MY FAIR LADY (1964) – A “classical” movie musical

The following is my entry in Audrey at 90: The Audrey Hepburn Blogathon, being hosted by Janet at Sister Celluloid from May 4-7, 2019. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ takes on the career of this beloved actress!

My Fair Lady won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1964 — deservingly so, and I say that as a huge fan of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, which came out the same year and wasn’t even nominated. Film history tells us that the Beatles film was a beloved influence for generations of moviemakers to come, while the former film was one of the last gasps of the “classical” movie musical.

But My Fair Lady is certainly nothing to sneeze at. It too seems to have influenced some filmmakers. (Think of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, with male leads who condescendingly “educate” their women and then discover that the women have minds of their own.) And like the flowers that poor Cockney girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) tries to peddle for a meager living, My Fair Lady has subtle joys that spring forth from out of nowhere.

The story — musicalized from George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion — is that of Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a self-satisfied bachelor and phonics professor who bets his sidekick that he can take a nobody and turn her into a high-society woman. Enter the nobody: Eliza Doolittle, asking to take phonics lessons.

Of course, turning a low-life into a dandy isn’t precisely what the movie’s about, though it has a lot of fun with this plot point. The trouble — for Higgins, at least — begins after he succeeds at his quest and then belatedly discovers that Doolittle has more on her mind than just remaining Higgins’ trophy.

And small wonder — Doolittle’s own dad Alfred (the delightful Stanley Holloway) hasn’t exactly been a male role model for her. In fact, Alfred’s two great numbers — “With a Little Bit of Luck,” about his best efforts to escape work, and “Get Me to the Church on Time,” about his resignation to marriage — are a story of male ego run amok in themselves.

That’s probably why My Fair Lady is still so enjoyable — because everyone in it has a story. (Observe Higgins’ petulance in the brief scene where he’s humbled by his mother, who immediately takes Eliza’s side in the ongoing argument.)

In its own way, My Fair Lady is as radical as The Beatles. Rex Harrison wasn’t much of a singer, so he “talks” his way through the movie’s songs, creating a song style of his own. And Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by the famous Hollywood “alternate” Marni Nixon (who also sang uncredited in the movie version of The King and I).

But Harrison and Hepburn’s grin-inducing performances overcome all impersonalities. And with the movie’s 50th-anniversary restoration, it’s as much a delight to look at as to listen to. My Fair Lady is a prime example of the kind of movie “they don’t make like that anymore.”


7 thoughts on “MY FAIR LADY (1964) – A “classical” movie musical

  1. I think My Fair Lady owes its success to the Shaw source material and the gorgeous Lerner and Loewe songs. While I can understand the choice to use the classically trained singer Marni Nixon, I understand that Audrey Hepburn worked diligently on the vocals and her true voice may have added a charming touch to her delightful performance.

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  2. I had the opportunity to watch this film last night for the first time and was really pleased with it. It was very funny in beginning though it was sadly at Eliza’s expense but Harrison’s delivery was just so dry and harshly frank that you could not help but to agree with him. The fact that Rex talks his way through the songs was one of the first things I noticed which also made me hurt a little more for Audrey not having her singing effort compensated. Why would they suppress her while retaining him? This is indeed a lively musical that is quite unlike any other I have seen. I think I would have championed more for the Eliza and the Professor had he not been so dastardly up until the very end. Still, this was a really enjoyable watch and I really enjoyed your take on it. 🙂

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  3. It is certainly a big lavish Sixties musical, but unlike Doctor Dolittle, I can actually sit through this one and smile at all the numbers. Jeremy Brett is one of my favorite actors and I just love him in this, however small his part was.

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