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My Fair Lady Review


RATING:
(4 STARS)

Movie musicals are a tricky thing to nail because while music is a nice easy way to inject some energy or emotion into a film, too often the music is injected unnaturally. This can cause characters to act ridiculously, and it usually begs the question, “How do all these people know the words?” My Fair Lady might be the first musical where that question never came up for me. That’s because it’s smart and extremely well-written. The songs are all memorable and never feel forced. The main characters are three-dimensional, and the direction is outstanding. Calling this the seminal musical in film history would be an understatement. I think it’s one of the best films to come out of its time period and one of the most deserving Best Picture winners ever.

The film’s protagonists are, to say the least, an unlikely pairing. Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) is a poor Cockney flower girl who’s struggling just to survive. Then there’s the refined, self-assured Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison). He specializes in speech, and when he’s introduced to Eliza for the first time, he’s appalled. He thinks she’s the lowest of the low and that they way she speaks has prevented and will continue to prevent her from amounting to anything. Of course, the Professor is never one to back down from a challenge, and his friend, Colonel Pickering (Wilfred Hyde White) has a doozy for him: Transform this abrasive, grating girl into a lady in time for a royal ball. Eliza has nothing to lose and hopes the training will give her the skills she needs to succeed in life. What Eliza and Henry can’t prepare for is the feelings they both develop for the other while she trains, for no matter how much they clash, they really seem to enjoy each other’s company.

The romance is somewhat oddly handled in My Fair Lady because the characters never just say how they feel. Anyone could tell Henry and Eliza love (or at least have feelings for) each other, but the closest either of them comes to saying it is when Henry declares, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.” The characters don’t kiss, and there’s not a hint of sexual chemistry or attraction, but we still desperately want them to get together. Credit strong writing and exceptional acting for our investment in such a different kind of romance.

Not enough can be said about what a great screenplay this film has. Alan Jay Lerner adapted the film from his hit broadway play (which was in turn adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion), and his words are incredibly smart and effective. Henry and Eliza have a number of confrontations, and the jabs they get in at each other are often hilarious and always clever. Some of the best lines, however, come from other characters, including Eliza’s father (Stanley Holloway), and Henry’s mother (Gladys Cooper).

The acting is fantastic on every level. Audrey Hepburn is radiant and charismatic as Eliza, and though she doesn’t sing (Marni Nixon, instead, handles the vocals), she does a great lip-synching job. I had no idea she didn’t sing, and I think it’s a shame she was completely looked over for an Oscar nomination for that reason. Rex Harrison won an Oscar for his work, and while his character is a bit of a scoundrel, we still like him. He’s very funny (despite many of his jokes being very un-PC), but what’s best about him is that he’s honest. Even though every instinct he has tells him not to fall for Eliza, he does, and he doesn’t shy away from those feelings once they overtake him.

My Fair Lady is an absolutely gorgeous piece of work. Director George Cukor moves beyond the stage to create a real world in which this film takes place, yet the costumes and sets are larger than life. The incredible Ascot scene is a work of absolute beauty and perfection, with a style unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. It’s this kind of meticulous work and detail that earned Cukor the Best Director prize, which was one of eight prizes the film won back in 1965.

There are plenty of juicy stories about My Fair Lady’s history—like the controversy surrounding the casting of Hepburn over the stage Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews, and the danger of almost losing the film decades after its release—but what happens over the course of three hours in the film is as entertaining as anything that went on off the screen. This is one of those rare films that earns its two labels: Best Picture and crowd-pleaser. It’s an extraordinary piece of work, worthy of every accolade it has accumulated over the years, and it’s a film that just about everyone should enjoy.

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