Oscar: Best Picture–My Fair Lady (1964)

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” was a mega stage hit, in 1956, with Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews in the lead roles. Acclaimed for its witty book out of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (which was made into a movie in 1937, with Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard), and the melodic sweep of its score, the musical received a sensational reception, enjoying a record run of 2,717 performances in New York.

Not surprisingly, the struggle to acquire the film rights from the Shaw estate went on for years. In February 1962, Jack Warner paid an all-time record price of $5.5 million. The most expensive musical ever made, My Fair Lady was initially budgeted at $12 million, but by completion, even though it was not shot on location, its cost rose to $17, an extravagant figure in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, George Cukor’s screen version, for which he finally won the Oscar (at his fifth nomination) is bloated, overlong (170 minutes), stagy, and also suffers from bad dubbing of Audrey Hepburn’s singing by Marni Nixon.

Rex Harrison reprises his role as Prof. Henry Higgins, who bets linguist Col. Hugh Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can turn Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a lady with elocution so pure and regal that no one will suspect her social class, not even her crass father, Alfred Doolittle (Stanley Holloway).

Eliza is a smash success at a fancy ball, but before succumbing to his charms, Higgins has to learn a few lessons in humility and humanity from his creation, as well as from his mother (Gladys Cooper), and to convince Eliza that he’s worthier of her personal attention than her suitor Freddie Eynsford-Hill (Jeremy Brett).

Cukor researched the film extensively, using volumes of notes and sketches about each and every scene. He spent hours with designer Cecil Beaton, looking at photographs for the Ascot Race and Covent Garden sequences.

Cukor was aware of the problems of translating a “big, whopping success” onto the screen, and the audience’s familiarity with the text and songs. “You can’t change the damn thing and you mustn’t overwhelm it,” he noted. For him, it became a matter of delicate balance: “You have to keep confidence in the material, preserve what it has, and yet not flatten it out. You dare not break the unity, and yet you have to move it. You take everything good and, as best as you can, transcribe it with care.” Problem is, there is too much starchy balance in the movie, but not enough dynamism, smooth transitions, and flowing imagery.

In Cukor’s hands, “My Fair Lady is more of a play with music than a musical play, since the songs are not well integrated into the progression of the story. Even so, at the time, Cukor claimed that what attracted him to the material, beyond the quality of writing, was the fact that “My Fair Lady” is one of the few romantic musicals in which the principals had no love song. The nearest Higgins gets to express his passion is to concede that he has grown accustomed to Eliza’s face.

The script is storyboarded, scene-by-scene, with specific instructions for camera movement and angles. Cukor shot the story more or less in continuity, an unusual practice, so that Audrey Hepburn could develop her role from the Cockney girl to the society lady. It was a costly procedure, but he felt it was essential to the performance. As expected, Hepburn is more convincing as the elegant society lady than Cockney girl.

Once a decision was made not to shoot exteriors in London, Cukor moved toward greater stylization. Hence, the race scene is deliberately and excessively theatrical. Cukor was charged with taking too many elements from the stage production. As usual, Cukor is sparing with close-ups so that the few used would be effective. For example, When Prof. Higgins talks about the English language, asking Eliza to say, “The rain in Spain,” Cukor felt that if they cut to her face, they’d let the audience know that she is going to say it correctly. He thus instructed Audrey to say it away from the camera; a close-up would not have had the same effect.

“I would much prefer to do it with Julie Andrews,” Rex Harrison told me in an interview years later. “Audrey had no voice and didn’t sing, which was sad. Being Dutch, she didn’t understand the Cockney accent.” “George Cukor was very patient with her,” he recalled, “He tried to get her to play with that accent, but she simply couldn’t and he gave up.”

The best things about the movie are Beaton’s costumes and hats, a result of months of meticulous work. Of all the performers, only Rex Harrison got raves for a role that he knew inside out, and which deservedly won him the Oscar Award.

Indeed, most of the reviews were mixed, describing Cukor’s direction as rich gravy poured over everything, not remotely as delicately right as in the Asquith-Leslie Howard-Wendy Hiller 1937 movie “Pygmalion.” The strongest criticism of Cukor was that he “failed to use the medium.” Defensive about his strategy, Cukor stressed there are many scenes in the film that bring out emotions through the distinctive use of the medium, camera angles, close-ups, cuts.

The mixture of styles (the semi-realistic Covent Garden scene, the semi-abstract Ascot) is problematic, too. Cukor’s visual sense flagged: when he took the cameras outdoors, the Beaton exteriors clashed with one another a little too cheekily. Except in the hate-song, “Just You wait,” where a squad of visionary guardsmen troops into Eliza’s mind to execute Higgins, Cukor didn’t employ his cinematic imagination. “Cukor was more of a theater director,” Harrison said, “he was not a figure like Hitchcock or David Lean behind the camera.”

Cukor’s defenders claimed that he intentionally used the medium in a self-effacing way to recreate in the cinema a theatrical experience. To be fair, it’s not entirely Cukor’s fault. Unique among screen musicals, most of the action is confined to few sets.

In the final account, Harrison said, “The original stage production was more important than the film, which was pleasant, but not exceptionally good. It could have been much better if Audrey could sing and if her Cockney accent was secure.”

“My Fair Lady was George’s best-known, but not greatest, film,” art director and Cukor collaborator Gene Allen said, “but it certainly was a fitting one.” Allen didn’t think that Cukor himself would necessarily consider the movie his best work.

Related movies

Anthony Asquith’s “Pygmalion” (1937), for which (don’t laugh!) George Bernard Shaw, along with Ian Dalrymaple, Cecil Lewis, and W.P. Lipscomb, won the Screenplay Oscar.

Director Alert

In 1964, the five Oscar-nominated directors were Peter Granville for Beckett, Stanley Kubrick for Dr. Strangelove; Robert Stevenson for Mary Poppins, George Cukor for My Fair Lady, and Michael Cacoyannis for Zorba the Greek. With all the brouhaha about the large number of foreign nominees, it wasn’t a particularly strong year for directorial achievements. Cukor was by far the most vet and best-known; the other directors were first-time nominees.

Oscar and the Box-Office

By Oscar time, My Fair Lady had settled in for an indefinite run at Egyptian theater in L.A.. In 25 weeks, with total grosses of 1.65 million, the movie set a new house record. The old record-holder, “Ben Hur,” reached its first million in 53 weeks. “My Fair Lady” ended its tenure in February l965, after a 68-week run. In its first year, “My Fair Lady” grossed over $50 million worldwide.