Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cocky vs. Cockney

"The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated."

Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn)

My grandmother loved musicals. Her daughter (my mother) loved some musicals, too, not all — but they both loved George Cukor's "My Fair Lady," the movie version of the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play "Pygmalion" that made its big–screen debut 50 years ago today.

At one time, "My Fair Lady" was the longest–running musical in Broadway history, and that, I suppose, was the premise for making it into a movie.

That, however, was only one of several aspects of "My Fair Lady." It worked quite well on the stage and screen as a musical, and, with music by Lerner and Loewe, how could it not?

But it also worked as the spoof of the British class system that Shaw intended it to be. In fact, you could watch it several times, or a group of people could watch it together, and each experience could be unique.

There were lots of movie musicals in the 1960s; that wasn't what made "My Fair Lady" unique. But it may have been the pinnacle of the genre — beautifully filmed, elegantly costumed, gracefully acted.

The cast was wonderful, led by Rex Harrison and the always–beautiful Audrey Hepburn, who always lit up the screen (even if her singing was done by someone else — which it was. Marni Nixon did the singing in "My Fair Lady" as well as "The King and I" and "West Side Story.").

I am not a fan of musicals, but I would agree that the music in "My Fair Lady" was exceptional. I think it still holds up half a century later.

"I cannot decide if I am happier when the characters are talking or when they are singing," film critic Roger Ebert wrote. "The songs are literate and beloved; some romantic, some comic, some nonsense, some surprisingly philosophical, every single one wonderful."

As I recall, my mother and grandmother were especially fond of "I Could Have Danced All Night," the song that Audrey Hepburn sang after the iconic scene in which Harrison said, "By George, I think she's got it!" and he danced around the room with Hepburn while the two of them, along with Wilfrid Hyde–White (in perhaps his best–known role as Colonel Pickering), chanted variations on "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain."

If you haven't seen the movie, trust me, it makes sense when seen in context.

On the other hand, wrote Ebert, "The dialogue by Alan Jay Lerner [who also penned the song lyrics] wisely retains a great deal of 'Pygmalion.'"

Not to mention, as I said before, Shaw's original intent.

As I say, I'm not really a fan of musicals, but I think my favorite piece in "My Fair Lady" is the one from the race track, in which the patrons, to a minuet–like tune and in voices lacking any emotion at all, sang "Ascot Gavotte." Shaw would have been proud.
"Pulses rushing, faces flushing,
Heartbeats speed up,
I have never been so keyed up.
Any second now they'll begin to run.
Hark! a bell is ringing,
They are springing forward.
Look, it has begun!"

The horses ran past the totally still and silent onlookers, who resumed their song after the horses passed them, again with no emotion.
"What a frenzied moment that was!
Didn't they maintain an exhausting pace?
'Twas a thrilling, absolutely chilling running of
The Ascot opening race."

Hepburn was the Cockney flower girl whom the cocky Harrison was going to pass off as a duchess. It was a clash of the titanic wills. As Ebert observed, "It is characteristic that, in a musical that has love as its buried theme, no one ever kisses or seems about to."

I can't explain why it was that way with the rest of the cast, but, with Harrison and Hepburn, I think it's largely because their relationship was largely adversarial. The audience knew the characters were in love long before they did — and even when they realized at the end that they did love each other, they couldn't completely shift gears.

Astonishingly, Hepburn wasn't nominated for Best Actress.

"My Fair Lady" won eight Oscars — including Best Picture, Best Director (Cukor), Best Actor (Harrison) — but Hepburn wasn't even nominated. Julie Andrews won Best Actress that year for "Mary Poppins."