The first runner-up in the 2018 Best Picture Review Poll

There is an absolute limit on how bad any film adaptation of the 1956 stage musical My Fair Lady can possibly be, and that limit is set by the fact that, no matter what else goes wrong, you still have Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's collection ofΒ  several of the best songs ever composed for the English-language lyric theater. Better still, you still have most of the text of Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion, one of the finest stage plays written in English in the 20th Century. I am sure that a dedicated enough saboteur can find actors incapable of finding the extremes of verbal pleasure and satiric psychological insight that Shaw built into the story of tough flower girl Eliza Doolittle groomed into a fine lady by egocentric genius asshole Henry Higgins. But it would probably not happen by accident.

That being said, the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady that is, I am rather unpleasantly certain, the incarnation of the story known best to the most people... it's just not all that good. It lacks life: the most simple explanation, I think, is that director George Cukor was at his best (and such an extraordinary best it was) in fleet dialogue-driven urbane character comedies: Dinner at Eight (1933),Β Holiday (1938), The Women, (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam's Rib (1949). The wide gulfs of the widescreen frame robbed him of the ability to compact actors together in tightly-bound verbal sparring matches; opulent, busy setsΒ (this was a huge-budget mid-'60s production, of course it just dripped with sets) demanded that he show off more extensive blocking that was more about spectacle than it was about the tensions between characters, and the result benefits neither the characters nor, honestly, the sets, which end up looking rather drab and cluttered.

On the other hand, 10 years before this, Cukor directed the widescreen, production design-heavy A Star Is Born, and it is one of the great masterpieces of sound cinema. So maybe it's a simpler explanation still: Cukor was getting up to the end of his career, and he was growing stiff. I note with some real dismay that of the four films he made after My Fair Lady, the two I've seen are the shrill, humorless comedy Travels with My Aunt from 1972, and the completely inexplicable, absolutely horrendous US/Soviet co-production The Blue Bird, from 1976. So let us perhaps just say that he had lost his touch, and My Fair Lady was an early example.

Because it should work: this is witty, sparkling material and Cukor was once a witty, sparkling director. But this movie just fucking clomps. It has not been meaningfully re-imagined as a cinema piece, but simply as canned theater, all staged to the same fourth wall. And not even very good canned theater. The musical numbers, choreographed by onetime Fred Astaire collaborator Hermes Pan, consist of far too many sequences of people moving in lateral patterns - the only exception I can immediately think of is "I Could Have Danced All Night", which at least involves a trip up stairs and around a bedroom. And that is perhaps why it is an iconic moment, while the blowsy musical hall-style numbers "With a Little Bit of Luck" and "I'm Getting Married in the Morning", big joyful explosions on stage, are turned into meek little walking exercises in the movie.

The film's flatness was predictable, even more so with hindsight. The bloated mega-musicals of the 1960s were a shaky incarnation of the genre, and My Fair Lady had the misfortune of coming under the personal attention of Jack L. Warner, a great studio mogul nearing the end of his functional career (his very next film as producer was the 1967 adaptation of Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, a fat beast that resulted in his ouster from Warner Bros., the company he co-founded). It's thanks to Warner's insistence that the single worst decision that could have been made in the creation of this film, in 1964, got made: he passed on the "unknown" Julie Andrews, who had created the role of Eliza on Broadway, in favor of proper movie star Audrey Hepburn. Admittedly, if Andrews had gotten My Fair Lady, she probably wouldn't have gotten Mary Poppins; she assuredly wouldn't have gotten both Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. And I wouldn't want to trade either of those for the prospect of a better My Fair Lady that would still have had this cinematography, editing, and directing.

At any rate, Hepburn was a poor casting choice, however much she tries her god-damnedest not to be. The problems are three: first, believing that the most graceful woman who was ever put in a motion picture is a flat-footed, squawking Cockney slattern. Hepburn dives into the accent, and is apparently having a real fun time of it - her bug-eyed expressions of shock when she accidentally sets something on fire are justification enough for the whole performance - but there's a distinct sense in which we're idly waiting around for the very inevitable to happen. You do not get this from, say, Wendy Hiller in the terrific 1938 film adaptation of Pygmalion. Second, she couldn't sing. Or at least, the studio people believed she couldn't sing enough that they contracted Marni Nixon to provide Eliza's singing voice, and while the sound of Nixon's vocal mimicry is terrific, the lip sync persistently drifts. Third, and even more importantly than second, she was clearly uncertain about what to do with her body during numbers. Not just the dancing, which she's perfectly fine at. It's the simple matter of gesturing and posing, which Hepburn translates into a bunch of straight-armed windmilling motions, like she's playing Eliza as an end zone referee. Look, I love Hepburn, and she's going for it in this movie, and that's swell. But she comes off as goofy, and it's not goofy material, and she comes off as playing poor, not as being poor, and class is burned deep into the heart of this conflict.

The rest of the cast keeps her propped up, anyway: Rex Harrison, who created Higgins onstage, came back to win an Oscar for playing the part here, and while there's a definite whiff of "I am bored of this role, and also movies are trash" hanging over his performance, the nature of the part is such that a bid of superior boredom augments the character, rather than taking away from it. Stanley Holloway, also returning from the original production, is out-and-out great as Alfred P. Doolittle, layabout dustman and alcoholic philosopher. I'm not sure the show has any other make-it-or-break-it roles beyond those three, but Gladys Cooper is at least good and acerbic as Higgins's modestly disdainful mother.

And that's the thing: this works. It works fine. It works no better than that, is all, and oftentimes working comes down entirely to Holloway being a blast with great songs, as in the sepulchral treatment of "I'm Getting Married". At least once, it very badly stops working: the satiric pageant of upper-crust twits, "Ascotte Gavotte" is the kind of theatrical musical number that possibly cannot work in a movie, given the very different relationship of the audience to the camera lens versus the width of a proscenium stage. Not to mention that, in a film that has a persistent problem with tinny sound mixing, the chorus numbers are the ones that sound most hollow and nasty.

Still, the worst one can say about My Fair Lady is that talented people are saying exquisite dialogue and singing beautiful songs, and the camera has a peculiarly corpse-like relationship to them as they do this thing. And also the stuffy sets, designed by Cecil Beaton, have been made to look oddly brown and ugly. The whole movie is pretty drab that way, right from its stiff "montage of flowers" opening credits; but by 1964, film stocks were headed in that direction. I mean, sure, there were still films like fellow Best Picture nominee Mary Poppins, which were bright and energetic and had fun camera movements that did a good job capturing their musical numbers... I've lost my train of thought.