Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "My Fair Lady" (1964)

Scene from My Fair Lady
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

My Fair Lady
Release Date: October 21, 1964
Director: George Cuckor
Written By: Alan Jay Lerner (Screenplay, Based on Musical Play), Bernard Shaw (Based on Play), 
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway
Genre: Drama, Family, Musical
Running Time: 170 minutes

Oscar Wins: 8
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Rex Harrison)
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Art Decoration-Set Decoration (Color)
-Best Costume Design (Color)
-Best Sound 
-Best Adapted Score

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Supporting Actor (Stanley Holloway)
-Best Supporting Actress (Gladys Cooper)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
-Mary Poppins
-Zorba the Greek

And the winner is...

When it comes to movie musicals, the 1960's produced a string of masterpieces that many fans would refute was the best era for the genre. Coming on the heels of West Side Story, director George Cuckor's My Fair Lady has often been considered to be among the best. With its lavish set designs and unique performances by Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, the film has managed to impress audiences for decades with some of the greatest songs ever composed by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe; with assistance from Bernard Shaw. It's a film also mired in controversy and technical achievements that all contribute to the film's overall success. As it continues to entertain with its story of how the English language connects us socially and romantically, it also reflects the craft at its best.

The story of My Fair Lady is one that had been around awhile by the time that producer Jack L. Warner famously bought the rights for it with $5 million - the most anyone had paid up to that time. It was for good reason, as the eponymous play was a sensation. The story was based off of "Pygmalion," which had a straightforward adaptation in 1938 from a 1913 play of the same name, and was turned into a stage musical production in 1956. It became the longest running play in Broadway history up to that point and was not allowed to be adapted to film until 1963, by which point it had done 2,717 performances and had won several Tony Awards. If Warner's price for the rights seems high, it wasn't the only thing that was big. At $17 million, My Fair Lady was set to be the biggest production at Warner Brothers up to that point.

Various reports would suggest that everyone was disgruntled by Warner not casting Julie Andrews, who had originated the role on stage. Rex Harrison, who had worked with her on stage, was notoriously annoyed by Hepburn's casting initially, though would eventually call her his greatest co-star. Even Hepburn seemed confused, as she believed that Andrews was right for the part. Warner revealed that had Hepburn turned it down, Andrews still wouldn't have gotten the role because as of 1963, she was too much of an unknown to promise a profit. Likewise, he initially disapproved of Harrison because of his performance in Cleopatra the previous year - where he looked too old. Harrison convinced Warner to let him do the part because he was merely acting in that film. To make matters more interesting, competing studio Disney offered to delay shooting Mary Poppins so that Andrews could star in My Fair Lady. The film would end up being her breakout role. To make this more peculiar, Stanley Holloway was another actor from the stage show who appeared in the film, making Hepburn seem like more of a sore thumb.

The title of the film doesn't appear anywhere in dialogue or song. While it is considered to be a play on the famous "London Bridges Falling Down" song, it is considered to be an inside joke. As Henry Higgins is teaching Eliza Doolittle how to speak, it is thought that there's a reference to "Mayfair lady." With her cockney accent, Doolittle would say "Myfair lady." The dialogue was mysteriously dropped. With exception to the placement of "With a Little Bit of Luck," this is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Lerner and Lowe musical to date with very little changed to compliment the film. There's also controversy of how Lerner came up with the song "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face"; an emotional song written for an emotionless Higgins. Reports say that it came about as a sentiment uttered to actress Nancy Olsen. However, this contradicts the fact that the line was uttered in Pygmalion productions going back to 1912. Nobody knows for sure, though the former myth has been more accepted. The film was shot entirely on sets, which bothered Lerner a lot.

Contrary to the final product, all of the actors prepared with vocal training prior to filming. Hepburn was famously dubbed by Marni Nixon for most of her production - save for portions of "Just You Wait." Hepburn was fine with this, but was swayed never to make a musical ever again where she didn't do her own vocals. She was allowed to film her part chronologically in order to get a better feel for her character, and get the hardest part out of the way first. Harrison's iconic sing-speak style came about when it was revealed that he wasn't able to sing properly. Promising not to just do a rendition of his stage work, he complimented the film medium with more bombast. However, he also claimed that he could never sing the same way twice, thus requiring him to wear a microphone as he performed. This became difficult, especially as everyone else was dubbed. To compensate, he would drag out lines and adjust his tempo for his fellow performers. The microphone was considered advanced technology for the time and was the first major use of it, especially since his wandering around sets made boom microphones impossible to use properly. One of the side effects of this however was that his microphone would occasionally pick up police reports. However, Harrison was a professional who often did his takes perfectly on first try.

From the moment the film was released, the critics were split on Hepburn's performance. While some considered her better than Andrews, she was also criticized for only giving half of a performance, as her voice was dubbed. This controversy is believed to have cost her an Oscar nomination. With belief that there was also a feud between Hepburn and Andrews, it wasn't looking to be the best night for My Fair Lady. During the broadcast, Andrews put those rumors to rest by suggesting that Hepburn wanted Andrews to do the role initially. Harrison would go one step further and claim that his win was dedicated to "his two fair ladies," referencing his partner on film and stage. Oddly enough, Andrews would win Best Actress for Mary Poppins that same night. It is also one of only four productions to win the top award for Oscars and Tony (the others being The Sound of Music, A Man For All Seasons, and Amadeus). 

In the years since, My Fair Lady has remained as popular and memorable as ever before. Many consider it to be the forefather to a genre of films in which a man make an ugly woman into an attractive woman. While some consider this idea dated and sexist, My Fair Lady was a film that did it with more intent and character development than the subsequent interpretations. In recent years, it has also been restored after Warner Brothers lost the rights to CBS, who didn't take proper care of it. The restoration in 1994 cost $600,000. It has since been upgraded and in 2015 is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a fully restored version playing in theaters around America. There have been considerations to remake the film, but nothing has come to pass with it. At most, cast members have given interviews looking back fondly of the film, even proving that the irrationality of Harrison's judgment of Hepburn was temporary. It also inspired May 20th to be Eliza Doolittle Day, as based on a song in the film.

Among the many movie musicals out there, My Fair Lady continues to resonate with powerful songs and a great story. Even if a lot of its history is mired in conflict regarding casting and vocal dubbing, its final product is sheer energy and fun that throws the viewer into a unique story. While the debate on if Andrews is better than Hepburn is likely to last, the conflict between the two thankfully won't. From the cockney accent of Hepburn to the sing-speak of Harrison, this is a great and authentic film that is as creative as it is faithful.

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