness seems apparent before her transformation, but I’m not sure how much of that was trying hard to play a role that didn’t fit and how much was just that it seems very wrong to me for her to be like that. On the other hand, what I’ve seen of Julie Andrews suggests she could fit in both worlds equally. Meanwhile, Higgins is much more shockingly abusive than I got the sense of from homages that gloss over that part, and Stanley Holloway steals the show handily as Alfred Doolittle.

In the end, what happens after they’ve learned their lessons? Or in fact, have they? The plot is bravely ambiguous, but hopeful. I had one interpretation, I read another, slightly different one. They both fit well, and many more could spring from the final thirty seconds. In the world of Musicals, we’re usually told everything much more explicitly than other narrative works. Here, the show takes its own advice and shows us the messy, uncertain kernel of a future. Where does it go? That is an exercise for the viewer.

 

Watch this movie: in case you didn’t understand why people keep bringing up Iberian weather reports.

Don’t watch this movie: for “boring, kissy bits”.

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