I’m a legitimate fan of actress Audrey Hepburn, obviously in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but also in this as well. There is some debate on if the film is sexist, or not, which I would rather leave alone right now. According to The New York Times review:
AS Henry Higgins might have whooped, “By George, they’ve got it!” They’ve made a superlative film from the musical stage show “My Fair Lady”—a film that enchantingly conveys the rich endowments of the famous stage production in a fresh and flowing cinematic form. The happiest single thing about it is that Audrey Hepburn superbly justifies the decision of the producer, Jack L. Warner, to get her to play the title role that Julie Andrews so charmingly and popularly originated on the stage.
All things considered, it is the brilliance of Miss Hepburn as the Cockney waif who is transformed by Prof. Henry Higgins into an elegant female facade that gives an extra touch of subtle magic and individuality to the film, which had a bejeweled and bangled premiere at the Criterion last night.
Other elements and values that are captured so exquisitely in this film are but artful elaborations and intensifications of the stage material as achieved by the special virtuosities and unique flexibilities of the screen.
There are the basic libretto and music of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, which were inspired by the wit and wisdom in the dramatic comedy, “Pygmalion,” of George Bernard Shaw. With Mr. Lerner serving as the screen playwright, the structure and, indeed, the very words of the musical play as it was performed on Broadway for six and a half years are preserved. And every piece of music of the original score is used.
There is punctilious duplication of the motifs and patterns of the décor and the Edwardian costumes and scenery, which Cecil Beaton designed for the stage. The only difference is that they’re expanded. For instance, the Covent Garden set becomes a stunningly populated market, full of characters and movement in the film; and the embassy ball, to which the heroine is transported Cin-derellalike, becomes a dazzling array of regal splendor, as far as the eye can reach, when laid out for ritualistic emphasis on the Super-Panavision color screen. Since Mr. Beaton’s decor was fresh and flawless, it is super-fresh and flawless in the film.
In the role of Professor Higgins, Rex Harrison still displays the egregious egotism and ferocity that he so vividly displayed on the stage, and Stanley Holloway still comes through like thunder as Eliza’s antisocial dustman dad.
Yes, it’s all here, the essence of the stage show—the pungent humor and satiric wit of the conception of a linguistic expert making a lady of a guttersnipe by teaching her manners and how to speak, the pomp and mellow grace of a romantic and gone-forever age, the delightful intoxication of music that sings in one’s ears.
The added something is what Miss Hepburn brings—and what George Cukor as the director has been able to distill from the script.
For want of the scales of a jeweler, let’s just say that what Miss Hepburn brings is a fine sensitivity of feeling and a phenomenal histrionic skill. Her Covent Garden flower girl is not just a doxy of the streets. She’s a terrifying example of the elemental self-assertion of the female sex. When they try to plunge her into a bathtub, as they do in an added scene, which is a wonderfully comical creation of montage and pantomime, she fights with the fury of a tigress. She is not one to submit to the still obscure customs and refinements of a society that is alien to her.
But when she reaches the point where she can parrot the correct words to describe the rain in Spain, she acknowledges the thrill of achieving this bleak refinement with an electrical gleam in her eyes. And when she celebrates the male approval she receives for accomplishing this goal, she gives a delightful demonstration of ecstasy and energy by racing about the Higgins mansion to the music of “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
It is true that Marni Nixon provides the lyric voice that seems to emerge from Miss Hepburn, but it is an excellent voice, expertly synchronized. And everything Miss Hepburn mimes to it is in sensitive tune with the melodies and words.
Miss Hepburn is most expressive in the beautiful scenes where she achieves the manners and speech of a lady, yet fails to achieve that one thing she needs for a sense of belonging—that is, the recognition of the man she loves.
She is dazzlingly beautiful and comic in the crisply satiric Ascot scene played almost precisely as it was on the stage. She is stiffly serene and distant at the embassy ball and almost unbearably poignant in the later scenes when she hungers for love. Mr. Cukor has maneuvered Miss Hepburn and Mr. Harrison so deftly in these scenes that she has one perpetually alternating between chuckling laughter and dabbing the moisture from one’s eyes.
This is his singular triumph. He has packed such emotion into this film—such an essence of feeling and compassion for a girl in an all too-human bind—that he has made this rendition of “My Fair Lady” the most eloquent and moving that has yet been done.
There are other delightful triumphs in it. Mr. Harrison’s Higgins is great—much sharper, more spirited and eventually more winning than I recall it on the stage. Mr. Holloway’s dustman is titanic, and when he roars through his sardonic paean to middle-class morality in “Get Me to the Church on Time,” he and his bevy of boozers reach a high point of the film.
Wilfrid Hyde White as Colonel Pickering, who is Higgins’s urbane associate; Mona Washburn as the Higgins housekeeper, Gladys Cooper as Higgins’s svelte mama and, indeed, everyone in the large cast is in true and impeccable form.
Though it runs for three hours — or close to it — this “My Fair Lady” seems to fly past like a breeze. Like Eliza’s disposition to dancing, it could go on, for all I’d care, all night.