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Rethinking "My Fair Lady"


Toto
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I recently viewed "My Fair Lady" again on TCM.  It was wonderful to see this film in a long horizontal format rather than cropped to fit the a more square shaped TV screen.  Scenes take on a new dimension and show so much more information.  After the film, the TCM hosts had a discussion about problematic aspects of the film as part of the "Looking in the Rearview Mirror" series.  Their views clarified what had always troubled me about the ending of "My Fair Lady".  In the film, Eliza Dolittle decides to return to Professor Higgins after she has been transformed from a poor flower girl to a lady by Professor Higgins who has given her speech lessons.  Feeling more independent and empowered, she left Higgins but decides to return.  When she appears, Higgins puts his hat over his  face and orders Eliza to fetch his slippers.  It's clear she's returning to a very subservient position with Higgins (who has treated her more like an object and harshly).  The TCM hosts pointed out that this is disappointing - after Eliza has worked so hard to transform herself (and was even given a marriage proposal by Freddy), she is willing to give it up for Higgins.  When this film came out, the attitude that women should be dominated by men and they should act in a docile way around men was common and I can't remember people speaking up about the troubling ending in "My Fair Lady".  It was a relief to me to hear this finally discussed.   That said, I still appreciate the many ways this is a masterful film with amazing music and lyrics, performances, set design, etc.  I love the scene at the Ascot Horse Races.

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This was not the ending Shaw intended.  In fact, during his life, Shaw never saw his ending performed.  He wrote the play to end indeed with Eliza going to marry Freddie.  But the actor playing Higgins played it to imply she would return to him.  The ending we see in My Fair Lady was created by the original movie version of the play (Pygmalion, 1938).  Shaw hated it.  The intention of the play is to overturn cultural convention, but the force of cultural convention it seems was too overwhelming.  A more recent adaptation (1983) with Margot Kidder and Peter O'Toole has what is likely a more faithful ending.

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Wow.  Talk about blinders!

Didn't recall when Higgins first ordered Eliza to fetch his slippers, she (as Higgins put it) "Shied" them at him and stormed out, eh?   But realizing she had fallen in love with him, she returned, and a more docile but still mischievous Higgins,  then asked, "Where the devil are my slippers?"  After all, Higgins did realize his dislike of living without her,  And too, realizing his reluctance to jeopardize her walking out again, would surely do what he could to make her happy, as she would for him which people in love are wont to do.    Look at it these couple of ways...

In MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, Michael Constantine, as the Father, keeps harping on the notion that he is "the head of the family".  And later in the movie, his wife(Lainie Kazan) lets it be known...

"He may be the HEAD of the family, but I'm the NECK.  And the neck can turn the head in any direction it wants!"  :D 

My wife would often joke about, "We share things,  He gives me his money, and I give him a headache!"  ;)  But too, goes on, "But he's not stingy about it.  He usually gives it back!"  :D 

Sepiatone

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I've always thought the best ending for the movie version would've been if after Higgins says to Eliza "Where the devil are my slippers?", Eliza would reply with something like:

"Your SLIPPERS?! Excuse me sir, but are your legs broken or something? I'm sure you can find them yourself!", and said not in a Cockney accent but in the more uppercrust accent she now has.

And then fade out as we see Higgins smiling with the thought that he truly had made a better, more confident and more desirable person of Eliza, and he then goes to retrieve his own slippers.

(...in this way, many more people would be satisified with the ending I believe, and maybe even G.B. Shaw himself)

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You can see here the desperate desire for people to see things follow in cultural conventions.  The supreme demand for a sentimental ending p e r verts  Shaw's play even till today.  As a social reformer, Shaw wanted Eliza to achieve her emancipation from both the economic servitude of her class and the oppression of the overbearing ruling class symbolized by Higgins.  It is in a way a sanction of the Stockholm effect, where a hostage comes to form an emotional bond with their captor.

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2 hours ago, Toto said:

I recently viewed "My Fair Lady" again on TCM.  It was wonderful to see this film in a long horizontal format rather than cropped to fit the a more square shaped TV screen.  

TCM aired the restored version years ago and recorded the documentary of the restoration.

The film was shot in Super Panavision 70.

myfairlady-70mm1.jpg

 

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Although one of the problems leveled at Doctor Doolittle (1967) was not just the casting of Rex Harrison, but the fact that they had to give him Samantha Eggar as a feisty love interest, just SO that Harrison could initially bring back his Snarky Frustrated-Intellectual Victorian-Misogynist "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Professor Higgins patter-lyric-tantrum act at her, rather than play the shy, retiring eccentric hobby-dweeb country doctor of Lofting's book.

images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTv129S8xUY99mUXTAqkIH

Only here, Eggar stays around long enough to Harrison to reluctantly realize he's been the victim of his own stodginess and give in to the happy ending.

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Just came across this thread and found Sepiatone and Dargo expressing my thoughts exactly about this film.  I confess I was quite puzzled as to why this movie was "problematic" for our TCM panel, and I guess I see the ending in an entirely different light.

Haven't we just taken in close to a 10 minute scene in Higgins' mother's house in which Eliza and the Professor go 10 rounds and Eliza KO's him in the end?  Now that know they can square off against each other, the underlying affection can surface in a remarkable way.  "Eliza, I like you this way," says Higgins.  So the last shot of the film seems to me perfectly satisfying -- with apologies to GBS, sadly.  To me, it's all in the expressions on their faces -- both smiling.  Higgins has begun the jovial sparring that only couples know from their own intimacy, but is incomprehensible to the outside world.  Again, in the last shot, Eliza is most certainly not dashing off to fetch the slippers.  She takes a step and then halts.  Cue music, screen to black, end movie.  I think it works fine.

Now I, too, thought she is capable now of saying to Higgins those things which Dargo has pointed out earlier.

Oh, one other thing, I suppose.  If we were to get the original meaning of the ending as Shaw wanted, I am fully convinced that Eliza's marriage to Freddie would turn out to be the complete disaster that Higgins predicted.  She'd be marrying down.

Brian

 

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Whether the filmmakers changed Shaw's ending is one thing, but droning on and on about the "subservient" aspects of a character in a story is a waste of time.

The ending of the play was changed during its run in London in 1914  against Shaw's wishes because audience wanted a happy ending.  Eliza was never meant to marry Higgins.

Mrs. Patrick Campbell was the original Eliza and she was in her late 40s when she debuted the role. The character of Eliza has been consistently sentimentalized  (younger and prettier) over time and is not at all what Shaw imagined.

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20 hours ago, Sepiatone said:

Didn't recall when Higgins first ordered Eliza to fetch his slippers, she (as Higgins put it) "Shied" them at him and stormed out, eh?   But realizing she had fallen in love with him, she returned, and a more docile but still mischievous Higgins,  then asked, "Where the devil are my slippers?"  After all, Higgins did realize his dislike of living without her,  And too, realizing his reluctance to jeopardize her walking out again, would surely do what he could to make her happy, as she would for him which people in love are wont to do. 

Even seeing this as a kid,  always viewed Higgins as a (gay) man with zero interest in Eliza except as a project. Seems to me, Eliza's tenacity & transformation intrigue him and obviously he has grown to care for her and possibly softened towards women in general.  Higgins even learns a bit from Eliza's Father, obviously delighted & intrigued by Mr Do-Little's freewheeling take on life, love & family.

The story is as much HIS transformation as HERS.

The ending seems to me, that Higgins has decided women aren't so bad, he'd rather keep her around. And Eliza, accepts Higgins arrogant nature, now realizing she has the knowledge, talent & power to take charge of her situation.

I agree with the above assessment, that marrying Freddy would be a step down, an admission nothing has changed for her except her appearance.

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The whole panel's criticism misses the point that the movie didn't come up with this ending. That's how the Broadway musical ended. They weren't going to change the damn thing! At the time it was the longest running musical on Broadway and a great success. One can interpret the ending and their future in different ways.

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3 hours ago, TikiSoo said:

 

The story is as much HIS transformation as HERS.

 

And I thank you for stating what I did, but with FAR more clarity and FAR less words!  ;) 

I never saw Higgins as gay however, but can understand how some might conclude that.

Sepiatone

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3 minutes ago, Sepiatone said:

And I thank you for stating what I did, but with FAR more clarity and FAR less words!  ;) 

I never saw Higgins as gay however, but can understand how some might conclude that.

Sepiatone

The song "A Hymn to Him", where Higgins goes on and on about why women can't be more like men gives some that impression...

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1 minute ago, txfilmfan said:

The song "A Hymn to Him", where Higgins goes on and on about why women can't be more like men gives some that impression...

I see.  However, the song suggested to me that Higgins wonders why women can't THINK more like men.   Oh, "A Hymn To Him" ?  That's the name of that tune?  Never knew that.  But reading it here immediately brought THIS to mind  ;) --------

Go ahead.  Take the time.  You won't be disappointed

Sepiatone

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37 minutes ago, Sepiatone said:

I see.  However, the song suggested to me that Higgins wonders why women can't THINK more like men.   Oh, "A Hymn To Him" ?  That's the name of that tune?  Never knew that.  But reading it here immediately brought THIS to mind  ;) --------

Go ahead.  Take the time.  You won't be disappointed

Sepiatone

Yeah, not bad.

(...but it still ain't no In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, dude!)  ;)

LOL

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1 hour ago, txfilmfan said:

The song "A Hymn to Him", where Higgins goes on and on about why women can't be more like men gives some that impression...

Yes, but I was 7-10 years old when I listened to the Broadway record incessantly. What did I know about "gay"? I did notice however, men who acted "effeminate", since I was a working child in the fashion industry. But I absolutely took the song's meaning as Higgins' lament as to why can't a woman think more like a man too. 

My observation of Higgins as "gay" really only occurred to me as an adult. But it really isn't important to the story at all, is it?

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9 minutes ago, TikiSoo said:

Yes, but I was 7-10 years old when I listened to the Broadway record incessantly. What did I know about "gay"? I did notice however, men who acted "effeminate", since I was a working child in the fashion industry. But I absolutely took the song's meaning as Higgins' lament as to why can't a woman think more like a man too. 

My observation of Higgins as "gay" really only occurred to me as an adult. But it really isn't important to the story at all, is it?

No, I suppose not.

(...although if Higgins WERE gay and if he and Eliza DO end up together, wouldn't a better title for this movie be, My Fair Beard ?)

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3 minutes ago, TikiSoo said:

Yes, but I was 7-10 years old when I listened to the Broadway record incessantly. What did I know about "gay"? I did notice however, men who acted "effeminate", since I was a working child in the fashion industry. But I absolutely took the song's meaning as Higgins' lament as to why can't a woman think more like a man too. 

My observation of Higgins as "gay" really only occurred to me as an adult. But it really isn't important to the story at all, is it?

I don't think so.  I don't see Higgins as gay.  The last line of the song, uttered (not sung) as Higgins leaves the house  is the most pertinent to his character:

  • Why can't a woman be like me?
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In response to some of the comments, I don't agree that at the end of the movie Higgins has "transformed".  I think he feels disappointed or sad that Eliza decided to leave but he doesn't start treating Eliza in a loving or respectful way.  I very much prefer Shaw's ending where Higgins doesn't get Eliza back.  Shaw wrote "Pygmalion" (renamed "My Fair Lady") as a social satire and comment on class consciousness (as well as male attitudes toward women) in Edwardian England.  In the movie "My Fair Lady", there are many happy sounding, humorous songs which lighten the more serious behaviors and issues in the story.  Higgins treats Eliza as a total inferior when she walks in the door and refers to her as "baggage" because she is poor and from a different class.  He is brutal with her during her voice exercises and he gives her no positive acknowledgement (or even talks to her) after she is a "triumph at the ball".  He treats Eliza like a thing.  Good relationships are based on love and respect and I don't see the signs at the end of the film that Higgins is a changed man.   Eliza worked to transform herself and she deserves more than Higgins.

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2 hours ago, txfilmfan said:

I don't think so.  I don't see Higgins as gay.  The last line of the song, uttered (not sung) as Higgins leaves the house  is the most pertinent to his character:

  • Why can't a woman be like me?

Higgins wasn't "gay" because he was misogynist--ALL Victorian men were misogynist because women just "didn't think logically", while men were trying to be elegant, intellectual gentlemen who were responsible for the Empire distributing civilization to the unwashed foreigners and lower class.  (And even they didn't compare to George Bernard Shaw in person...WOW.  😱 )

Which also nixes the constant theories that Sherlock Holmes was, either, just because he underestimated Irene Adler as the only woman to outwit him but he didn't marry her.

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It's surprising to see how people will stand Shaw's work on its head, stretch it, turn it inside out,  contort and distort it, read any manner of things onto it, including misogyny, and homosexuality (!), even accuse him of being wrong,  wrong about his own creation!, in order to maintain their sentimental preferences.  Just because a man lives alone does not mean he is a homosexual, even in a play.  Henry Higgins is not a misogynist, he is a God damned conceited egotistical bastard.  The idea of going out of his way to have a hatred for women as separate from his disdain for humanity in general would strike him as absurd.  The play is not about his change as a person.  In fact he boasts of his inflexibility in his final confrontation with Eliza.  And that is why he loses her in the end.  The contrived ending of the happy-enders of the movies would only seem reasonable to people lost in a trance of sentimentality, instead of what it really is:  a violation and self-betrayal of everything she has worked and suffered for.  The idea she would go through the extraordinary ordeal she did only to jump from one condition of servitude to another is unthinkable for her.  She was a capable person, with a desire to improve her condition, an eye for the main chance, and the drive to go after an opportunity when she saw it.  That's why she went after Freddie.  She could do something with him.  She could do nothing with Henry Higgins. 

Edited by slaytonf
Can't believe what got past the nannybot.
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