5 Reasons My Fair Lady is Class on Film (and Not as Sexist as You Think)

    In later years, the 1964 movie musical My Fair Lady’s classic status has been jaded by the film’s central themes of misogyny. But a recent revisiting of the motion picture made us realize that the Audrey Hepburn flick may not be as sexist as you think. As this TIME magazine article put it simply, the film is quite the opposite. Claiming that instead of the film being misogynistic, it’s a film ABOUT misogyny and how a powerful female character like Eliza Doolittle overcomes the obnoxious Professor Huggins (portrayed to Oscar winning glory by Rex Harrison). We decided to look at things a little deeper giving you 5 Reasons we think My Fair Lady is still class put on film…

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    Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle

    My Fair Lady’s titular character Eliza Doolittle was played perfectly by superstar and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn. Based on the 1959 Broadway musical (which was based on Greek myth Pygmalion), the source material told the story of a Cypriot sculpture who tried to make the perfect image of a woman. Transport the same tale to Victorian England, turn the man into a misogynistic dialect professor, the statue into a cockney flower and embellish it with beautiful costumes and a masterful musical score and you’ve got My Fair Lady.

    Eliza, who longs to better her social standing in 1912 London, seeks the help of the boastful language coach Henry Higgins. Higgins makes a bet with his colleague Colonel Pickering that after he is done with Eliza, she could easily pass of as a duchess at the annual Embassy Ball. To great effect (and a million awful mind game and sexist slurs late), Eliza becomes what Higgins considers the perfect woman. On the other hand, Eliza (who is now donned in French couture and dripping with diamonds) still feels empty and worthless, with nowhere to go.

    Hepburn, already an Oscar winner for her outing in Roman Holiday back in 1953 had shoes to fill when she was casted in the film version of My Fair Lady. Julie Andrews had originated the role in the original Broadway production, but studio head Jack Warner did not believe that she was a big enough name to carry the film to box office success. Though Hepburn had her voiced dubbed by Hollywood’s unsung hero Marni Nixon (who dubbed numerous movie star voices for big budget film musicals like Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story), Hepburn was born to play the role. Her comedic portrayal of cockney flower girl Eliza may appear as cartoonish at the start of the movie, but she makes up for it in the splendid second half. You must remember that even Eliza considered herself “uneducated”, hence her behavior in the start of the film. As Higgins’ extreme lessons and mind torture games begin to consume her, an empowered lady begins to form. Eliza realizes many things throughout the film, and Hepburn’s portrayal is a stunner. From sacrificing her dignity to bring up her social standing in society then realizing that she didn’t need a man to exist, one of Hollywood’s most graceful and in-demand actresses played it perfectly. Eliza’s character development may not have worked without an actress as seasoned and as convincing as Hepburn, and we’re extremely happy that no one else was casted in this role.

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    The Portrayal of an Empowered Woman Overcoming the Ultimate Misogynist

    The film is set in 1912, meaning that gender roles are quite different from how we see it today. Let’s take a short history lesson about film in general. George Cukor, who directed the film, was a man beyond his era. 1964 was not a time when feminism was a norm. Although Cukor had been a supporter of the movement since he arrived in Hollywood. The gentle man was the cinematic behind some of the most endeared female-centric films of his time. He director movies like Camille (1936), The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Gaslight (1944) and A Star is Born (1954). All of which garnered his actresses Academy Award nominations or rave reviews. Cukor was even the original director on Gone with the Wind (1939), before he was replaced by Victor Fleming. Star Vivien Leigh, who played the leading role of Scarlett O’Hara, was said to have wept and wept when Cukor was replaced, scared that her new director wouldn’t treat her as nicely as he did. If you’re wondering, he didn’t. He and Clark Gable stuck to themselves and patted each other on the back like they were kings of the world. Cukor finally won his Oscar with My Fair Lady, a film which is awfully associated with misogyny these days. Something we don’t believe Cukor would be happy with. 

    Going back to the film and that TIME article, My Fair Lady is actually an honest portray of English life in 1912. The character of Henry Higgins is London’s greatest misogynist. He believes that men are the ultimate sex, even singing about it for a solid few minutes in the song A Hymn to Him. The message Cukor was trying to project in the film was not misogynistic, but to show a working class woman who was able to overcome the misogynistic behavior of one of England’s upper crust “gentleman”. Higgins treats her badly and professes his love for his own sex, but in reality, Eliza is portrayed as more educated and worldly than he is. Cukor creates a picture in which Higgins is proud, although the underlying portrayal of Eliza shows true class and sophisticated. The rich boy belittles people frankly. The poor flower girl treats everybody with respect. The rich boy announces that man is the superior race. The poor flower girl keeps it to herself (although sings it in her mind via the song Just You Wait). The rich boy pretends he is the master of the universe, but then realizes his universe is actually the poor flower girl. Higgin’s misogyny gets him nowhere in the film but alone and unhappy, while Eliza’s empowerment and sacrifice leads to an emancipated mind. Cukor’s film follows the culture of 1912 England, but the hidden message below it is closer to 2017. Higgins does nothing in the movie but embarrass himself to the audience. 

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    Alan Jay Lerner’s Clever Lyrics and Fredrick Loewe’s Beautiful Music

    Musical writing partners Alan Jay Lerner and Fredrick Loewe supplied a masterful score for the motion picture. We are treated to such memorable and classic tunes such as the cockney ballad Wouldn’t It be Loverly?, Eliza’s happiness portrayed in I Could’ve Danced All Night, and one of the romantic pieces written On the Street Where You Live. The colorful score also features music that truly allow the actors to be their characters. Henry Higgins is given a handful of boastful, proud anthems such as his woman hating I’m Just an Ordinary Man, A Hymn to Him and You Did It. And as much as we hate to admit it, his love tune I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, gives us a sneak peek into understanding his arrogance—he is a product of his time. Eliza’s songs are more female empowered than one may think. She performs Show Me to her suitor Freddy, telling him that actions speak louder than words. Just You Wait is sung during the height of her hatred for the professor, singing about how successful she’ll be when the bet is over, and that he’ll be drowning in the river as she goes to meet off to meet the king. Lastly, her fully realized character belts out the inspired Without You, where she shoves it to Higgin’s face that the world will definitely continue without him.

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    The Elegant Costumes and Production Design

    Cecil Beaton, who worked on both the costumes and production design on My Fair Lady, was awarded two Academy Awards for bringing this world to life. Eliza’s transformation is iconic as it is transcendental. We begin seeing her in washed out, dirty clothing as a flower girl on the streets of London, collecting scraps and loose change. Later, Beaton dresses her as if men had dressed her. Her brown sailor-like uniform with matching hair bows worn during her lessons is more reminiscent of a school girl than it is a young lady. It worked for its particular scenes. When Eliza is first introduced into high society, we see her attend the royal Ascot races wearing that iconic black and white ensemble with floral details. It became one of the most expensive costumes in film ever bought in auction (you can read more about that HERE). For the Embassy Ball, her lace gown embellished with sparking crystals and pearls (and accessorized with a gazillion diamonds) really made her stick out like a princess. After Eliza leaves Higgin’s house of terrors, her outfits become smarter and more empowered. She begins with a matching peach ensemble that looks as if it came straight from the closet of the 1912 version of Jackie Kennedy. Her last costume in the film is a pink frock, which doesn’t only make her look feminine but absolutely confident.

    Beaton’s work goes beyond his costumes for Hepburn. He had to dress a cast of hundreds. Higgins and Pickering, too, had multiple costume changes, dressing them in smoking jackets, well-tailored suits, and sharp tuxedos. The scenes at the ascot and ball required hundreds of extras dresses as if they were in the finest garbs that London society could buy. His extensive worked stretched to the film’s production design, building sets on the Warner Brother’s backlot of London streets and pubs, Professor Higgin’s multi-floored apartment, the royal ascot, the palace, and Mrs. Higgins (Henry’s mothers) fashionable apartment.

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    The Open-Ended Finale

    We warn you, this final paragraph has plenty of spoilers. Many of today’s audiences find that the true trouble with My Fair Lady is the ending. Eliza had run away from Higgin’s wrath and has taken shelter with the only person who she thinks could stick up to him, his mother. Henry than wonders over there to try and convince her to come back (although quite appallingly). Eliza goes off in a fit and performs her girl power show tune Without You, leaving Higgins embarrassed. She also announces that her true path would be a teacher to help enrich the lives of others. Higgins’ goes off onto the street and performs I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, subtly proclaiming his love for Eliza. He enters his empty home and sits on his arm chair. Behind him, Eliza has followed him home. He says, “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?” and she brings them to him. Roll credits. Film scholars and cinema fans today are often upset about this ending, showing Eliza’s lack of power when she returns to this dreadful man. We, on the other hand, interpret it in a completely different way.

    Eliza’s return is anything but a show of weakness. If anything, it’s a show of power. She knows that she has won. Being that it is 1912, Eliza is aware that she could never fully change Higgins. Although from an impoverished flower girl, she was able to change herself to the free-thinking lady that she is. Earlier in the film, Higgin’s takes credit on everything Eliza has done—dressing well, studying hard, uplifting her social status—but in reality isn’t it Eliza who has changed everything for herself? She worked hard to achieve this new HER, while Higgins is the same empty man we saw from the start, Eliza a newly bloomed flower. In fact, it was Eliza who went to Higgins for help and not the other way around. She showed initiative for change. Higgin’s final statement may be a little misogynistic (and we’re sure he’ll always be) but it just showed that no matter what he did, he couldn’t live without this woman. She is his universe and is proud to be. She had an option not to return, but she did. Why? Because she thinks for herself.

    Text by Chino R. Hernandez

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