Thursday, November 26, 2015

Audient Auscars: My Fair Lady

This is the 11th in my 2015 series in which I'm watching all the best picture winners I have yet to see. 

My Fair Lady represents a first in my Audient Auscars series in the following two ways:

1) It was the first movie I had to watch over two sittings that were separated by a very large chunk of time. Due to an insanely busy schedule, I watched the first half of the 1964 best picture winner on Tuesday the 17th, and the second half on Tuesday the 24th.

2) It was not the first movie in this series I thought could have been an hour shorter, but it was the first I thought could have been an hour shorter that I liked quite well even with an hour's worth of flab.

There's so little actual story in My Fair Lady that a 2015 version might require only 90 minutes -- even with the songs -- as opposed to the two hours and 52 minutes of the 1964 version. Different eras, different general levels of appreciation for the musical genre, different standards for faithfully including every last little moment of a stage production.

But if you did extract an hour from My Fair Lady, some of what's so lovely about it would be lost -- the in-between moments, the funny asides, the details that give it personality and texture. Suffice it to say that I would not have felt the weight of its formidable length had my schedule just not been so jam-packed.

This is probably the movie I've seen this year that least requires a plot synopsis. Almost everyone is familiar with the story of Henry Higgins and his outre speech pupil Eliza Doolittle, whom he refers to dismissively as a "gutter snipe" more times than I care to count. (Was that a term of harmless fun back in the 1960s, or is this movie just that misogynistic?) Possible sexism and definite classism aside, there's something sort of wonderful about the relationship between Henry and Eliza, in part because it is never really characterized as a romance, nor does it ever actually become one. His position of power over her would be all the more problematic if he had romantic designs on her, but refreshingly, he does not. More than anything he really just wants to win a bet with his equally effete academic friend, that he can polish this street person with a Cockney accent into the belle of the ball. (Which I suppose makes the movie not unlike Around the World in 80 Days, which also centers on a bet, but is in all other ways completely unlike this movie. That's one of the aforementioned movies that should have been an hour shorter, really.)

Audrey Hepburn is -- surprise surprise -- simply wonderful. There's a reason she's considered one of the most charismatic icons in cinematic history. Not that she was ever just a pretty face, but no role I've seen her in challenges her range more than this one. This consummately elegant person is actually completely believable as an unrefined flower girl. Unlike the "ugly" girls made "pretty" in movies in decades to come (She's All That and its ilk), Hepburn really does convince us she may be totally common. Of course, she's just as charming in her pre-makeover days as she is after (some would argue more so, which is ultimately kind of the point), and I continued to marvel over how much she threw herself into this role.

One thing I will say is that her transformation is a bit sudden, and feels all the more abrupt by virtue of the fact that she makes almost no progress during what seems like weeks of speech training. She demonstrates, in fact, almost zero ability to mimic a sound that someone else is making to her. When asked repeatedly to pronounce an A in the proper way, she just says "Oy" over and over again, as though her ears are broken in addition to her mouth. Most humans have an inborn ability to imitate other people's accents or voices, at least a little bit; Eliza Doolittle apparently does not. However, it certainly is fun to watch her involved in all manner of goofy speech therapies involving marbles in her mouth and a contraption that stokes a flame every time she successfully expels a properly pronounced H.

Then one day -- from one moment to the next, actually -- she can pronounce "The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain" as though she'd been born with a silver spoon in her mouth. That's the moment of no turning back, and only her instincts for social grace need a polish after that point. I suppose it's a narrative convenience to have that breakthrough moment, and of course it allows the singing of the wonderful corresponding song. But it is sort of funny that a movie of such seemingly unnecessarily length can't spare the time to have her improve gradually over time. That would be no fun, I guess.

The songs are of course great, if falling a bit short of the embarrassment of classics in my most recent best picture-winning musical, West Side Story. There are no duds here, and most of the songs are a lot of fun. I can tell you that some of them completely lift out, however, which would be the easiest way to shorten this film's running time. "Get Me to the Church on Time," for example, is pretty much entirely superfluous, as it makes for the last appearance of Eliza's ne'er do well father, trying for once to do well by marrying his common law wife. Although Stanley Holloway is terrific as the loveable scoundrel Alfred Doolittle, we don't even see him again after this -- we don't even know if he actually got to the church on time. In fact, a modern version of this movie would probably do away with his character entirely, as he exists mostly for comic relief -- though we do get to see exactly what Eliza has been up against in trying to achieve respectability in her life, something she never even realized she probably wanted.

Oh, and I liked Rex Harrison a lot, too. He probably deserves more eloquent praise than that, especially since his business is eloquence, but I'll just toss him in here at the end.

Join me in December when I conclude (?) Audient Auscars with Patton, the 1970 best picture winner. (Conclude? I guess we'll see about that ...)

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