The 37th Academy Awards (1965)
I’m not sure when the idea of “Oscar-y movies” started to take hold, but my guess would be the 1960s. Or at the very least, the ’60s are the first decade where you can start to see a clear pattern of the types of movies that would be lauded with Oscars. It’s a decade that was (almost infamously) eager to hand out Oscars to two specific genres — the musical and the British period piece. While some of the Best Picture winners from this decade could easily still be regarded as classics (like Lawrence of Arabia or West Side Story), the Academy’s willingness to so fervently reward these genres in retrospect feels like a bit of an overreach. Especially when far more exciting things were going on in international film, whose influence would seep its way into the more brash Hollywood films that were getting Oscars by the decade’s end.
1965 appears to be the height of this very particular kind of Oscar film, as the two movies to garner the most Oscar nominations that year were both musicals and British period pieces (Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady). Despite having never seen My Fair Lady prior to viewing it for this review, this actually isn’t the first time I’ve ever written about it on this blog. Back in 2009, I did a top ten list of movies that should have won Best Picture, and contended that Dr. Strangelove should have won Best Picture while admitting that I hadn’t seen the film that beat it that year. Well, 12 years later, I can now confirm what that half-baked list proclaimed: that Dr. Strangelove would’ve never in a million years won Best Picture, but it is quite a bit better than My Fair Lady.
Based on the 1956 stage musical by Lerner and Loewe, My Fair Lady doesn’t focus quite as much on the titular lady as it does on Professor Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison), an expert in linguistics who believes that one’s accent can change their social mobility. Higgins places a bet with one of his colleagues that he could actually pull this off, by lifting a woman out of poverty and into the elite class just by giving her the proper accent. He sees an opportunity to follow through with this while carousing a food market and happens upon a surly young cockney named Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). After Higgins offers to give Eliza speaking lessons, she more or less tells him to bugger off, but then comes knocking on his door because her accent is doomed to keep her from fulfilling her dreams of working in a flower shop.
From there, we see a bunch of scenes where Eliza is living in Higgins’s home while he gives her vocal lessons, which are mostly comedic in nature. After lots of pushback by the ornery Eliza, we finally see her singing perfectly in the King’s English the song “The Rain In Spain” while repeating this phrase with perfect diction. After an initial hiccup of lapsing into vulgar cockney at a horse race (just imagine lots of snooty British people going “oh heavens!”), she charms the patrons of a fancy ball. Eliza even manages to charm an upper-class young man named Freddy who becomes infatuated with her. However, Eliza’s relationship with Henry starts to become bitter as he gets a bunch of credit from his phonetic cronies while having little regard for her reluctance to adapt to this upper-class lifestyle, while the last act of the movie centers on the two of them reconciling this not-quite-romantic relationship.
There are a bunch of things I like about this movie and a bunch of things that I didn’t like, but I think the hardest thing for me to get over is the fact that there’s just something very stuffy about My Fair Lady. I don’t think this is merely because this a musical and when this movie came out musicals were on their way to irrelevance. Because when I think of the then-most-recent Oscar-winning musical, West Side Story, I can’t help but think of the way that film feels so vibrant and alive, while the dancing in it brought film choreography into a more modern era.
Though this film doesn’t even have dancing in it! This wouldn’t be such a non-starter if there was a more dynamic use of camera to make the staging of these musical numbers a little more exciting, but My Fair Lady doesn’t seem all that interested in straying from its stage roots. To be fair, director George Cukor pulled off a pretty great musical with no dancing and a fairly restrained camera in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born, but there you’ve got a very compelling story arc outside of the musical numbers. It’s a bit harder to make that case for a storyline that’s essentially a British She’s All That based around phonetics.
That said, a decent number of the songs here are pretty good, even if there are only a handful of images that are paired with them that have really stuck in my memory. “I Could Have Danced All Night” is probably the most famous number from this musical, but “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” is also a subtle jaunt that drives home the amicable but never riveting nature of this material. I do have to wonder how much the movie’s lengthy 170-minute run-time was influenced by the fact that the writer of the stage musical, Alan Jay Lerner, wrote the screenplay. I say this because there are quite a few numbers that could easily have been cut, most of them involving subplots revolving around Eliza’s dad that feel completely unnecessary. But because the creators of the musical were involved with the actual production of the film, they were probably a bit more precious with keeping their original vision intact.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of My Fair Lady is Rex Harrison’s Oscar-winning performance. I don’t think I’d seen any of Harrison’s films previously, but the way he prowls each scene like a tomcat while also exuding a sexual ambiguity is quite fun to watch. It’s weirdly made even more charming by the fact that the movie had to work around the fact that Harrison can’t really sing, so he more or less sing-speaks all of his numbers, which feels appropriate since his character is trying to sell something that isn’t as authentic as he makes it out to be. Audrey Hepburn’s performance I struggled with a bit more, since I never quite believed her cockney accent, as she seems like someone destined to be an upper-class socialite. I can’t decide if this is a failing of the actual performance or if we’ve all just come to accept Audrey Hepburn as this icon of class and sophistication, so it was just too hard to make that mental leap and buy her as working class.
While I found that many aspects of My Fair Lady‘s visual style left something to be desired, the film’s art direction and costumes are wonderful to look at, and completely deserved to win their Oscars. I was introduced to the fashion trends of Britain’s Edwardian era when watching Kind Hearts And Coronets last Criterion Month (which feature a lot of hilariously oversized hats), and they’re even more fun to look at in technicolor. Similarly, the sets are all immaculately designed (even if they sometimes feel too much like a broadway stage) and really pop in the restored version of the film that I watched on Netflix. Which in the end makes it a pleasant film to hear and look at, but not one that quite earns its length or its accolades.