My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
Let’s start with what isn’t offensive and deplorable about this movie, plainly one of the most risible of all major Hollywood productions — the first number “Audrey Hepburn” (in quotes because she’s not really singing) performs in the film, “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” is quite charming both musically and cinematically. It possesses a basic sense of human longing and sweetness that doesn’t seem to be designed to pound its character mercilessly into the ground like a piece of dirt, which is pretty much the way Lerner & Loewe and by extension George Bernard Shaw and (be honest) George Cukor see her. In that moment, as Hepburn loses herself in a lovely and well-designed dance and dreams about having something more in her life, I did get a little wrapped up and had a nice time. But soon enough, Rex Harrison came back and I was miserable again. So it goes.
Harrison plays a hateful, bitter, useless man, a linguist who decides to turn Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle into a “proper” “woman,” and though ardent defenders of this bilge will do their best to convince you that the musical is in fact a satire of misogyny and misanthropy and that we’re supposed to laugh at, not with Harrison’s dullard aristocratic asshole, simply watching the film gives the lie to such nonsense — all of the humor stems from Eliza’s purported incompetence and Professor Henry Higgins’ old-world stuffed-shirt disdain toward her, which of course reluctantly turns into “love” when he realizes he can bring her into the house as a royal subject to do his bidding. Harrison was in general a mediocre actor, but he’s unbearable in service of this loathsome variation on Pygmalion that expands the Shaw play’s macho, puerile sexism into a cutesy plastic romance.
The stage version of the show starred Harrison and a young Julie Andrews; generations of movie fans have lamented the decision of Warner Bros. to replace cinematically untested Andrews with bankable movie star Audrey Hepburn. I like Andrews as much as the next guy, but Hepburn is literally the only saving grace of this movie. Like Leslie Caron in Gigi, she wasn’t permitted to sing, even though evidence suggests she could have, but she plunges into the role with far more enthusiasm and feminine grace than it deserves — though for someone like me with a lifelong crush on Hepburn, it’s hard to ignore that the ragged Cockney version of Eliza she initially inhabits is very likely the most adorable this consistently adorable and brilliant woman ever was, so wanting to change her is something that I cannot fathom, never mind for just a moment that wanting to change anyone to force greater appeal to the opposite sex is, well, ugly.
And “ugly” is such a perfect word for this film. Lord knows Hollywood has always made its share of misogynistic films, an oddly disproportionate number of them musicals — let’s start with Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, and Lerner & Loewe’s own Gigi — but among so many others, My Fair Lady is one of the only American features I’d readily call “evil,” so violent and destructive is the loving attention it gives toward the “transformation” of Eliza, which is played as balletic and warm comedy. It’s everything we as a progressive culture should despise, but it gets a pass because people like the songs. But the songs are, with very scattered exceptions, rife with the speak-singing trifling that Lerner & Loewe inexplicably adored. There’s no great wit or pleasure to them; one number alone from West Side Story, take “America,” could wipe the floor with anything in this movie… and it’s not even as if I’m putting West Side Story up as some untouchable masterpiece. It’s not, it’s a greatly flawed film itself, but my goodness, I long for it — its unforced romance, its grace and respect toward characters and their relationships — when this is on.
Even Gigi has one leg up on its sibling: it’s not nearly as painful to look at as My Fair Lady, the visual appeal of which is fully hampered by its fussy and hideous production design. The art direction team — Cecil Beaton, Gene Allen, George James Hopkins — fill the Cinemascope frame with ugly “business” and histrionically overwrought colors and shapes that recall the thrill ride atmosphere of Around the World in Eighty Days, also celebrated for an irksomely aloof protagonist. Because it’s such a dreadful film to look at, listen to, and think about, there is pretty much no reason to regard My Fair Lady with anything but an eyeroll and a shake of the head, and — yes, I’m going to say it — it is pretty undoubtedly the worst film to win the Best Picture Oscar… up to this point. (Worse things were in store.)