Audrey Hepburn was a towering woman of talent. Movies starring her are delights decades after their release. So now its off to the year 1964 for this week’s movie pick. 1964 saw some landmark events culturally, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in the United States, The Beatles launched the British Invasion when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” vaulted to the top of the charts in the United States, and Jeopardy! debuted for the first on NBC with Art Fleming hosting. Meanwhile, Hollywood was abuzz at the latest musical film released, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.
Before the movie, there was the musical. Staged in 1956 by Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe, the musical was itself a variation on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play Pygmalion. With George Cukor at the helm, transitioning the musical from stage to screen gave way to a stunning production. A cast fit for any high-end Hollywood show. Not to mention memorable and wonderful songs that are still recalled fondly to this day. A production such as this, however, is only as good as its leading lady. That is where Audrey Hepburn comes in.
While Julie Andrews originated the role on stage, Jack L. Warner considered Audrey to be a more “bankable” option due to her already staggering success. Thus Eliza Doolittle was given to this queen of the screen, and there’s not been a doubt about her performance since. Her acting is stupendous and her altering of voices, from Eliza’s harsh Cockney to that of an Edwardian lady is flawless. Onscreen interactions with cast members Rex Harrison (Henry Higgins), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Colonel Pickering), Stanley Holloway (Alfred P. Doolittle), Jeremy Brett (Freddy Eynsford-Hill), etc., show just what kind of actress she was. For every scene and every bit of dialogue, dedication and hours of preparation went into her performance. It’s a smorgasbord of character work and emotions projected on camera, from disgust and rage, to delight, meekness, fear, anger, strength and more make up Eliza’s personality (brought to life by the leading lady). Working through a story that has a varied and insurmountable amount of costume changes, of which all coordinate to the different scenes and songs, is another example of why Audrey was the best choice as Eliza. The overarching relationship with Professor Henry Higgins is an interesting one. Starting out as pupil and teacher, by the very end it’s clear that Eliza and Henry have feelings for one another. It takes a long while to get to this point, and with such a star as Audrey leading the way, it’s a delightful journey through the world of England and the field of phonetics. But a musical wouldn’t be the same without its songs, and these are among some of the greats.
It would be next to impossible to detail every single song in this production. So to narrow the field, the focus shall be on two of Audrey’s best. An important note is that it is sadly not her voice audiences have delighted in. Because the vocals were not written in her range, Marni Nixon dubbed for all the numbers except the harsher toned chorus of “Just You Wait”. Even still, Audrey’s acting during “I Could Have Danced All Night” is pure energy. The sheer delight on her face at finally breaking through the phonetic barrier is evident, as is her joy at the way Higgins reacted to the breakthrough. Then there is the complete turnaround in “Show Me.” Here is a song full of fire and anger. Eliza is sick and tired of words being used to describe how men (Higgins and Freddy) feel about her. To quote the lyrics: “Here we are together in what ought to be a dream, say one more word and I’ll scream.” Right there, that line encapsulates how much Eliza wishes that if Higgins or Freddy truly had feelings for her, they would show her instead of tell her (ah, the joys of British men and manners).
It has been 53 years since My Fair Lady had its premiere. In all that time, the fame and power of the picture has only grown. At the 1965 Academy Awards, 8 were given to the film including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. And while Julie Andrews took home Best Actress for Mary Poppins, there was still love galore for the movie. One month after its release in 1964, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote of Audrey’s performance:
“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.”
There is so much to talk about with this picture, that the words would certainly run out. My Fair Lady is a beloved Broadway show and thanks to the work of George Cukor, Audrey Hepburn and the rest of the cast and crew, it is also a beloved movie musical. While this month is devoted to the achievements of this great lady of classic motion pictures, it is also in a sense a celebration of all the hard work that goes into making movies, no matter the decade.
At the time of the release, this was the most expensive film shot in the United States at the time, with a budget of $17 million dollars. That adds up to hours and days and weeks and months of hard work from all persons, the cast, crews, the director, producers etc. So when one takes the time to sit down and enjoy this celebrated cinematic masterpiece, remember this…It’s not just the people on the screen that make these works possible, it’s everyone behind the cameras too. Therefore, when watching a Hollywood gem like this all night, don’t forget all the hardworking people that made it possible, and enjoy another hallmark film from Audrey Hepburn.