An Appreciation – My Fair Lady
The most tragic example of social satire is through Eliza’s father, Alfred (Stanley Holloway). Alfred is a drunkard, who cares for his daughter but only comes around when he needs some money to visit the local pub. He talks of a female companion who doesn’t seem all that interested in marrying him. When Alfred learns of Eliza’s arrangement with Henry, Alfred visits Henry’s home in hopes of getting a monetary return. He gets more than he bargains for when Henry recommends him to an American businessman. Through a series of events we never see, Alfred comes to be part of the upper class, complete with dapper clothing and top hat. With his new social standing, we learn that the woman who refused to marry him has now accepted his offer. This may be all well and good, but the only thing that truly changed is Alfred’s ability to buy his own alcohol. He’s still the same drunkard that we met earlier, and even though he is now engaged he still hangs out at the pub. It’s tragic, really, that a person would consider marrying him not for what he stands for but strictly on his wealth. Alfred acts as the film’s central metaphor, getting to the heart of why defining people through classicism is an act of foolishness.
There was much controversy over the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza. Julie Andrews, who played the character in the original Broadway production, was thought to be the choice for the screen adaptation. However, Warner Bros. producer Jack L. Warner – wanting a more bankable name – cast Hepburn in the role. To make matters even worse, Hepburn’s singing was not considered strong enough to carry the musical sequences, and thus the majority of her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. In an act of possible karma, although My Fair Lady won eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director, Hepburn was not even nominated for Best Actress. Oddly enough, the award for Best Actress would go to none other than Julie Andrews for her work in Mary Poppins (1964).
The controversy surrounding Hepburn was unfair. Hepburn is exceptional in the role, bringing life and energy every moment she’s on screen. Yes, she doesn’t sing like Andrews, but that doesn’t mean that she didn’t fully commit to the part or prepare as well as any actress in her position would. That may not be her voice we’re hearing, but that is her performance we are witnessing. Hepburn had the unique quality that many movie stars encompass – the ability to draw our sympathies and care about their well being. She’s like that friend that we’re always glad to be reunited with. She can garner laughs through dialogue or with physical comedy, but she can bring out her vulnerabilities to move us emotionally. In the scene where Henry takes credit for transforming Eliza into a member of the upper class, I couldn’t help but watch what Hepburn does. While Harrison is in the foreground, our eyes are drawn to where Hepburn is in the background, and the heartbreak she feels over what she’s seeing. Eliza is the one who put in the work, she’s the one whose ambition brought her to where she is, not the phonetics professor. The confrontation during this scene feels genuine and authentic, and it’s led by the power of Hepburn’s performance.
Rex Harrison had the trickiest role to play. He’s tasked to play a character that has a superiority complex to everyone near him, and yet he has to be convincing enough for us to believe that Eliza would stick with him for as long as she does. Henry’s emotional arc is a slow breakdown of his established beliefs regarding class and gender roles. As Eliza begins to stand up to him more and more, his confusion acts as a crumbling barricade. When he sings the song “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man)” it is clearly made to make him look like a fool. The song comes as a reaction to being abandoned by nearly everyone. This is further exemplified in the next scene, where Henry finds Eliza at his mother’s home, and she breaks out into the song “Without You.” The song is meant to bring Henry back down to Earth, to show him that he is not the almighty person he’s convinced himself to be. I found particular poignancy when Eliza sings the line “England will still be here without you.” Afterwards, as Henry walks back home singing the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” that is his way of expressing remorse for driving Eliza away.
But let’s be clear: the film doesn’t necessarily forgive Henry for all that he’s done. It ends on a perfectly ambiguous note, leaving it up to us to decide what is to become of the characters. As Henry returns home contemplating what went wrong and why he has such a feeling of loneliness, Eliza surprisingly shows up. As Henry realizes this, he delivers the last piece of dialogue, “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers?” The way Harrison says the line makes us wonder whether he has learned a thing at all, or if he’s saying it in an ironic manner. Even more important is Eliza’s reaction, which we do not get to see. Cukor cuts away before Eliza responds, leaving it to the audience to fill in the blanks. Eliza may have forgiven Henry for his mistreatment and accepted him for who he is, or she could have very well chastised him one last time, or perhaps she’s come back to find out if he’s changed for the better.
My Fair Lady is a musical of the highest order. Not only is it a joy to watch, but also – unlike other musicals – it is actually about something. It has its mind on larger issues, taking a magnifying glass and pointing out all the warts and imperfections of society. It’s rare that a film like this would conjure up such thoughts – the fact that it’s packaged within an entertainment makes it all the greater. How Loverly, indeed.