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My Fair Lady (1964)

Review

This is the cinematic version of Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s musical (the longest-running Broadway show of the 1950s), which was based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (both of which, of course, are still mainstays of theater and high school drama) — though it has been stripped of its mildly socialistic overtones and turned into a musical romance. Nevertheless, this version of the play/musical is a film classic, which has entertained millions of people since its release.

The plot is familiar: Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is a professor of linguistics and a pompous, contented bachelor. On a wager with a colleague, Higgins undertakes to teach an illiterate Cockney, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), to speak the King’s English. Shaw’s message was that, as the human mind is a blank slate, anyone in England could be aristocracy if they only had the right education. Lerner’s screenplay dispenses with Shaw’s dubious ideology, and instead turns the story into a smart romantic comedy satirizing various levels of British society. And like most musicals, the final message of My Fair Lady is love conquers all — even misogynistic, pompous blokes like Higgins.

With all great movies, the greatness lies not in the premise, but in what the actors and writers do with it. Hepburn was a controversial casting choice, because Julie Andrews had played Eliza on stage and Hepburn had to lip-sync all of her famous songs (which were dubbed by an uncredited singer). But Hepburn’s versatile performance makes the controversy irrelevant. Harrison’s portrayal of Henry Higgins not only succeeds in making the character lovable and hate-worthy at the same time, but he also creates an almost archetypal personification of the upper-middle-class Englishman, conceited but ultimately discerning.

Perhaps the best recommendation about this movie is that it transcends its conventions and almost anyone, not just fans of musicals or romances or classics, may find it entertaining.