Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Disquieting Absence of Ugliness

On Wednesday night I watched My Fair Lady, which is in many respects a good movie. One of its virtues is a flow of narrative that's very smooth, despite a great deal of fat--in particular, I think Eliza Doolittle's father could've been removed almost entirely and I don't think his songs contribute to the play at all. But my main complaint with the film is Rex Harrison and possibly George Cukor's direction of him.

It's important to remember that Henry Higgins is a misogynist and not merely a product of a time that saw a great deal less equality for the sexes. He shocks his contemporaries with his treatment of Eliza--his colleague, Pickering, and even his housemaid venture to chastise him for the way he refers to Eliza as consummately "low" and "dirty". Yet it's only through dialogue and the lyrics to some of the songs that we know Higgens is a misogynist--it doesn't come through in his performance at all. He acts like abusing women is the most natural thing in the world. There may well be some people who are like that, but I don't think someone can maintain that worldview without accruing some psychological damage when every one of his family, friends, and servants thinks the way he treats women is just short of monstrous. Higgins needed to be played with more layers--he needed a darkness that was visible bubbling up in him, either from a hatred of women, from resentment because no-one agrees with him about women, or both.

The problem becomes most achingly apparent in the pivotal scene after the ball where Eliza has managed to fool the English aristocracy into thinking she belongs to a higher social class than she was born into. The song in this scene relishes in Higgins taking all the glory for himself, and it is, quite naturally, the last straw for Eliza, prompting some of the best dialogue from the play in their confrontations in later scenes. The trouble is, Higgins seems genuinely unaware that he's so gratuitously failing to give Eliza any credit for her reformation. It makes him seem absurdly stupid, and hits a broader note of comedy than is appropriate. Better in the role, I think, may have been someone like Christopher Lee. Someone who could inject the right amount of pointed bitterness in all that self-congratulating, a real meanness, that at the same time is subtle enough to make a person's sense of propriety unsure if it's even there.

Actually, the performance that would've been perfect was Cary Grant's in Hitchcock's Notorious--though of course Grant's accent was too idiosyncratic for Higgins. Perhaps it's Hitchcock's willingness to see the genuinely discomforting things that take root in the human heart, causing compulsively destructive behaviour, that makes his films hold up psychologically so much better than others.

Of course, I detested the ending of My Fair Lady, which deviated from Shaw's play. Not only because it's even more sexist this way than Harrison's performance already makes the movie, but also because it means Eliza doesn't end up with the character Freddy, played by Jeremy Brett. True, Freddy's not all that exciting, but he's Jeremy Brett. I fancy Brett shared some of my complaints about the production from a rather curious moment in the latter portion of the film. When Eliza goes back to the part of town where she grew up, after her transformation, she runs into her father. She's escorted there by Freddy, who's totally smitten with her, but upon meeting her father, he doesn't say a word to him. This was all wrong--in the period when this movie takes place, Freddy would've spoken to Eliza's father before he'd have come calling on her. He'd certainly make some remark on meeting him. It's the subtle, unaddressed look of shock on Brett's face every time Eliza calls the man "Dad" that makes me think Brett wasn't happy with the oversight, either.

But otherwise, I mainly liked the movie. I loved Audrey Hepburn's performance, even though her cockney didn't seem entirely natural. The scene at the race track, where she has all the right vowels but is given away by her slang and sordid family drama, is absolutely perfect. And beautiful, with everyone in white, black, and grey and Hepburn in this fetishistic white sheath with what looks like black duct tape. It almost looks like she's wearing part of a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Watching the rather lousy 1947 Alexander Korda adaptation of An Ideal Husband a few weeks ago was what put me in the mood for My Fair Lady as both films feature Cecil Beaton as costume designer--I can at least say My Fair Lady is the better of those two films, and a better showcase for Beaton's work. As in An Ideal Husband, Beaton's dresses make copious use of flowers, which is carried over into set design and overall look of the film. My favourite is the pink dress Hepburn wears at the end;

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