Friday, September 12, 2008

The Art of Pygmalion

The tradition of Weekly Movie Nite was almost halted by my unfathomable ability to keep appointments and the fact that last night’s news kept me away from movie screens and more jilted by the news channel jingles. Nonetheless, we did celebrate the Official AFI 100 Movies Nights albeit with two different popcorn crowds, in two different venues but alas, enjoying the same film: My Fair Lady. Our comments and reactions to both film and context were done via text messaging but the general reaction concluded that Rex Harrison is the God of Prepo's (mighty Lord we salute you), that we all want to drink on the eve of our marriage like Stanley Holloway and that Audrey Hepburn is forever to be known as the Great Aud.

The part of Eliza Doolittle was not intended for Hepburn. Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros. and producer of the film, decided that Julie Andrews, who had played Eliza on Broadway, was not that well known amongst American audiences to reprise her role in the film, accompanied by the original cast members Rex Harrison as Professor Henrgy Higgins and Stanley Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza’s father. Harsh mistake as the Disney Studios saw Andrews in the play and quickly cast her for the role of a singing nanny, not as Maria Von Trapp as one would presume, but as Mary Poppins. Her work would garner the Academy Award for Best Actress of that year, leaving Miss Hepburn out of the nomination race. The reason was that her voice was not used in the singing sequences of the film, employing a ghost voice instead (it was Marni Nixon's who also sung for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Deborah Kerr in the The King and I. You can actually see her and her singing in the Sound of Music. She plays Sister Margarteha, one of the nuns in the “How do you solve a problem like Maria” sequence).

Nonetheless, Hepburn was superb in the role if only for two contrasting reasons. One, her ability to portray a low income working girl (“I´m a good girl, I am”) masterfully displayed in the scene where she lays out her intentions to receive classes from the linguist Henry Higgins in order to “talk more genteel” and be able to work at a decent flower shop. This scene is enhanced by her attempts at comedy in the bath sequence (“is that were we wash claaathesss?”), the one were Higgins shoves marbles down her throat (“if they were necessary for Demosthenes, they are necessary for Eliza Doolittle”) and the ever famous “move your blooming arse” from the black and white Ascot scene.

The other, is just a simple scene where she descends exquisitely poised as a lady, ready to go to the Embassy Ball. There is no dialogue in that scene, except for Henry Higgins calling out for her: “Eliza”. But it’s that sheer uncertainty of approval that she yearns from him, coiled up in the relief of acceptance when he takes her arm that leaves the viewer convinced that she has already triumphed without leaving the door, dancing with Prince Gregor or being confused as a Hungarian princess by the noble crowd. The much later “here are your slippers” scene, in which she fights with Higgins over her uncertain future, is just icing on the cake. You root for Eliza all through the film, wondering when is it that Higgins the master will learn about feelings from his pupil.

Higgins is a character of his own. Well read, secure and with no times for the proprieties of the upper class or for the idiocies of the lower (his scene with Alfred P. Doolittle, who ultimately winds up as a rich moralist in part to Higgins’s pranks, is hysterical). Higgins’ “She’s so deliciously low”, a phrase he bestows upon Eliza, defines who he is and the difference he has over the common mortals of the planet (particularly women). There is a scene at the end where Eliza explains his nature to his mother where I think he changes his attitude and realizes why “a woman can’t be more like a man”. She says:

“Apart from the things one can pick up, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated. I shall always be a common flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me like a common flower girl, and always will. But I know that I shall always be a lady to Colonel Pickering [Higgins’ sidekick] because he always treats me like a lady, and always will.”

When Eliza finally does leave Professor Higgins, the climax of his song “I’ve grown accustomed to her face”, is the sincere realization that transformations can happen. Yet, the transformation has not really been only about her, but also about him. Higgins is determined to go back to being serenely independent, a “confirmed old bachelor” as he said earlier in the film. Yet the realization that she is gone is too much to bear and his life is that much empty because she’s not in it. Eliza returns to him, uncertain to the viewer if it is for love or companionship, but rather inclined to the former. Higgins reacts in the only way he knows how: “where the devil are my slippers?” Yet those words are more powerful than “I love you”. His action of dipping his fedora hat onto his face, is more extreme than a kiss which, ultimately, would be beneath a man who is unaccustomed to show affection. Let alone prove that he is wrong. Worthy recipient of the Oscar for Best Picture of 1964, in an era of the sixties where the musicals were slowly fading away.-


- The Bishop and the Professor in the same room? Heavens, no. I would be ex communicated.
- “You” won my bet? You presumptuous insect, “I” won it.
- ¿Se imaginan? Agarrar a una en Sabana Grande, pulirla y presentarla en una fiesta en el Country? We could so pull it off.
- Maracucho: Audrey, Audrey, Audrey
- ¿Como que she came baaack? She clearly was not from Caracas.

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