Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Killing Sacred Cows - My Fair Lady

The news that Keria Knightley and her Pride & Prejudice/Atonement director Joe Wright will remake My Fair Lady no doubt has many movie fans screeching in protest.

In most cases, I would side with the protests - but not this time. I've never liked My Fair Lady.

There, I said it. Best Picture my ass.

It's not the best film of 1964 by a long shot. Hell, it's not even the best musical film of that year - there are two that are decidedly superior: Mary Poppins and A Hard Day's Night. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm sure a lot of people who know me are going to cry Beatle bias on that one. Sue me. I ain't the only one.)

In many ways it pains me to say this. I love movie musicals. I love Audrey Hepburn. I love most of the movies I've seen directed by George Cukor. But they were way off their games on this one.

A large part of the problem is that Lerner & Lowe musicals as a rule, leave me cold. Brigadoon aside, their movie musicals just don't sing for me. Gigi is uncommonly stiff for an  MGM musical, especially one directed by Vincente Minnelli. Camelot literally put me to sleep. And the parts of Paint Your Wagon I've seen are howlingly bad.

Cukor's direction of My Fair Lady is so lethargic that much of the movie looks exactly like what it is - a big expensive, filmed play. If you want to see what Cukor can really do with a musical, watch his 1954 version of A Star is Born, which thoroughly outclasses My Fair Lady in EVERY respect: story, score, visuals and performances. Yet it doesn't get nearly the love My Fair Lady does. That is simply unjust and wrong. This number, "The Man That Got Away" blows anything in My Fair Lady off the screen:

And the usuallly glorious Hepburn was flat-out miscast as Eliza Doolittle. Sure, it's easy to see her as a regal, princess-y type (Roman Holiday, anyone?) but I absolutely do not buy her as a guttersnipe. She's just not convincing as a street rat.

And then there's the "singing." I know Hepburn didn't have the operatic tone to tackle the songs, but Marni Nixon's voice and Audrey Hepburn's face simply do not match. It makes me wish for the much simpler pleasures of the endlessly superior Funny Face, or of the "Moon River" scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's in which she did her own singing and was beguiling. Watch and listen.

And it's not just me who feels the Lady is not all that Fair. Michael Gebert writes in The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards:

All the skill of Forest Lawn has gone into making the embalming job seem as lifelike as possible, with the result that the hit Broadway musical is transferred to the screen in an amazing simulation of the revival tour 20 years later, when everybody would be too old and bored for their parts.

Charles Matthews, author of Oscar A to Z, opines,

"Size isn't everything, and the delights of the movie .. are weighted down quite a bit by the opulent sets and costumes."

And I mostly agree with Ty Burr, when he writes  in his book The Best Old Movies for Families

At 170 minutes, Lady is  a stagy haul, but it's become such an institution, most people assume it's a four-star classic. It isn't, but the songs are cute and you won't be able to avoid it.

Actually, I usually make a point of doing just that.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts in which I dare to counter popular opinions of a movie. Coming soon - my take(down) of a certain 1939 movie I don't give as much of a damn about as most people do.


Scott Copeland said...

I've actually seen all of Paint Your Wagon, and My Fair Lady isn't quite that bad. But just as Eric fell asleep next to me at a revival screening of Camelot, I was the one who fell asleep during My Fair Lady. Eric has the quote I most agreed with, referring to the film as an embalming job. I am repeatedly disappointed by people who rate this over Mary Poppins. One has energy. One doesn't. At least Julie Andrews deservedly won best actress.

bettepearce said...

I actually agree with you concerning My Fair Lady. It was little more than a showcase for Audrey Hepburn's beauty and over-the-top costumes. As for Paint Your Wagon, I was so embarrassed for the stars, I couldn't even get through it; I've yet to see the entire movie. As for A Star is Born, I've always felt it was underrated and that Judy Garland's Oscar loss is one of the great travesties in Oscar history.

Anonymous said...

Wow all I can say is poop on all of you.
I won't argue that Julie Andrews is more dynamic and even more energetic. What it is I think, is that you all miss the point about My Fair Lady. It's a social commentary. The greatness is in the support characters of this film. Stanley Halloway is fantastic as well as the maid, townspeople and Freddy. The music is great as well are the lyrics. Paint your Wagon really isn't that great and Camelot I wouldn't waist time on. I do not agree that it's a way to shine Audrey's beauty. Did they take advantage of that yes - but that was the point with the story!! She was a little draggletoothed guttersnype ... but underneath anyone who grows up poor is potential - that's the whole point that sometimes we don't even appreciate those around us because we're too stuck up to come down from our own thrown. Do I like it any better than Mary Poppins. Not really sure. But I get what the story and the music is trying to give me. So I don't agree with you Eric!!