Thursday, April 27, 2006

Loverly (My Fair Lady)

In his program essay about My Fair Lady, the festival’s opening film, Roger Ebert suggests that a lack of familiarity with the musical indicates a "cultural illiteracy." I respectfully disagree. An entire generation exists who’ve never really watched the entire film through: A three-hour musical is a daunting prospect for MTV babies, and, well, let’s just say the musical as a genre is not in high favor these days.

That said, I can’t imagine a better conversion technique than a voluptuous 70 mm restoration viewed on Champaign’s grand Virginia Theater. From the beginning credit sequence, as close-ups of great pink flowers filled the entire screen for the duration of the overture, a great sigh arose, followed by the sounds of hundreds of moviegoers settling more comfortably into their seats. The education of a generation of Eliza Doolittles had begun.

Based on the story by George Bernard Shaw and starring Rex Harrison as ‘enry ‘iggins, the professor of linguistics schooling Cockney street urchin Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), My Fair Lady boasts some of the greatest dance and song sequences, as well as one of the most sophisticated explorations of class, ever to appear in a movie musical. As am exploration of the battle of the sexes, it’s a little funkier though tremendously funny. (A few of Higgin’s descriptions of Eliza: "guttersnipe," "baggage," and "deliciously low."). This is not a film immune to the appeal of a grown woman: wonderful models of older statuesque women as Higgin’s mother and Transylvanian royalty (!!) parade through the feature — a great contrast to how few older woman are ever even projected as elegant rather than dotty in contemporary film. And Doolittle changes, or rather, blooms into a woman able to fully articulate who she’s been all along: strong, charming, frank, and big-hearted. But Professor Higgins doesn’t really evolve from the self-involved man accustomed to treating women as background ferns who can supply him with food and slippers.

It’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t pretend otherwise, not ending with a big Hollywood kiss but rather with Higgins still growling at Eliza when she returns to him after her rightful indignance. His journey is only to recognize that he misses her rather than to learn from the error of his ways, and I wasn’t the only woman in the theater who realized with a start that Eliza was getting a lousy deal. In the ladies’ room later, hot debates raged: "He realizes he’s treated her badly," said one lady. But others disagreed. It’s not clear if we American musical lovers, so accustomed to a happy ending, created that extra bit of rationalization. He still seems pretty incorrigible, disappointingly so. Here this great woman transforms into an absolute swan, only to settle for a curmudgeon twice her age? Tres Us Weekly, pardon my French.

And yet, so much fun anyway. The track sequence, the hats, the tea sets, Audrey in a flannel nightgown, the flowers, the magenta stockings and silk brocaded jackets, the gracefully turned-out ankles, Stanley Holloway as her nogoodnik daddy, the hats festooned with tulle and feathers, the fantastic freeze frames and bath sequences. Droll and earthy and eminently literary.

I’d plum forgotten the uncomplicated pleasures of such song and dance sequences as "The Rain in Spain," "I’m Getting Married in the Morning," "I Could Have Danced All Night," and, of course, "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly." Part of how Ebert managed to define this immensely popular film as "overlooked" (more on that topic later) is that the singing Doolittle was only recognized years later as the great Marni Nixon, who also shadow-voiced other such Hollywood singers as Deborah Kerr in South Pacific.

And when she strode onto the stage at the film’s end, it was clear we had another swan on our hands. Tall, well-comported, and bright-eyed, even today Nixon strikes an impressive figure, not unlike the lady embassadors of the film. She explained how she viewed dubbing as just a job while she pursued a serious career in classic music, working with such composers as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. She was rueful but not bitter when she acknowledged that she never received royalties from the films she dubbed since she never received credit for them at the time. In fact, as she said lightly, she was told if she let the cat out of the bag, "she’d never work in this town again. Like the mafia!"

Nixon also graciously spoke of her "acting partner" Audrey, who was robbed of an Academy Award nomination because of the rumors that she’d had a voice double. Unfair, too, as Hepburn’s acting and comic abilities were never in greater evidence than in Eliza's indignant howls, her signature dancing moves (she flits about like a Disney bird: strange but lovely), and in her frightened, brave postures. The two practiced together every day, Nixon reported, as it was unclear how much Hepburn’s voice was actually going to get dubbed. And, on the day it was revealed her vocals wasn’t really going to be used, Hepburn "left the studio without a word."

The next day, she came back and apologized for "behaving so wickedly," said Nixon. “That was Audrey.”

Then the absolute best thing happened. On the behest of a local music instructor, Nixon opened up her cupid-bow mouth and sang, "Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?" Unwarmed up, unaccompanied save for a hand slapping on her thigh, her voice swelled and trilled up into the rafters while everyone held their breath to prolong their great pleasure. It was … loverly.

At Steak 'n Shake that night, the residual humming could still be heard loud and clear.


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