My Fair Lady (1964)
Rated G for flagrant sexism and abusive relationships. It's G because it's adorable, okay? This might be one of those things that subconsciously plants images of worth into kids' heads. But realistically, it's mostly just a cute movie about singing and hilarious accents. That's most likely the big takeaway, but I also don't have a masters in psychology that would tell me if something screwed up is happening upon watching My Fair Lady. G.
DIRECTOR: George Cukor
I keep watching this movie and I keep cringing at Rex Harrison. Listen, I think we all like the idea of Rex Harrison. But Rex Harrison can't sing. He can speak sing. He can almost character sing. But the thing about commenting on My Fair Lady is that you are kind of comment on George Bernard Shaw and the entire Pygmalion myth. There are things that I really enjoy about My Fair Lady. But on the other side, I keep trying to like and it have lots of reasons to not like it. I normally love to stay on the side of classics, but My Fair Lady might be that bridge too far in a lot of respects.
What is the message of My Fair Lady? I love virtue signaling apparently because that's what I do on this blog. But My Fair Lady presents a bad guy as a hero and knows that it is doing it. Henry Higgins is absolutely terrible to Elisa. The movie comments on it the entire film. The song "Poor Professor Higgins" is sung ironically. I get the idea that Cukor and everyone involved in every version of My Fair Lady gets that Eliza is the victim of this story. She vocally hates Higgins for his cruelty. He treats Elisa as subhuman and only falls in love with her despite himself. It takes the majority of a very long film to realize that he's in love with Eliza. "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" is actually a pretty damning realization that his indication of love is that "I'm used to her."
Yet, Eliza falls in love with Higgins. Listen, I also have a problem with Beauty and the Beast, so I'm equal opportunity white knighting here. There is a song where Eliza daydreams of killing her captor. While Eliza may have gone to Higgins for elocution lessons, she had no frame of reference to the severity of the entire situation. There's a very clear line between "intense" and irresponsible. This isn't a boot camp she is signing up for. Boot camp is intense, but it is because the instructors need the recruits to survive training. It is done for the benefit of the soldier. That seeming cruelty is for a healthier goal. With Higgins, Eliza is clearly relegated to subhuman. She doesn't get any rights and abandons her personhood to laboratory science. While that bath scene plays out as very funny, it is aggressive with how little Eliza's intentions are taken into account. As a teacher, it's kind of horrifying. My students' parents pay tuition to go to my school. In no scenario am I allowed to grab a student's hand and force him or her to do work.
While the bath may be towards the mutual goal of making Eliza Doolittle a lady, there is no understanding of the process, nor is there empathy for the confused Eliza Doolittle. I remember a few years ago, when A Dog's Purpose was coming out, that people were up in arms about the dog being forced into water. I rolled my eyes a bit because I'm a bad person, but the same thing is happening in that scene with Eliza. Yes, Eliza is fictional. But she also has capability of reason and a complex emotional spectrum. The movie is wholly aware of this. It offers Pickering as the voice of reason and humanity. He constantly comments on Higgins's cruel actions, but does nothing to really stop it. It's all for the greater good of having a romantic storyline. This is one of those romantic stories that is utterly confusing.
And I even know why it goes on like this. The message of the story should be that they improve each other. Higgins offers Eliza something that would give her a life outside of her limited station in life. This is all assuming that Eliza's life would be better based on economics, but I'm going to let that one slide. But the contrast is that Eliza has somehow made Henry a better person. I don't know if that's ever really proven. She gives him a point of pride, which the movie also scorns. It's like the movie gets all of the evil that is going on throughout the film and utterly says that the world should be that way. Really, the ending is just that Higgins gets everything. Eliza becomes almost domesticated by Higgins and that Higgins treats Eliza like a pet at the end. His apology is pretty weak all things considering. He never really admits fault, but they both slyly comment on the idea of slippers and the way that things are going to be. It's just a really inappropriate joke.
But at the end of the day, these things are all jokes. I know I'm taking this way too seriously because I don't actually hate the movie as much as it sounds like I do right now. It's just that this movie really seems way too self-aware to be promoting the ending it gives. Listen, the movie is three hours long. It's a tank. It has an intermission and everything. It's really because there are a lot of songs and a weird, unrelated side plot about Eliza's father marrying his long time girlfriend. What if some of that time was focused on the development of Henry Higgins? Some people might argue that Higgins does indeed change throughout the film. If he does change, it is through baby steps. My main example is the fact that he doesn't acknowledge Eliza's growth at the ball. He sees it completely as his own victory. Similarly, he is angered when Eliza finds a much more appropriate match for herself. When he confronts her, his primary argument is that Eliza is doing him a disservice.
I kind of think My Fair Lady is a bit gross. I know. It's a comedy and it's old timey. But it seems like everyone knows the right thing to do, but they sacrifice it for the greater joke. The takeaway is that Eliza Doolittle has tamed Henry Higgins, but I don't know if the movie really effectively sells that concept. I know people love this movie, but I'm very meh on it. And I still do blame the casting of Rex Harrison. (There's a solid chance that a better singer might get me to ignore the troublesome narrative and I acknowledge my own hypocrisy.)
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.