An Appreciation – My Fair Lady
Surface level readings of My Fair Lady (1964) would focus on the supposed sexist dynamics. At the turn of the 20th century, an English phonetics professor (Rex Harrison) makes a bet with a colleague that his expertise could transform a lowly flower girl with a heavy Cockney accent (Audrey Hepburn) into a proper cultured lady – complete with an upper class dialect – thus improving her chances of moving up the social ladder. To do so, the professor must put her through a rigorous training regiment, forcing her to do voice exercises that involve repeating certain phrases to help smooth out her pronunciation. While this venture proves to be difficult for both parties, both the professor and flower girl find a mutual respect for one another, and perhaps a chance at romance.
The error in this interpretation is that it doesn’t take into account which character is driving the narrative. Yes, Henry Higgins (Harrison) is mean and dismissive of other people, and much of what he says is brutish and misogynistic. But the key is that he is the not the person pushing the story forward. It’s Eliza Doolittle (Hepburn) whose agency and determination kick starts the plot. She dreams of being something more than just a flower girl living hand to mouth, and she sees in Henry a chance to escape her meager surroundings. It’s her ambition that causes her to seek him out, not the other way around. She even offers to pay Henry for his services. If not for her, Henry would still be in his home surrounded by his boring charts and record players. Although Henry is often condescending to her, Eliza stands up to him with equal force. They are two ideals butting against each other, but each offers something beneficial. As Roger Ebert mentions in his review, “If Henry will teach Eliza to improve her speech, she will try to teach him decency and awaken his better nature.”
My Fair Lady encompasses everything that make musicals great – wit, charm, grace, humor, and a touch of magical realism. George Cukor’s direction has elegance and sophistication, even when the narrative takes surreal tangents. He adds some nice details that break reality – such as freezing actors in place to begin and end scenes – to create an air of enchantment. Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay (adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s stage show) is sharp, funny, and insightful. This is a musical that is not only about entertainment, but strives to examine larger themes such as gender roles and the class system. We sit back and take pleasure in the comedy and musical sequences, but can walk away discussing the ideas. Its central relationship is built through a contrast in personalities. This is one of the few examples where the “love story” is never expressed through physical intimacy, and yet when inner feelings are brought out we aren’t caught off guard.
When I first saw the film, I was drawn in by the performances, set design, and music. Seeing it again recently, I became more aware of how biting the satire actually is. It draws our attention to the ridiculousness of classicism. In the opening musical number “Why Can’t the English?” Henry walks about a crowd of people of different economic backgrounds, analyzing each person’s upbringing and social standing based on how they speak. The most memorable musical number “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” has a bouncy and playful tone, but going over the lyrics we find a level of melancholy. The working class wishes to live the life of the wealthy, but when one of their kind – Eliza, that is – ends up witnessing that world herself, she falls victim to the silly rules and expectations that comes with being part of high society.
This is most noticeably shown during the scene at the horse races. After a long stretch of vocal and etiquette lessons, Henry takes Eliza out to the horse track to see how she interacts with the upper class. Notice how the set design and staging of background characters lends to the artificiality. Everyone moves exactly the same, in unison, as though they were all robots with perfectly synchronized actions. The set is appropriately theatrical, not resembling an actual racetrack but a façade made out of cardboard and a whole lot of white paint. Where the people of the lower classes have a freedom of movement, all the participants of the upper class move like stick figures because apparently that’s what is expected of them. The message is clear. The scene is punctuated by a funny moment where a woman faints simply because Eliza lets loose an expression of genuine emotion.