Directed by George Cukor
Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, based upon “My Fair Lady” by Alan Jay Lerner, and “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw
Starring Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Stanley Holloway
Lessons – life is lessons. As this project has been my life in so many ways for a good five years, it stands to reason this Project is lessons. The primary? Immediate plaudits – worldly rewards, you might say – do not last. The Oscars themselves are proof of this. Though you can win one and think you’ve really become something special, the reality is that all you’re left with is a hunk of gold-plated britannium. And the gold? It’s barely on there.
What does this mean?
It means that winning Best Picture is truly a double-edge sword. Yes, you have the Oscar, but the recognition is transitory; in many ways, honor is the kiss of death. These days, the winners are scorned more than lionized, with the victory starting the immediate backlash, while for the losers begins the years-long process of reevaluation and ascension to immortality.
This talk – façade and the like – is a great subject for discussion in most years with the Oscars, but especially with the 1964 Oscars. After all, the Best Picture winner, My Fair Lady, is a movie that trucks specifically in the idea of façade. Confronting the idea that little matters beyond the surface, and taking it down with the reality that a well-dressed rat is still a rat.
What’s It About?
My Fair Lady is the story of an early-20th century British guttersnipe (Hepburn), lifted from her lowly station and polished to respectability by a professor of phonetics (Harrison), for no more reason than to prove he can do it.
In other words, he does it for pure reasons – simply to do it.
Subtextually – at least, as subtextually as you can be when the movie goes right on the nose with it – it is the story of two grown men playing with a human doll. They dress her, clean her and teach her to speak. Along the way the guttersnipe learns assimilate and make herself acceptable to the upper-classes, who can only see things in a superficial light, while the professor learns that superficiality doesn’t make the man. Through it all songs are sung, accents are trampled and high energy is spilled on every available surface.
Is It Good?
Let’s be honest – if the Best Picture Project is all about lessons, then the one you should have learned by now is that while some of the films to win Best Picture are terrible and completely unworthy, the majority are nominally-worthy of the trophy, just not worthy enough to get my appreciation. Only the rarest few get my seal of approval. In other words, some are crap, most are good, and a couple are transcendent. It won’t surprise you to learn that My Fair Lady is just good. Not terrible, not great, only good.
Where Did It Go Wrong?
Well, since I said the movie is good, it didn’t go wrong, exactly. It just didn’t go right enough to be considered Best Picture.
So, here’s the thing: I’ve never seen the source material My Fair Lady is based upon – Pygmalion – in any form, so I’m no expert on the original or fidelity to it. But if you asked me – which, being the writer of this piece and the one who posed the very question I aim to answer, I am asking me – it went wrong in making the transition from straight drama to musical drama. And really, the what went wrong really comes down to one thing.
See, the original film version of Pygmalion, from the 1930s, clocks in at a lean 96 minutes and, given George Bernard Shaw retained control over that adaptation, it’s safe to surmise that film was an accurate-enough take on the material. In other words – it was not abridged or expanded to any great degree. And if it was expanded, it certainly didn’t make the film more than 96 minutes.,
My Fair Lady, on the other hand in telling the exact same story, needed nearly twice as much time – 170 minutes. How did it that happen? By adding songs, of course. According to Amazon, the total length of the soundtrack album comes in at 75 minutes. So, take Pygmalion’s run time – 96 minutes – and the My Fair Lady’s soundtracks run time – 75 minutes – and add them together and you have an overall time of 171 minutes. Or, nearly the exact length of My Fair Lady.
So, they made the film longer, which would not be a complaint if the songs brought an added dimension to the film. I’m sad to say, though, they don’t. Rather, they make the film obvious and heavy-handed in more ways than one, and obliterate any subtext by making it explicitly, and repeatedly, text. They turn the film into a fellow who beats a dead horse. Who makes the same point repeatedly. Who—
I hope you get the irony of the point I’m making.
The film is long to the point of tedium so that by the end, rather than bring festivities to a smooth and efficient halt, the film ladles on song after song and drags it all out until the horse, truly, and finally, is dead.
If only they’d cut the songs…
Where Did It Go Right?
Pleasantly, for a film that’s essentially stage-bound by its nature and its material – as all musicals must be, owing to the need for rigid control of everything to pull off the production – it only occasionally feels stage-bound. And really, in those instances where it does – during the horse-race, for instance – the film owns its restrictions and tries to do something interesting with it. While George Cukor will never be accused of having any real cinematic style, unless you count excellence with eliciting performances, he does admirably well in opening the story up by embracing it’s closed-offedness. In a nutshell, where the set hems him in, he stylizes the hell out of it.
Harrison is magnificent and it’s easy to see why he won the Oscar. He’s charming and quick-witted and crafty and carries the movie on his perfect diction. It is a role that was made for him and he owns it. Well, as much as he can, anyway. Even by the end he gets a bit tedious, proving that too much of a good thing is still too much.
Wilfred Hyde-White, playing Harrison’s partner-in-crime in the endeavor is also magnificent and the real unsung hero here. For playing a role that requires him largely to lay about a chair and occasionally chide Harrison for something-or-other, he plays the part magnificently. In the same role, many others would simply phone it in; Hyde-White, though, makes it sing – figuratively, because he does not literally sing.
The only real flaw among the performers is Audrey Hepburn. On the one hand, she handles the later parts of the film with ease – she has the poise and sense of superiority needed and can effortlessly project the inner-turmoil that strikes the dandified version of her guttersnipe. On the other hand, she is completely unbelievable as a guttersnipe. No matter how much dirt they throw on her, or how laughably-broad an accent she trots out, you’re always aware Audrey Hepburn is under there. While I’m sure that Hepburn helped the film at the box office, on its own terms, her presence really does nothing.
Why Did It Win?
If I had to guess, My Fair Lady as Best Picture can be boiled down to one thing – it made money. A lot of it. And came out just after Christmas 1964, positioning it well to ride its money-makingness to victory. Today, this rush to bestow honors on box office champs has become anathema to everything art and awards stand for, but it’s amazing to think just how often a top box office draw for a year wound up winning Best Picture.
You know I’m not going to say My Fair Lady should have been Best Picture, right? Just because I can understand why it happened doesn’t mean I think it should have happened.
In its place, 1964 offers a handful of worthy alternatives – adolescent me is most partial to Mary Poppins and still gets a thrill seeing it, even though I know the film is a touch too long and could benefit from cutting the interminable ‘Feed the Birds’ number.
Older, more playful me, rather likes Jules Dassin’s Topkapi, which is light and fun and features splendid performances all around. It’s clearly the example Ocean’s Eleven modeled itself on.
Others on a more pretentious bent might say Becket. Trash aficionados might tag Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. Others, a Hard Day’s Night.
No matter what, though, chose those and you’ve chose wrong.
The longest-lasting, most culturally relevant, and simply the most stunning film to come out in 1964 was Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. A raucous, prescient, and amazing film, it never ceases to be both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. And even if you don’t care for Peter Sellers performances, which have largely struck me as being a bit too broad on the main, you can always choose between Sterling Hayden, or George C. Scott. In a year in which My Fair Lady seemed like one of the last gasps of the old Hollywood system, Dr. Strangelove signals the revolution about to come.
See the rest of The Best Picture Project here.
See the companion series, the Also Rans Project, here.
 Or, if you will, a polished turd is still a turd.
 Chicago would do something similar 40 years later, basically leaning into it’s short-comings and turning them to an advantage.
 See The Law of Diminishing Returns.
 It was Stanley Holloway, in the farcically-broad role of Hepburn’s father who was nominated for an Oscar, not the less-showy but far-more-shrew Hyde-White who got the plaudits.
 That’s actually not true – he contributes a bit to a few songs, but mostly in that talking-on-pitch way that Harrison also relies on.
 If Dick Van Dyke is the crème de la crème of bad accents, Audrey Hepburn is the chocolate mousse.
 This is not a Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos role.
 Wikipedia tells me that film was the #1 film in America for seven of it’s first eight weeks in release, giving up the top spot in mid-February, or just about a month before the Academy Awards. According to the IMDB, it was the second-highest grossing film of the year.
 Academy historians will note that Julie Andrews originated the role in the stage version of My Fair Lady that Audrey Hepburn played in the film. The only reason she got to win an Oscar for Mary Poppins? Jack Warner didn’t think she was star enough to put in the film version of My Fair Lady. Though she didn’t thank Jack Warner from the podium on Oscar night, she probably should have.
 The REAL star of this show.