Tuesday, 20 March 2018

My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady
Oh dear, oh dear…

I am at a loss for words, where do I even start?

You know you are in for a rough ride when the praise in the Book is lackluster and rarely have the editors been this hesitant in their endorsement, yet somehow my hope were pretty high going in to “My Fair Lady”. Not sure why, though. Maybe because it is as famous as it is, maybe because it has been there, present as long as I can remember. In any case this is the first time I watch it for real and, well, now I know.

For the very few who are entirely unfamiliar with the story, this is an adaption of a stage production of a novel (“Pygmalion”) by Bernard Shaw. The language professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) makes it his goal to make a lady out of the street vendor Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn). He succeeds, she becomes a lady and they get each other. The end. Oh wait, somewhere in between 178 minutes passes.

At the heart of it this is such a classic story and I have seen countless versions of it. The ugly duckling taken out of its pond and transformed into a swan. The problem here is that this movie is probably the worst version of this story, ever.

The characters are just awful. Henry Higgins in particular is obnoxious in the extreme. Full of venom and spite, he mocks everybody around him with a superior attitude. That could be funny, but it is not. Just annoying. Eliza as the street vendor is only marginally less annoying. Her screaming and ranting almost deserves the mockery being served by Henry. Then of course in a split-second she turns into a lady with pleasant language, intelligence and understanding, which was granted her simply be learning a language.

The pervading idea is that language is a reflection of who you are. Refined language gives you by default a number of desirable qualities including wealth and intelligence, whereas dialects are a menace, speaking a dialect means that you are simple and borderline criminal. Needless to say that this idea is ridiculous in the extreme and not a little insulting.

That Henry teaches the girl as part of a bet and only uses her to show off his own brilliance is just part of his character. What is far more objectionable is that Eliza is supposed to fall in love with him. The last five minutes of the movie are just completely unbelievable given what has happened up to that point.

Then of course there are all the things that are happening or rather not happening over the very long running time of the movie. There is a lot of singing naturally, it is a musical. In fact according to Wikipedia there a 25 musical numbers we have to get through, during which not much is happening. I am wrecking my brain trying to remember what actually happens, but really, very little is actually happening. Quite a lot of shouting though and that is another thing. This is not just a stage adaption. It is filmed, acted and vocalized as if it is on a stage. Filmed theater so to speak. Just plain weird. And loud.

Some of the songs were quite familiar. I know “The Rain in Spain” and “Get Me to Church on Time”, but curiously only in a Danish adaption. See, this fantastic musical was so successful that it was translated to stage and film versions all over the world.

I cannot help thinking that I am missing something. When you are watching a movie and regularly mutter to yourself that that this is really bad and the world at large thinks this is amazing then you have to wonder if you are watching the same movie. I generally do not love musicals, but this is way beyond that. If not even Audrey Hepburn can save a movie then we are in trouble.   


  1. Different strokes for different folks.

    1. I take it this means that we differ in opinion on this movie. Guess that happens from time to time.

  2. For what it's worth, this is my favorite musical Oscar Best Picture winner. I admit that this is in no small part because this is a movie about linguistics, and that's what I have a degree in.

    I admit that might bias me a great deal.

    1. I can understand that. I tend to like movies with subjects close to my heart.
      The liguistic elements were quite upsetting for me. The idea that dialects are wrong and horrible is insulting and the idea that it tells, no, decide a persons character is just absurd.
      At one point Higgins mentions a number of countries, saying that people there have no problem speaking the national tongue properly as opposed to Britain, but that was so silly I had to laugh. Norway, one of the mentioned countries have possibly even more dialects than Britain and some of the them are quite unintelligible for other Norwegians. In fact their written, official language (bokmål) is so far removed from what people actually speak that they came up with an alternative written language (nynorsk) to make it phonetically adapt to reality.
      People should be proud of their dialect and preserve it. It is a cultural treasure.

    2. For what it's worth, I agree with your assessment here. No serious linguist judges someone on his or her accent. In fact, no serious linguist I know of is proscriptive. Linguists tend to study how language is used, not how it should be used.

  3. I can't think of any musical that has so many songs that have become standards. It's a favorite of mine, though I agree Henry Higgins is a bit of a jerk.

    1. I think the general consensus is that My Fair Lady is much better than my opinion of it. Alas, I stay in minority.