My Fair Lady

I.

My Fair Lady originally opened on Broadway on the fifteenth day of March way back in 1956 at about the time Adlai Stevenson was locked in mortal combat in the New Hampshire snow with his eventual running mate, the late Estes Kefauver. My Fair Lady had still been in rehearsal when the FBI announced the solution of the $3-million Brink's armored-car robbery on January 12. The late Moss Hart was making Julie Andrews letter-perfect as Eliza out of town during the period (February 14-25) of the Soviet Communist party congress in Moscow, where party prexy Nikita S. Khrushchev proclaimed a new party line whereby every comrade worth his salt was exhorted to deStalinize his soul.

Victor Riesel, labor columnist of the late Daily Mirror, was blinded by an acid-throwing assailant on April 5. Less than two weeks later Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in what Variety billed as a wedding between an actress and a "non-pro."

Through near-war and peace My Fair Lady continued to sell out every performance until long after the Kennedy-Nixon squeaker in 1960. Henry Higginses and Eliza Doolittles came and went, with the males becoming increasingly foppish and the females increasingly sluttish. By radio, television, phonograph, and hi-fi one's ears were assaulted by a million different arrangements of the Lerner-Loewe score. This reviewer can vouch for a medley of songs from My Fair Lady accompanying a genteel strip number in London's Casino de Paris in April of 1961.

The point is, as Dooley Wilson observes philosophically to In-grid Bergman in Casablanca, a lot of water's gone under the bridge since Henry Higgins first became accustomed to Eliza Doolittle's face, and I am afraid that much of the bloom is gone from the roses in Cecil Beaton's Covent Garden. Perhaps I should be more impressed than I am by the fact that Jack Warner purchased the screen rights to My Fair Lady for $7 million and change, and finally shelled out 17 million clams and change for the completed spectacle now on view at the Criterion at a five-fifty top. As is so often the case, however, the price of a property is incommensurate with the value of the work. My Fair Lady may have garnered a hundred times the gross receipts of Pal Joey, but its score is still only a tenth as good. Even allowing for the assumed prejudices of self-styled intellectuals against expensive enterprises of any kind, My Fair Lady must be described in all candor as an evening of disenchantment. As a longtime admirer of George Cukor's directorial style, I had expected something more in the way of creative adaptation. Unfortunately, My Fair Lady is to Cukor's career what Porgy and Bess is to Preminger's, a producer's package overstuffed with all the snob stage values so dear to the garment center-garden club tastes of the Warners and the Goldwyns. With justice less poetic than prosaic, Cukor, long slandered as a "woman's director," will probably receive an overdue fistful of awards for one of his weakest jobs of direction. With so much capital invested, My Fair Lady has been approached so reverently that transference has degenerated into transcription. This precious property has not been so much adapted as elegantly embalmed, and yet, with few exceptions, the film fails dismally to repeat the click effects of the stage show.

Not that the original show lacked faults of its own. Stanley Holloway's two vaudeville turns were (and are still) less savagely Shavian than Broadway brass-bound. Holloway himself has always been closer to Noel Coward's conception of the Cockney than to Shaw's, and certainly anyone who remembers the comic bite of Wilfred Lawson's Doolittle in the 1938 Wendy Killer-Leslie Howard-Anthony Asquith version of Pygmalion must feel a lack of mastication in Holloway's sentimentalized characterization.

Even by the standards and aesthetics of the stage, My Fair Lady tends to be excessively static. There is no choreography to speak of, and the constriction of the action in Higgins' study for the greater part of two hours would have been fatal to the show if Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews had not brought off the "Rain in Spain" number with such electrifying effect, thus canceling out the tedium and ennui that preceded the inspired celebration of Eliza's victory over her vowels. However, there remained to the very end a gap of sensibility, if also a satisfying contrast, between Harrison's many-layered talk-sing and Miss Andrews' conservatory soprano.

When the time came for casting the movie, the powers that be had three options—go for broke with the Broadway cast, go for the box office with big Hollywood stars, or try mixing a bit of Broadway with a bit of Hollywood. Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway were retained from the original production, and Audrey Hepburn was brought in to beef up the grosses, particularly abroad. As it turns out, Miss Hepburn is the chief casualty of this compromise. For the next two years audiences will begin to murmur everytime Audrey Hepburn opens her mouth to "sing," "That isn't her voice, is it?" "No dear, it's Marni Nixon's." "Why didn't they use Julie Andrews? She's so nice on records, and did you see Mary Poppins, and did you see her on TV with Carol Burnett?"

Poor Audrey will bear the brunt of every imposture since Jeanne Grain didn't sing "It Might as Well Be Spring" in State Fair and Rita Hayworth didn't sing "Make Way for Tomorrow" in Cover Girl and Natalie Wood didn't sing "Tonight" in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr didn't sing the high notes in The King and I, not to mention Sophia Loren's Aida! The Broadway-Hollywood feud goes back to all the Gertrude Lawrence-Lynn Fontanne-Katherine Cornell roles played on the screen by Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, to the chicken-and-the-egg controversies over Bette Davis and Tallulah Bankhead. Certainly Audrey's casting is far less ridiculous than Elizabeth Taylor's in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, even though Uta Hagen is Out of the Question for the screen, with Patricia Neal a reasonable equivalent and almost anyone besides Debbie Reynolds better qualified technically than Miss Taylor. Then, why should poor Audrey be singled out for censure in My Fair Lady, particularly when she looks so stunning in her Cecil Beaton costumes? I suggest three reasons. First, she is miscast. Second, she muffs her performance. Third, she undercuts the theme of the play.

It should be noted at the outset that both Miss Hepburn and Miss Andrews suffer badly in comparison with Wendy Killer's classic Eliza. Her champions to the contrary, Julie Andrews is an inexperienced actress with a degree of camera naturalness and—as Stuart Byron, the associate editor of the Independent Film Journal, has so perceptively remarked—just the degree of ugliness necessary to distinguish the star from the starlet. In Mary Poppins Miss Andrews comes over too much as Greer Garson's successor with a bad case of Britannia Mews and a granite jaw too formidable for any issue less grave than the Mongolian Invasion of England. There is a bit more meow in her portrayal of the Chayefsky-Huie roundheeled heroine in The Americanization of Emily for future star reference.

II.

As I was about to say last week before I ran out of space, the substitution of Audrey Hepburn for Julie Andrews in the screen version of My Fair Lady would not have aroused so much controversy if there had been corresponding substitutions of, say, Gary Grant for Rex Harrison and James Cagney for Stanley Holloway. Actually, the original idea was to team Audrey with Gary Grant, but since Grant has become incorporated, he is too expensive for anyone as dedicated to breaking even as Jack Warner. Harrison came much cheaper, and fully rehearsed into the bargain. Unfortunately, he was also eight years older, closer to sixty than fifty, and looking every year of it, with the result that the Hepburn-Harrison chemistry is more inorganic than organic.

Audrey herself is somewhat too mature for the role of Eliza Doolittle and hopelessly miscast as the tough Cockney flower girl. Audrey has always been the gamine, relying more on charm than character, her eyes flirting shamelessly with coy flutters of regal helplessness. Unfortunately, Pygmalion is not concerned with a sleeping beauty who is awakened in time for the Royal ball. Wendy Hiller and, to a lesser extent, Julie Andrews were basically diamonds in the rough given a fine polish by a master educator. The strength and will were always there; only the luster was lacking. By contrast, Audrey Hepburn suggests nothing so much as a Vogue model masquerading as a flower girl to create a sense of contrast in the magazine spread that will culminate with her stylish arrival at Ascot. It is distressing to realize that Miss Hepburn has been playing fey, offbeat roles for so long that she lacks the timing and rhythm necessary for classical roles. The comparison to Wendy Hiller is a particularly cruel one in this instance because the two actresses can be judged together, scene by scene, almost syllable by syllable, and Audrey is "off' all the way. Harrison emerges, as he did in Cleopatra, with top honors and no context. His is a one-man concert for the benefit of movie audiences who were unable to see his performance on the stage. His songs are as admirably spoken as ever, but his over-all performance suffers in comparison even with Leslie Howard's, and Howard was generally inferior to Harrison. Yet what has always made My Fair Lady swing as a show was the inspired idea of putting both Shaw and Harrison to music.

Shaw, like W. S. Gilbert before him, is as arid as the Sahara and as sexy as Louisa May Alcott. With music, Shaw's gruffness and naive misogyny is transformed into the domestic sweetness of a warm puppy chewing angrily at the bedroom slippers. Audiences recognize the bad manners of Henry Higgins as the reassuring mannerisms of the patriarchs and bachelors of ancient times, when one could hate women without implying a loss of manhood and prefer the company of men without incurring sinister suspicions. For his part, Harrison has always suffered as an actor from a lack of physical extension. On stage or screen he drains the emotional life out of a scene with a voice that is too finely tuned as an intellectual instrument. He would have been dramatically unsatisfactory as a straight Henry Higgins, but Loewe's music enables Harrison to scrape against the lyricism with such force and precision that he succeeds in igniting the Lerner lyrics with a romantic fire Shaw could never have created by himself.

Ultimately, Harrison's virtuosity is futile, because there is no realistic point to the proceedings. Pygmalion is not really a Cinderella story but rather, like The Miracle Worker, a dramatic projection of the strong bonds between teacher and pupil in the never-ending struggle to escape savagery. For all the posh Cecil Beaton effects, audiences have responded all these years to the implied idealism of the plot. What is electrifying about the "Rain in Spain" number is that two attractive people have worked hard to achieve a common purpose, and they have succeeded, and they are happy, and what they have achieved is a degree of civilization that had not existed in the world before, a degree of liberation for a soul that had been previously enslaved by ignorance and poverty. Wendy Hiller conveyed that feeling subtly by stages. Julie Andrews hits it with the first notes of "I Could Have Danced All Night." Audrey opens her mouth and out comes Marni Nixon's jarring American voice, and the audience feels vaguely uncomfortable, because there has been a perceptible loss of idealism in the whole process of pushing Julie Andrews and her years of voice training aside to get Audrey Hepburn into a role for which she was not technically qualified. It is somehow too easy to open your mouth and have some invisible singer ghost for you. It's done all the time, of course, and in all fields of endeavor. The mistresses of Italian producers who pass themselves off as actresses on the screen with the voices of underpaid stage actresses dubbed in on the sound tracks made Audrey's imposture seem relatively harmless, and it would not matter so much normally except that My Fair Lady is about training and education being their own rewards, and about people being honest about themselves. If Audrey had used her own voice, people would have said it was inferior to Julie Andrews', but they might have respected her more for trying to make the part on her own steam. Ironically, Julie's voice is even more expressive than Marni Nixon's, which leads one to wonder why Jack Warner didn't come up with Joan Sutherland to give the sound track in My Fair Lady the ultimate class.

I may once more be a voice in the wilderness, but I find it appalling that such an uncreative movie can sweep all the awards in 1964. Every change Cukor made in his literal transcription was for the worse, and I was particularly shocked to see him resort to the kind of obvious reaction shots that went out with high button shoes. Some of the director's camera setups are admirable, particularly the one of Ascot, but the picture as a whole lacks any flow and rhythm of its own. The acting, except for Harrison's, is uniformly bad. Wilfrid Hyde White is the biggest surprise, since he seemed to be perfectly cast, but age seems to have taken its toll of his reflexes, as it has of Harrison's and Holloway's. One thing about a movie like My Fair Lady is the merciless glare of its spotlight on some of the more abnormal practices of contemporary film-making. The idea of sixty-year-old male stars making love to forty-year-old female stars is shocking not only to Beatles fans but also to anyone who has any sense of film history. Try to imagine Lillian Gish and Henry Walthall, the stars of Birth of a Nation, still doing leads in 1945, or Chaplin marrying Claire Bloom in Limelight and living with her happily ever after. Ridiculous? No more so than Harrison and Hepburn in My Fair Lady, or Gary Grant and Leslie Caron in the factory-hatched Father Goose. And this is not a case of being kind to senior citizens generally, but rather a reflection of the iron grip on the industry held by rapacious talent agencies and idiotic bankers, who lend money only on star names even to the edge of the grave, where the industry coincidentally now finds itself.

(Village Voice, December 17 and 24, 1964)