BEST PICTURE REVISITED: MY FAIR LADY (1964)

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In 1964, most people couldn’t tell you who Marni Nixon was. She had dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember, then Natalie Wood in West Side Story — and without screen credit. But when it came to dubbing Eliza Doolittle, Audrey Hepburn suddenly experienced the first noteworthy public backlash to not singing for herself.

After all, many American households owned a My Fair Lady cast album — both the 1956 Broadway and 1959 London casts featured Rex Harrison, Julie Andrews, and Stanley Holloway. The average middle-class American, whether or not they’d seen George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, identified Andrews as their Eliza. A similar thing happened when Warner Bros. filmed The Music Man and kept original stage star Robert Preston. (Did anyone speak up for Barbara Cook?)

When I rewatched My Fair Lady — a childhood favorite, and a movie I’ve seen many times — I couldn’t shake the jump from Hepburn’s dialogue to Nixon’s singing. The mid-song hand-off in “Just You Wait,” for example, is distracting. On set, Hepburn sang to her own playback for some numbers, with select Nixon-notes mixed in. Whenever the songs stop, Hepburn is often wonderful. She’s not very convincing as a street-smart Cockney girl in the first scene, playing everything too broadly. But she’s funny, which she didn’t get to be in most movies, and she handles Shaw’s scenes with grace and wit.

(By the time the cameras rolled, Harrison could have played Higgins in his sleep. He’s every bit the imperious, soured professor, but without a hint of sexual energy.)

On my rewatch, “The Rain in Spain” seems awfully silly. George Cukor could have used Eliza’s lessons to suggest a progression in her abilities; Shaw wrote scenes like this for Pygmalion. It’s immensely theatrical to have Eliza suddenly code-switch in one night from Cockney to proper pronunciation, but also makes her seem less intelligent. This movie makes fun of Cockney Eliza (“aaaaaaaaaaaaaay”) more than Shaw did.

“Where The Devil Are My Slippers?”

Shaw ended Pygmalion with Higgins smugly presuming Eliza will come back to him:

“Oh, by the way, Eliza, order a ham and a Stilton cheese, will you? And buy me a pair of reindeer gloves, number eights, and a tie to match that new suit of mine, at Eale & Binman’s. You can choose the color.”

But she wouldn’t, right? He even wrote a note to his original leading lady advising her that Higgins’s creation should retain her dignity:

“When Eliza emancipates herself – when Galatea comes to life – she must not relapse. She must retain her pride and triumph to the end.”

When the 1938 movie was written, the final scene was not Shaw’s. Eliza returns, and Higgins asks where the devil his slippers are. Alan Jay Lerner kept this ending for the musical, and so Cukor films Hepburn (in a ridiculous dress and hat) slowly moving toward Harrison.

Let’s take bets what the next line will be. I’m guessing a little afternoon delight is out; I can’t imagine them in bed together. (Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, on the other hand…) If Eliza’s smart, she won’t marry Henry or Freddy. She could start her own flower shop, but even then she will have to ask for money first. I fear Eliza’s new self-possession may be short-lived. So the happy, romantic ending – to me – feels neither happy nor romantic.

Why It Won

If Jack Warner had hired Julie Andrews for My Fair Lady, who knows how different her career would have been? She would have been unavailable for Mary Poppins. Maybe she would have made Camelot, her other Lerner-Loewe stage success. Andrews (like Barbra Streisand a few years later) came to movie musicals with a smash debut (and a Best Actress Oscar). But soon the parade would pass them by.

The other nominees were Poppins, the medieval face-off Becket, the comic-drama Zorba the Greek, and the anarchic Stanley Kubrick comedy Dr. Strangelove. It’s no surprise the handsomely mounted (and overlong) My Fair Lady took the trophy, despite Audrey Hepburn’s casting. Though most hit musicals of the fifties and sixties transferred to Hollywood, only My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music would win Tonys for Best Musical and Oscars for Best Picture.

Zorba and Mary Poppins were, in their own way, offshoots of the Pygmalion legend. The vivacious Zorba teaches uptight Alan Bates to live for today. Mary awakens a heartless, capitalist father to the joys of his family and his children, creating order through chaos.

Dr. Strangelove was weird and anarchic, and inspired every future writer to consider subtitles. It was an unmistakable hit for Kubrick, the sort of anti-war satire that could have dated easily, but has remained in the pantheon of ‘60s classics. You wouldn’t call it Best Picture; it was too off-the-wall for that prestigious title.

Not Nominated

This was the year of Bond classics From Russia with Love and Goldfinger; the year of Gothic campfest Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Samuel Fuller’s appealingly lurid The Naked Kiss. In a just world, James Garner might have seen recognition for The Americanization of Emily, and Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr for John Huston’s excellent The Night of the Iguana.

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One comment

  1. […] years between Ellis and Chew are significant, and Chew (like Rex Harrison) does not seem a sexual partner. Chew makes the phonetics teacher especially irascible but naive to […]

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