Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, My Fair Lady is a musical about a pompous phonetics expert, Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who tries to win a bet by making it his personal mission to transform an unrefined Cockney flower girl into someone who can pass off as a duchess, and fool polite society that she is one in the process. His latest victim is Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) who agrees to speech lessons to help her job prospects. Higgins and Eliza fight almost all of the time, and form an unlikely relationship, a bond which is threatened by an aristocratic gentleman who hovers around Eliza like a bad smell.
Let’s not pull any punches. We all know a Henry Higgins. As I’m doing a Creative Writing degree, I probably know about five hundred of those pompous, egotistic, language fanatics who think having a regional accent other than RP connotes poor intelligence. e.g. Cockney, Scouse, The rural American South (Hillbillies/Rednecks) and the accents of Cornwall (watch Poldark). My Fair Lady is a grand discussion about accents and dialects, and society’s attitudes towards them, but also how we place value judgements on people merely based on how they speak. From slang to inflections to non-standard forms, it’s a mickey take of accents, and an intelligent one at that.
Higgins maybe a bit sexist, but he is not misogynistic. They hate women, and I’m not excusing his sexism, but he’s just a product of his time. What he is, is a cynic and he hates everyone equally, until they give him a reason not to. He treats everyone with the same contempt, including Col. Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White), Eliza’s father (Stanley Holloway) and his own mother (Gladys Cooper) to name a few. Though, it’s more obvious with Eliza because they share more screentime together, and characters like his mother are used to his disrespect. When you know someone well, you get used to their ticks. Some people are impossible to live with but worth the effort all the same.
My Fair Lady shows cinema at its best, and a musical that is on par with the likes of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, which I forgot to mention in my last review. The songs and dialogue are witty and intelligent. “There even are places where English completely disappears; in America they haven’t used it for years” From ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly’ to ‘The Rain in Spain’ to ‘Why Can’t the English’ to ‘I Am an Ordinary Man’, this is a well-thought out polemic attack on the ideological syntax of prescriptivists who argue standard English is the linguistic Bible. It’s charmingly comical and this is reverberated through Hepburn and Harrison. I can drink to that. Chin! Chin!
From his mother to his close friends to his hired help to a strange flower girl, Higgins generally has a disdain for the human race. He is a refined professor who is part of high society with a liking for high culture, high art and things with a price longer than my phone number. He’s so confident in his skills that he accepts a bet to change a common flower girl into a lady. “She’s so deliciously low. So horribly dirty” says Higgins. Harrison’s performance is unarguably brilliant and not even a prescriptivist could argue the case, as we all know they will argue about anything. He won the bloody Oscar and deservedly at that. Never has a performance made me hate and love a character so much.
Hepburn is a tour de force and I really enjoyed her as Eliza, from rags to riches in every meaning. We see Higgins tutor Eliza on how to speak, how to dress and how to walk. In essence, he is teaching her the pragmatics on how to survive in high society. And the experiment is such a success that these rich aristocrats are completely oblivious to the fact that they’ve shaken hands with a commoner… oh shock horror! However, she sees that she’s becoming a material object in a rich man’s chess match to be pawned off and be replaced with something better when she gets to the end of the board, and in this case it’s Higgins feeling that sense of victory… or is it?
Despite the film having romantic leanings and sexual tension between the main characters, no romance was present. And by the end, both parties had a mutual respect for one another that transcended the restrictions of social status in a class-obsessed Britain, no matter if you are from the gutter or born with a silver spoon in your mouth.