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Paramount / 173 Minutes / 1964 / Rated G / Street Date: November 15, 2011
Pickering: "What about your boast that you could pass her off as a duchess at the Embassy Ball? I'll say you're the greatest teacher alive if you make that good…"
Higgins: "You know, it's almost irresistible. She's so deliciously low. So horribly dirty."
Eliza: "I ain't dirty. I washed my face and hands before I come, I did."
Higgins: "I'll take it. I'll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe."
Here's the type of story you don't hear in modern day Hollywood: Legend has it that after Rex Harrison became synonymous with the role of Henry Higgins in the stage production of My Fair Lady, Warner Bros. didn't want him for the film version. They preferred Cary Grant. But when Grant was approached, he boldly told Warner Bros. he would never do another film for the studio unless Harrison was hired. Harrison got the part.
Now, here's the type of story you do hear in modern day Hollywood. Equally synonymous with her stage role in My Fair Lady was Julie Andrews as Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. However, Andrews was little-known at the time and the studio preferred marketable uber-waif Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn had no compunction about taking over the role, and she accepted the part. When the 1964 Oscar nominations were announced, Hepburn didn't even receive a nod for her performance. However, Andrews was nominated for, and eventually won, a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Mary Poppins.
Of course, Hepburn's Oscar slight notwithstanding, My Fair Lady did not want for nominations. It received twelve and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Harrison), Best Director (George Cukor) and Best Score (Andre Previn).
With its pink colorations and lighter-than-air milieu, watching My Fair Lady is like eating cotton candy. Of course, it's also like eating cotton candy for 173 minutes. But despite its occasional butt-shifting length, the film holds up on the strength of the ever-so-huggable Hepburn (although she's really too pretty for the part) and the quality of the lyrics, which are surprisingly devoid of excess sentimentality.
Look at her, a prisoner of the gutters
Condemned by every syllable she utters
By right she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue...
Eliza is a Cockney flower vendor who meets Professor Higgins, a self-proclaimed speech scientist ("Anyone can spot an Irishman or a Yorkshireman by his brogue" Higgins says. "But I can place a man within six miles."). Seeing the end of the English language embodied in this "bilious pigeon", he bets his friend Col. Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that in six months he can transform Eliza into a proper Englishwoman. So with game afoot, the lessons (and the songs, including I Could Have Danced All Night and The Rain in Spain) begin.
My Fair Lady is a feast for the eyes and the ears. Fans of musicals may prefer the gaudy, look-at-me excess of Moulin Rouge or the gritty, Leonard Bernstein-propelled West Side Story. But My Fair Lady is a film about class, made with class.