The winner of eight Academy Awards including the coveted Best Picture, My Fair Lady is based on the stage musical of the same name and tells the story of a young working class flower seller called Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) who is taken in by an arrogant phonetics Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who bets that he can transform the young woman’s gutter mouth and slovenly demeanour into that of a lady who could pass for Aristocracy under close inspection in just six months. The film can rightly be called a classic and contains some of the most recognisable songs in all of musical cinema.
The film is lavishly designed and very well made, featuring some incredible sets which have such a realistic look that I wasn’t totally convinced they weren’t real, despite being more than familiar with some of the locations. The entire film was shot in California but creates a vision of London as real as I’ve seen in any American film. And not a single shot of Big Ben or a ‘London, England’ caption. Bliss. It is also a very well acted film on the whole with just one exception. Rex Harrison won a more than deserved Oscar for his performance and Stanley Holloway and Gladys Cooper were also recognised with deserved nominations but the actor who lets the film down is its lead, Audrey Hepburn.
When one thinks of Audrey Hepburn, the mind looks to the likes of Roman Holiday or Breakfast at Tiffany’s where she plays elegant, demure characters with grace and style. This image lasts even to today where she is still recognised as a sort of classic style icon with her picture hanging in most young women’s bedrooms (in my experience…). Her character in My Fair Lady starts out as a working class flower seller with a gutter mouth but she is totally unconvincing in the role. Her grimace as she talks is embarrassing and her accent is worse than dreadful, a sort of sub Barbara Winsor squeal. What’s worse is that her singing wasn’t even considered good enough to make the film so she was dubbed with Opera singer Marni Nixon providing the vocals to the terrific songs. Hepburn is infinitely better in the second half once she has undergone her transformation and plays closer to type. Despite thinking she was poor, I can’t imagine another actress in the role as she brings such warmth and presence to her performance that although it’s off, I still think her casting was acceptable. She is surrounded by such wonderful performances too that her dreadful opening half could be overlooked.
Rex Harrison is superb as Henry Higgins, a bastard of epic proportions and someone who I see a lot of myself in. (Not that that is necessarily a good thing but I’ve been trying to train my girlfriend to talk properly for years). The way he talks to and treats Hepburn’s Doolittle is extraordinary and both callous and incredibly funny. His arrogance and misogyny know no bounds and what’s more, he doesn’t see anything wrong with telling his housekeeper to “wrap her up in brown paper” or “put her in a rubbish bin”. A lot of the humour contained in this often funny film comes from the unbelievable things that come from Higgins’ mouth.
There is a lot that I love about this film and the first thing is its design. I love the period detail and Higgins’ house is beautifully ornate and full of books and instruments. If I was asked to picture the inside of an Edwardian Professor’s house I would probably come up with a very close approximation of that set. The exteriors too are very well detailed and realistic and filled with convincing Londoners who help with my second favourite aspect of the film; the songs. I’m not much of a musical lover, Rocky Horror being the main exception but I adore the songs in My Fair Lady and have been whistling Wouldn’t it be Loverly? for the past hour. I Could Have Danced All Night and On The Street Where You Live are two of my favourites while Get Me To The Church On Time has become so famous that I doubt most of the drunken stags who sing it are unaware of its origins.
My favourite scene is the one at the Ascot Races which begins with a quite surreal scene that is almost Warholesque in its colour and composition and continues with Hepburn’s entrance in a beautiful dress before ending with her forgetting her new found manners following a funny speech about the death of her aunt. The entire scene is excellent from start to finish. My Fair Lady is a timeless film which despite being a little too long and featuring an uneven central performance still makes me smile. There is talk of a remake starring Carey Mulligan and Colin Firth (or worse Brad Pitt…) but personally I don’t think it needs remaking. It has aged very well and I can’t see a remake improving upon the original.