My Fair Lady (1964) Director: George Cukor
“The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”
Based on the stage adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913), which was itself based on a story in Ovid, My Fair Lady takes place during the turn of the century Edwardian London. It is a light, whimsical musical –now an instantly recognizable classic– about a phonetics professor named Henry Higgins or ‘enry ‘iggins (Rex Harrison) who makes a wager that he can teach a poor Cockney girl selling flowers named Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) to become a presentable lady in high society. He puts her through a number of trials until she finally learns to speak with an upper-class accent: “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” Dr. Higgins takes Eliza to the race-horses which ends in an embarrassing flub but she meets a young man named Freddy who instantly falls in love with her, she also attends a grand ball which ends in success. However, her efforts go unrecognized and later she angrily throws Dr. Higgins’s slippers at him and then runs away only to find her old life is distant and unfamiliar. In the end, Dr. Higgins comes to his senses and realizes that Eliza Doolittle has become an integral part of his life –“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”– as he coyly asks for the whereabouts of his slippers. Some critics of the academic variety have debated whether or not this conclusion reaffirms certain classist sentiments. Personally, I find this brand of literary or film criticism to be dull and mostly lazy. My Fair Lady is a wonderful, delightful musical-comedy whose plot transcends “class-conscious” academic theories. While I am generally not a great admirer of musicals, My Fair Lady is a joy.
Upon release My Fair Lady was a massive critical and commercial success, winning eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (George Cukor, his only award), and Best Actor (Rex Harrison), though Audrey Hepburn’s name was notably absent from the litany of awards. This was an era in which musicals were still well-celebrated in the upper echelons of American society with Gigi winning Best Picture in 1958, West Side Story in 1961, My Fair Lady in 1964, The Sound of Music in 1965, and Oliver! in 1968. Audrey Hepburn’s natural singing voice was judged inadequate, and she was dubbed over by Marni Nixon, who sang all the songs except portions of “Just You Wait”, in which Hepburn’s voice was preserved during the harsh-toned chorus with Nixon’s dubbing returning on the melodic bridge section. On the flip-side, Rex Harrison declined to pre-record his musical numbers, explaining that he had never talked his way through the songs the same way twice and thus could not convincingly lip-sync to a playback recording during filming. Interestingly enough, Julie Andrews initially popularized the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway, but when it came time for a film adaptation Warner Bros did not want to risk a big budget picture without an already recognizable leading lady, so they chose Audrey Hepburn instead and Julie Andrews went on to star in Mary Poppins for Disney in the same year. The irony is that Audrey Hepburn was not rewarded with an Oscar for My Fair Lady, while Julie Andrews won Best Actress for Mary Poppins (during her acceptance speech, Andrews thanked Jack Warner “for making this possible.”). Some have speculated that Julie Andrews’s Oscar was awarded out of mere sympathy for her unfortunate rejection in My Fair Lady, but Andrews has often downplayed this theory as well as rumors of a rivalry between herself and Audrey Hepburn.