My Fair Lady – Our First Musical

I wasn’t around at the time, but I’ve always felt that the 1960s were the most important, and most consequential, decade in the 20th Century. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, that event changed the course of the decade. It was an event that, in terms of Back to the Future II, skewed the timeline of America and its effects are still felt today. The assassination, though, was the precursor to the most chaotic year that decade: 1964.
In 1964, among other events, the Civil Rights Act was passed, the Gulf of Tonkin incident brought the full force of the U.S. into the Vietnam War, the nomination of Barry Goldwater for president saw the birth of conservatism, race riots happened in Harlem, Nikita Khrushchev was deposed, Robert Kennedy received a 22-minute standing ovation during the Democratic National Convention, Gemini 1 launched, and The Beatles invaded the U.S. for the first time and made their groundbreaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
But among some of these troublesome events, two landmark and lasting musicals were released. The first was Disney’s Mary Poppins. The second, My Fair Lady, the 37th winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, was released. With the turmoil in the United States and around the world, these two musicals live on as happy little reminders and escapes to a simpler time. It’s fitting that Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, as well as other big events from 1964, should be so well-known today.

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Even though My Fair Lady, which was directed by George Cukor, was released in 1964, I found this film to speak volume after volume of the state of Hollywood, not only then, but also in the present. It’s also a commentary on the overall state of wealth in our society. I’ll touch on that soon.
My Fair Lady is not at all what I expected. It’s not only the first film from the 1960s for me to review (and I’ve now covered at least one movie from every decade), but it’s also the first musical I’ve reviewed. When I was younger and more “macho,” I didn’t particularly care for musicals. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate, and even enjoy them immensely. But even then, I wasn’t expecting what My Fair Lady gave me. I was thoroughly enjoyed.
The film, which stars Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, sees beautiful lyrics, amazing costumes, all-time performances, and tasteful and jaw-dropping choreography. It’s one of the greatest musicals of all time, let alone one of the greatest films of the 20th Century.
Now, for the rest of the movie:

Plot
Hepburn plays Eliza Doolittle, a penniless flower girl who is swept up in a macho bet between dialectician Henry Higgins (Harrison) and Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White). The two bet that he can make the unrefined Doolittle into a high-class woman that will fool everyone at an embassy ball.
Along the way, Higgins is brutally verbally abusive to poor Eliza, even though she continues to put in long hours of hard work to remove her Cockney accent. Naturally, she does get rid of the accent and isn’t appreciated.

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My Fair Lady features a multi-layered plot with many different elements tugging on our characters at once, including love, daddy issues, and arrogance. It’s a very real and very human story. But, that’s what I expect out of every one of these films. So, I’ll say it met my expectations. 1.

Writing/Dialogue
My Fair Lady is based on the 1956 Broadway musical of the same name and the film was written by Alan Jay Lerner with the music written by Frederick Loewe. The whole concept is based on another play, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. The screenplay was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, one of 12 Oscar nominations for the film.
When it comes to its dialogue, My Fair Lady is as witty as they come, full of zingers and clever lines. But it’s also written in a very theatrical style. Going back to the days of Shakespeare (and probably sooner, really), lines in a play were delivered in an almost musical style. My Fair Lady is no different, but it’s a very subtle tone. The lines are delivered with great care and helps to suck you in to the story.
But, this is a musical, after all, so I have to take a look at the lyrics. I’m not an expert on lyrics, though. I’ve struggled with a way to judge the excellency of the movie’s lyrics. And I think I’ve come up with a good way: the tunes have been stuck in my head ALL DAMN WEEK. That’s a success in my book. 1.

Sound
Again, Lerner (lyrics) and Loewe (music) did the music for My Fair Lady. In addition to being stuck in my head for the whole week, the music itself is objectively good. It was nominated for Best Adaptation or Treatment Score at the 37th Academy Awards.

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The film features wide and sweeping orchestra that gives this film a grand feel. And it fits the mood perfectly. This was an expensive movie to make ($17 million in 1964 dollars; about $137 million today) and so it deserved a big score.
An interesting aspect of the sound in this film was the dubbing. It’s not conducive for actors to sing the same songs over and and over and over and over and over again just so the director can get the right take. So, the actors’ voices are usually dubbed in post production. Interestingly enough, all but one of Audrey Hepburn’s numbers were sung and dubbed by Marni Nixon as Hepburn wasn’t judged to be adequate enough. (“Just You Wait” is the only number that Hepburn actually sang in the film.) Rex Harrison, who starred in the original Broadway showing of the musical, refused to dub his songs. So, the crew used a wireless microphone to capture his voice live, and that was the first such use of a wireless microphone for a motion picture. 1.

Set Design
Earning a pair of Oscar wins in this category for Best Art Direction, Color and Best Costume Design, Color, My Fair Lady excels at displaying its physical space and era.
First the actual sets are nothing short of a marvel. Shot entirely at the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California, My Fair Lady’s sets are immaculate in every single detail. They’re also impressive in their scope, too. While a majority of the film takes place indoors, when the setting moves outside it takes on an entirely new feel. The outside scenes are in large public squares with tall brick buildings and columns. There was a lot of dedication in making these sets. I’m normally not a fan of movies shot exclusively in studios, but this one was different. The physical space the sets occupied made it feel larger than life.
Where the movie really shines, though, is in the costume design. Each costume, for every class of citizenry, is perfectly done and over-the-top. This is especially true during the “Ascot Gavotte” number. This sequence shows off, and satirizes, upper-class English life. The costumes, particularly the ladies’ hats, are incredible works of art and creativity on their own, much less together. 1.

Cinematography
Harry Stradling is the cinematographer for My Fair Lady and his efforts won him a Best Cinematography, Color Oscar in 1964.
Like many other films famous films of the day, My Fair Lady was shot in Super Panavision, which means it was shot using a gorgeous 2.20:1 aspect ratio on 70mm film. This combined with the colors of the set and the costumes, provided an incredibly beautiful viewing experience.

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There wasn’t a lot special about the camera itself, though. There weren’t any unique angles or panoramic shots, there was only movement. The camera was always tethered to a tripod, and it’s only the placement of it that changes. That being said, there are plenty of camera movements, particularly during the musical numbers.
Being based on a Broadway musical, My Fair Lady is blocked just like a Broadway show. That means the actors are constantly moving and taking full advantage of their physical space. This is to add life to the number and to change the audience’s focus. Therefore, the camera has to adapt to that, through movements that follow the subject and the movement has the same effect. 1.

Acting
The casting choices for My Fair Lady are controversial for who Warner Brothers didn’t choose to play Eliza Doolittle, rather than who they did choose. When the musical premiered on Broadway in 1956, Julie Andrews got the call to play the part opposite Rex Harrison. Warner Brothers didn’t believe that Andrews was well known enough to play the part so it went to the 35-year Audrey Hepburn. Andrews shrugged it off and went on to shoot a little movie called Mary Poppins, one that earned her a Best Actress win. Rex Harrison was cast in his role as Henry Higgins, opposite of Hepburn, and, while this duo was not preferred by some, it works and is, in fact, brilliant.
Hepburn plays the 19-year old Eliza Doolittle, a poor English woman who is wrapped up in a silly scheme to transform her into a “proper” woman by Henry Higgins.
When she gets to the “proper” part in the movie, Hepburn drips with class and seems to slide into this role perfectly. Class is what she’s known for. She displays a refinement that only Audrey Hepburn can do. But we know that.
What’s interesting about Hepburn is how full of life and energy she is in this film. A simple Google search will give us images of Hepburn with a benevolent look on her face. Yet, in My Fair Lady, she smiles and her eyes light up and she shows a ton of energy in her role. It sound weird, for sure, but I was enamored by Hepburn. This is one great performance from Hepburn, and yet she wasn’t even nominated for an acting Oscar, which is a shame. One more quick note on Hepburn: her singing wasn’t judged to be good enough and most of her songs were dubbed by another singer. She walked off the set when she found out, only to return.

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Rex Harrison plays the cocky and overly a****le-ish Henry Higgins, the man charged with refining Eliza. While Harrison played this part well, almost perfectly, really, my notes are littered with references to how much I hate Henry Higgins’ guts. Naturally, he becomes fond of Doolittle after the time he spent with her, teaching her.
Yet, for all the hating of Higgins that I did, Harrison’s part helps glue the film together. He won the Best Actor nomination despite the fact that he didn’t sing a note throughout the film. He’s not a great singer so he spoke all his numbers. Regardless, Harrison did very well, winning Best Actor for the part, but he pales in comparison to Hepburn’s portrayal of Eliza. 1.

Directing
Finally, George Cukor, won Best Director for his work on My Fair Lady, his only such award. Naturally, I appreciate his work as it relates to the world in 1964, but I also found the film to be incredibly relevant to today, too.
I blog about movies. Therefore, I have to pay attention to the ebbs and flows of the movie business. I know that studios are struggling outside the superhero movies. Hollywood can still make amazing movies, but they just don’t sell. The ratings for the Oscars were the lowest ever this year.
But, most of all, I know of, and absolutely love, the rise of women and the toppling of very powerful and horrible men. This campaign is not about outing all men in the industry, as it shouldn’t be, but just bringing out to the open horrible atrocities and abuses of power within the industry, as well as shaking up the power structure in favor of those victimized.
Everything in My Fair Lady before the intermission is exactly how Hollywood was at the time and through today: rich powerful men toying with women, putting them out into civilized life for their own enjoyment and then celebrating their own holding of the strings, handing out abuse after abuse along the way.
After the intermission, it’s about Doolittle taking what is hers and becoming alert to what Higgins is up to. She openly rebels against a dumbfounded Higgins and pulls the rug out from under his happy and posh life. And, I applaud her for it. I didn’t care for My Fair Lady at first, but after seeing how it transpired along the way, I’m glad I stuck around for it. This film is one of the best musicals, best films, and most poignant movies to date in this blog. 1.

Bonus Points
I have to give bonuses to the writing, acting, and directing.
Final score: 10/10

Oscar Facts
My Fair Lady won the 37th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 5, 1965 at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Santa Monica, California. My Fair Lady beat Becket, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins, and Zorba the Greek. Gregory Peck presented the award, which was accepted by Jack Warner, the head of Warner Brothers. My Fair Lady was nominated for 12 awards and won eight: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adaptation or Treatment Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Color, Best Cinematography, Color, and Best Costume Design, Color.
Other notable winners that night were Julie Andrews winning Best Actress for Mary Poppins, Peter Ustinov winning Best Supporting Actor for Topkapi, and Lila Kedrova winning Best Supporting Actress for Zorba the Greek. This ceremony was only the first out of two times that all the acting Oscars were won by non-Americans. Mary Poppins received the most nominations with 13. Becket and My Fair Lady both had 12 nominations each, and it’s the only time in Oscar history in which three films had 12 or more nominations. The ceremony was hosted by Bob Hope for the 14th time.

Final Notes
I found out that Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, this year’s Oscar winner, is now available to rent, and after some additional figuring, it actually comes up next in the rotation. So, that’s my post for April 2 and it with the Oscars not even a month old, this is probably the most timely this blog will ever be.
After The Shape of Water, it’s The Greatest Show on Earth, The Silence of the Lambs, The Life of Emile Zola, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Gone with the Wind, and How Green Was My Valley.

5 Comments

  1. My Fair Lady it’s my favorite movie ,and yes I felt in love with Audrey, it was a perfect movie ,when I enjoyed the film for first time was in cine Diana in Mexico City with a huge screen and beautiful sound.Thanks for you review. I would love to reed one thanks

    Liked by 1 person

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