My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady is, at face value, pretty much a What Not to Do guide in terms of modern gender politics. There are things that Henry Higgins says and does that make me want to bury an ax into the back of his skull. Or at least it would if I wasn't such a goddamn lady.

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Henry Higgins, played by Rex Harrison, is a snobbish, condescending, elitist academic who has spent his life making a study of linguistics seemingly for the express purpose of looking down on everyone who doesn't speak the King's exactly the same way he does. He frames his research in a way that makes it seem as though he believes he can improve peoples' lives by teaching them to speak quote unquote eloquently, but there's no way of hiding the fact that he views his subjects as nothing more than curious little specimen. Also he is arguably the most profoundly misogynistic man ever committed to celluloid and even though the film is sort of tongue in cheek and self-aware about how terrible his nonsense is, it's maybe not enough?

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Enter Eliza Doolittle. She is a poor flower-seller who speaks broad Cockney, which is what originally catches Higgins's interest. He makes a bet with a friend (Colonel Pickering, a marginally less douchetastic male academic, but there still aren't any trophies being handed out here) that he can teach Eliza grammar and decorum, and ultimately pass her off as a great lady at the ambassador's ball.

If you are beginning to think this is a rude and dehumanizing way to treat an actual person, buckle up, because there's a whole lot more movie left.

BUT.

Through a certain lens, Eliza can be seen as a feminist character. She takes the initiative to pursue the professor and ask for lessons, and she is the one with the ambition to make more of her life than to sell flowers on the street.

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She has realistic goals for herself and works very hard to achieve them. She pushes back against the treatment she receives from the professor and demands to be respected as a human being.

Despite her efforts, she gets completely stomped on by the massive ego of Professor Higgins. In her moments of triumph, the culmination of all her hard work, he is always there to take the glory., Watching Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering congratulate each other on their successes, while giving exactly zero credit to Eliza, is actually incredibly heartbreaking in the way that it plays out on screen.

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This is largely down to the quality of the leading performances. Rex Harrison is hardly stretching himself as an actor in the role of Henry Higgins, but there is a self-assuredness to his caustic professor that draws one in almost in spite of oneself. And Audrey Hepburn as Eliza, well, that's as controversial as it is ultimately satisfying.

Julie Andrews originated the role of Eliza on stage to general acclaim, but at the time she was fairly unknown in Hollywood, so when they were casting the film adaptation, she was passed over in favor of Audrey Hepburn, despite the latter's lack of vocal training. But all's well that ends well: Julie Andrews was free to take on the iconic role of Mary Poppins that won her an Academy Award that year (Hepburn wasn't even nominated for this performance), and while Audrey Hepburn did end up needing to have her songs dubbed, her acting skills and natural grace do great credit to Eliza.

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And while there is much to be legitimately angry about with the problematic relationship between Eliza and Professor Higgins (especially the film's frustrating conclusion, which has aged so badly that the current Broadway production of My Fair Lady has seen fit to change it entirely), one can hardly find much to criticize in its design and visual style.

The set design is gorgeous and the costumes are imaginative and basically GOALS, especially everything in the horse racing scene and Eliza's incredible gown at the Ambassador's Ball.

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The songs are frustratingly uneven in quality and there is a tendency with some of the lead actors to talk sing their way through the musical numbers (not going to name any names but REX HARRISON), but when they're good, they're very very good. I Could Have Danced All Night and Wouldn't It Be Loverly? are both very sweet numbers and although Audrey Hepburn isn't actually singing, she sells the performance. And On the Street Where You Live is just an iconic song, with the eternally underrated Jeremy Brett as Freddie, the handsome, rich, and devoted but fairly dull object of Eliza's affections.

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Overall, My Fair Lady is a musical that has a lot going for it, despite the unfortunately dynamics between the two main characters. And Henry Higgins is a horrible pretentious asshole who should have no friends I mean honestly even his mother hates him. The End.


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