Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Fair Lady (1964) - Absolutely Enchanting

"My Fair Lady" is a very simple tale which has been re-told throughout the ages.  The story of a metamorphosis from one thing to another always grabs audiences.  This film is a fine re-telling of the classic story.

This is one of those films that is just so brilliantly realized that it has an out-sized reputation that creates out-sized expectations which are difficult to meet. But if you are in the right romantic mood, you will probably heartily enjoy it, as did I.

This musical is about human transformations. The main characters are all hiding behind facades, or are unable to realize what they really want or need because of their own limitations. How they get where they need to be, only with the help of others, is the essence of the story.

Rex Harrison is absolutely masterful as speech expert Henry Higgins (or "'iggins," as the song goes). Harrison was on one of the great film rolls of all time during this period, stealing "Cleopatra" out from under Elizabeth Taylor, playing the Pope in "The Agony and the Ecstasy," and owning "Dr. Doolittle" for all time. Here, he obviously is intrigued by flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), or he wouldn't engage in a six-month program to elevate her diction and manner to that of a lady.

But Higgins doesn't understand himself enough to recognize his own needs or desires, even though he feels free to chastise others over their own failures. So, he has to wait for a bet made by his new friend Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) to take Eliza under his tutelage. His relationship with her enables him to break out of his own inward-looking, misanthropic, self-constructed prison and recognize his own need for her in his life. That is the real transformation in the film, and the secret to its charm.

The money man, Jack Warner, with the stars

Audrey Hepburn is at her peak, and that's saying something. She's not just luminous, she displays immense acting chops by overcoming the intimidating challenge of defining her character by her changing diction and accent. And you will notice her lapse now and then towards the end of the film when a lesser actress would try to hammer home her transformation by speaking only in perfect English. She's still imperfect, but getting better. Enchanting.

Some key lines toward the end of the film reveal much about the characters. "You shouldn't have said that, Eliza, that shows a want of feeling." That's exactly what the problem is, but it is Higgins himself who continually shows a want of feeling. He is projecting every time he discusses emotion because expressing and even recognizing his own feelings is so alien to him. Higgins continues, "It's you who've hit me, you've wounded me to the heart." But he hasn't demonstrated even once that he actually has a heart. Watching Eliza advance herself is the sentimental heart of the film. But watching Higgins learn something about emotion and how to treat people from Eliza, that's the film's payoff.

And I haven't even mentioned the songs! "Get Me to the Church on Time," "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man," the Greek chorus of house servants - unlike even other great musicals, the songs neither overshadow the story (think "Oklahoma"), nor interrupt the flow. This is what musicals should be, and almost never are. A seamless flow of showstoppers that don't stop the show. Lerner and Loewe at their best. And Rex Harrison basically rapping thirty years before that became a musical style. Amazing.

You may have to be a romantic to appreciate this film. If you want to start judging the characters based on how you think they should live, you really aren't ready for "My Fair Lady." Just relax, enjoy this look at imperfect people brought together by chance who find some happiness, and admire the atmosphere and originality. You'll have a great time.

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