The Best Picture Winners: My Fair Lady (1964)

| November 20, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

This isn’t going to make me any friends.

As musicals go, I admire My Fair Lady without necessarily falling in love with it.  Of the four musicals to win Best Picture in the decade, it is probably my least favorite – I don’t hate it, but for me, it is so problematic that I just find it hard to wrap my arms around it.

My Fair Lady is a second-tier adaptation, based on a stage musical that was based the book “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw which tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who makes a bet that he can couth an uncouth flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and turn her into a pillar of social graces.  To be perfectly honest, Revisiting the film again recently, I couldn’t help thinking that a similar story was told much better with Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.

There’s a lot to be mined here and the movie finds greatness in Rex Harrison’s over-the-top performance as the stringent Higgins (which got him the year’s Best Actor award) whose task master approach to Ms. Doolittle is actually a lot of fun (“Youll get much further with the Lord if you learn not to offend His ears!).  Yet, I’m not so convinced of Hepburn’s performance.  Hepburn was a lady from head to toe.  She had one of the most luminous faces that the movies ever captured, and she possessed a singular charm that I can’t equal to anyone working today.

This is why I’m not able to buy her performance as Eliza Doolittle.  Late in the film, when she becomes the beautiful socialite that Higgins had been molding, she’s perfect.  But its an unconvincing road getting there.  When I see her sitting on the street selling flowers and affecting the accent of a cockney street urchin, it feels like a performance, a bad performance.  There’s nothing natural about it.

My other problem with the film is the love story. I don’t believe for one moment that Henry Higgins would fall for Eliza Doolittle. He has such distaste for her middling social graces at the beginning that while I can believe (given that its Audrey Hepburn) that he would become “accustomed to her face,” I can’t imagine that he would fall for her.  He’s too impatient and demanding for a romantic relationship with anyone.

Plus, the music seems strangely muted.  There are moments when the songs seem separate from the actors, and there are moments when the songs seem to suggest something that isn’t really pertinent.  For example, Eliza sings that she “could have danced all night” but all Higgins did was twirl her around a few times.  Plus, her singing is bothersome in that the dubbing often doesn’t match.  Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon and whenever you see that her lips don’t match the sound it makes you rue the day that Jack Warner decided to forego Julie Andrews, who would have sung her own songs.

There’s too much that bothers me with My Fair Lady.  It’s okay, but it’s a weak production, a fact that it is aggravated because it won Best Picture in the same year as the release of far superior musicals like A Hard Day’s Night, Mary Poppins, Viva Las Vegas, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  It would have been great if the voters of the Academy would have shown those films some love.  Wouldn’t it be loverly?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.