Thursday, March 8, 2018

Musical Watch: My Fair Lady (1964)

some day, we should do a deep dive into the work of illustrator Bob Peak

Watched: 03/04/2018
Viewing: Probably the fourth time
Format: DVR off TCM
Decade: 1960's


Jamie hates My Fair Lady (1964).

I don't hate it.  I don't particularly love it.  It's one of the last of the studio musical, shot on a soundstage, spectacle movies I can think of.  It did win Best Picture for 1964.

The movie is one of maybe five or so of Hepburn's most famous.  Paired with Breakfast at Tiffany's, it may be what keeps her face and name in the public mind.  Hepburn herself wasn't nominated for anything for this movie, but she was cast over a then unknown Julie Andrews who had made the role famous on stage.  But at the time, this was also one of the most expensive movies ever made, and the studio needed a star, and Hepburn was ten years into her film career and well-awarded for things like Roman Holiday by this point.

I don't blame Jamie for disliking the film.  She made it clear early on in our dating that she found the storyline vexing and Rex Harrison's Oscar Winning performance absolutely grating.  You can't watch something based on Pygmalion and not get a bit weirded out.

Intellectually, I understand the argument.  The film was a period piece made more than fifty years ago, and the intervening years compound the complications, leaving you with the very definition of a "problematic" movie.  Maybe not as much so as Gone with the Wind, but it does raise some questions for the modern viewer.

That said, context does matter, and as happens too often - modern audiences view media and art of the past with a jaundiced eye.  I'll argue that Eliza Doolittle's acts of rebellion and manner of coming into her own are so of a time and place that what victories she does have are dismissed by us modern viewers a bit too readily, and we mistake the status quo of Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering as something the audience of the time was onboard with.  But this wasn't entirely true in 1964 or when the source material, Pygmalion, hit the London stage in 1914.  But I don't want to say "it's old timey, and therefore beyond our ability to grasp" and let it go.  So buckle in.

If you've not seen the film - very briefly:

Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) is a sort of Cockney-ish slum dweller who happens to cross paths with linguist Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) as he surreptitiously takes note of her speech patterns in a crowd.  Higgins crosses paths with a Col. Pickering, who is a fellow linguist and while Higgins insults and demeans Eliza as if she were not there, only interested in her speech patterns, he also boasts he could teach her how to speak like a proper lady.  He believes that her accent is an affront to culture, and is not wrong in that it keeps her from better work.  Higgins and Pickering go off, and Eliza takes the boast as an earnest one.

She arrives at Higgins' house and asks to take lessons.  Higgins and Pickering lay a wager that she can pass as "a lady" at a royal gala in six months.  Eliza moves in and spends her time under Higgins' brusque tutelage.  They go to the races and she passes as a lady, then on to a gala where she's presented to royalty, and doesn't just pass but is the toast of the ball.  In there somewhere, a young man falls for Eliza, but she barely notices him.

Higgins and Eliza have a break, a confrontation, and the movie ends on the road to reconciliation.

I do want to point out: As the movie starts and Eliza is supposed to be an unwashed cretin - even with a goofy accent and constantly shrieking like a tired toddler - that's still Audrey Hepburn, one of the most objectively beautiful women to ever appear on screen.  You're going to need some theater-y willing suspension of disbelief to carry the day thinking everyone just ignores her.

One of the fantasies of the film is of Eliza being seen as a lady, and, in fact, mistaken for Hungarian nobility.  While I'll go off in a different direction momentarily - That's a fantasy, too, right?  That if one minds their P's and Q's, they can walk among the well-bred and well-heeled and be seen as an equal?  That if one behaves and speaks "correctly", they are now acceptable is a more difficult thing to untangle, but I do want to get it out there, because while it's uncomfortable, that one doesn't really seem to budge much on the popular ideas front from year to year.  That the shy girl will be seen for the wonder she is?

It's easy to cast aspersions at My Fair Lady as a male fantasy - the Pygmalion Fantasy is a whole thing - the idea being you're going to control someone and turn them into your object of desire.  I think.  Good luck finding two texts that agree on an exact definition.  But that's not the intention of play or movie, and it may be we've lost so much of the original context we're in an uphill battle parsing the movie now. 

The original myth of Pygmalion had to do with a fellow with the terrible name of Pygmalion carving a statue so lovely he prayed it would come to life, and thanks to a diety feeling a bit daffy, indeed the statue became flesh and blood woman and they named her Galatea.  It's the rare myth that doesn't have an ironic ending where the statue turns on the dude and kills him.  Instead, everything works out super great.  They love each other forever and have kids and keep thanking Aphrodite for hooking them up.  The end.  Kind of dull, really, and I don't entirely get the point.

My Fair Lady is a musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion.  The musical follows the same storyline and has the same characters.  Sort of.

I'll be honest:  I don't get the fantasy.  I can't live in everybody's head, but my particular flights of fancy never centered around spending six months tutoring anyone, even Audrey Hepburn.

What's curious is the one major difference between My Fair Lady and Pygmalion is the thing that modern audiences of the musical likely cringe at - the very last scene.  My Fair Lady ends semi-ambiguously, Eliza back in Higgins' house, seeming as if she is to stay with him - even if she doesn't say in exact lines of dialog that she will (but she might as well).  The modern viewer may find this ending unsatisfying (Jamie finds it infuriating).  And it is unsatisfying.  The point of the preceding two hours seemed to indicate that Eliza outgrows Higgins.   Worse, if the post-gala scene is any indication, he may have ruined her for even the simple flower shop girl she wished to be - she went right on to royalty and may have bypassed middle-class stability.  When he can't show her any kindness nor acknowledge her part in the grand display at the gala, and with no idea what the future might hold for her except to be sold off as a wife, of course she breaks.

She leaves but realizes she can't return to the streets nor join her father in his newfound middle-class hypocrisy.  But after a spat and riding around with Freddy, in the musical, she calms the audience by returning to Henry Higgins where it is inferred her womanly love will solve all.

The original text of Shaw's play, and something he spent his life trying to protect, has Eliza abandon Higgins even as he continues on making demands of her, leaving him for Freddy.

Apparently, by the way, even the original theatrical run made changes that bent toward reconciliation of Eliza and Higgins - pleasing the audience instead of ending the comedy as all comedies end - with the culmination of romance.

When you assume that Higgins' and Pickerings' lives were seen as cartoonish by the standards of 1914 or 1964, when you know Shaw's intention was to show Eliza fully realized and now free... And when you consider the audience this happy ending was serving was a reflection of, sure, embedded cultural ideas - if it reads as chauvinistic (and it does), I have to wonder if we're wrangling the same "we say we want one thing and then audiences do something else completely" issue we banged up against relentlessly during the Fifty Shades experiment.  Ie: I'm not sure that happy ending was necessarily a male fantasy so much as breaking the intention of the text to meet pedestrian expectations of matrimony and how happy endings in plays have worked since Shakespeare.  People love a happy ending, they say, but they really like comfort food.

To accept the final scene of the musical, one has to accept that Higgins' outward behavior may never change, but his heart has.  You have to believe that Eliza is choosing a distant father figure/ lover in Higgins, and that proximity of two characters of compatible sexuality for a certain duration sharing the screen means that we should cheer their romance.

It's kinda messed up.

It's also easy to forget that the movie, which still looks like a million bucks and new as a shiny penny, is closer to 1914 in age than 2018.  It is, no matter what else, a very pretty movie.  It can be very funny at times, and it does provide something of a compelling premise thanks to Shaw's original concept.

But fans of musicals are sort of used to endings not really working or making a lot of sense.  I mean, just try to parse what actually happens in the final minutes of The Music Man.  I can't.  I've seen Oklahoma! at least five times and the whole thing is an absolute trainwreck in the third act, but an American classic.  Sondheim may be the only person making musicals that don't just say "oh, hell, it's music and stage magic and who cares? Let's send the audience home with a smile!"

The movie clearly makes Freddy seem like a terrible choice, unless Eliza is looking for a simpering doormat (and I've seen enough noir to know how that works out when you fast forward five years).  But, in the end, Shaw had it right.  At least in part.  And it's something to grapple with that we'd rather have the false note at the end than bid Eliza the best as she heads out on her own.


2 comments:

mcsteans said...

Yeah, I wish I could appreciate this movie, because it is a classic, but I just can't. Creepiness of the plot from a 21st century perspective aside, it has also always squicked me out that Hepburn's 21 year old character falls for Higgins who is pushing 60. Not the first or only time by far the May-December romance is seen on film, but Higgins is portrayed as cranky and crotchety which makes him feel even older. Yuck. And yes, not only can I not stand Rex Harrison's sing-talking, Eliza's screeching throughout the first half of the movie is like nails on a chalkboard. And poor Ryan has to hear about all of it every time he tries to watch this movie. Sorry, Ryan.

Ryan Steans said...

s'okay. It's gotten me to consider the movie from a different perspective than I probably had back in '95.