“I Am a Good Girl, I Am;” But Which One Was Better? Wendy Hiller versus Audrey Hepburn

         In the 1938 film Pygmalion, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, Wendy Hiller played the part of Eliza Doolittle. When in her depiction is compared to that of Audrey Hepburn in the 1964 musical adaptation, My Fair Lady, several factors come into play regarding the quality of Eliza’s character. Therefore, one must consider which actress achieved a more thorough rendition based what readers and playgoers obtained from the 1913 play Pygmalion, written by George Bernard Shaw.

         In the beginning of both films, Eliza is seen as the dirty flower girl quietly pestering the public to purchase her flowers. The book stated that Eliza was “not attractive at all,” and harshly enough Hiller portrayed this lonely, outcast young woman with sheer talent. Hiller looked the part, and Hepburn was still pretty even under all the dirt and grime. In the book, the audience acquires the impression that Eliza is socially shunned because of her place in society, ultimately affecting her demeanor. Hiller acted this out with brilliance, while Hepburn came up short. Hepburn was simply not as effective in rendering a well-suited, lower class outsider. There was a grace about Hepburn that followed her regardless of who she was attempting to play. This makes it difficult for audiences to move past an actress’ persona when she is endeavoring to be a rejected, sassy, uneducated woman when the world knows Hepburn was exactly the opposite. Perhaps one could say that Hiller merely outshined Hepburn when portraying a common flower girl; effectiveness of better acting skills being a major incentive on Hiller’s part.

         In addition, when it boils down to overall acting skills, Hiller again wins. Hiller did not seem to have to force it, while Hepburn struggled a bit. One scene that comes to mind is the bathing battle between Eliza and the maids. Hiller’s facial expressions and actions really showed the fear the girl thought was lurking in the midst of this unknown object; the bathtub. Hiller’s version even had me laughing, while Hepburn’s just reminds me of a lot of screaming and nothing else. Hiller was able to appropriately portray both a flower girl and a poised, well-spoken lady. Hepburn, however, was a more magnificent version of a duchess. Again, this ties in with her natural grace, beauty and charm, to which Hiller could not pose a challenge. At the embassy ball, indeed Hiller looked beautiful, but she would not realistically turn heads the way Hepburn’s Eliza did. Hepburn beheld that unattainable quality that wowed both men and women. All men wanted her, and every woman strived to be like her, which was the point the book presented and which the audience expected. Professor Henry Higgins declared he could turn that flower girl into a lady, and that lady was beautifully transformed and revealed with Hepburn. It all comes together when Higgins stated in the book, “By George, Eliza.  The streets will be strewn with the bodies of men shooting themselves for your sake before I've done with you.”

         Lastly, one should compare the effects of both actresses on their respective audiences, especially me. While reading the play, I sympathized over Eliza and the cruelness she received from Professor Higgins. In the movie Pygmalion, Higgins, played by Leslie Howard, was not as spiteful as I had pictured. Therefore, since his relationship with Eliza was not as unkind as I had originally perceived, I did not feel as sorry for Eliza the way I had throughout the book. Conversely, in My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison played Higgins, who was much more apathetic towards Eliza. He never really looked at her or praised her, which I had expected. Hence, I had more sympathy for her.

         Hiller transformed Eliza on the screen into a more independent woman; with the potential to face the world on her own after Higgins was finished with her. However, Hepburn’s Eliza still struck me as dependent on Higgins at the end. While she had her beauty, beauty can only take an individual so far in society. In the end of both films, an individual can easily pick up whether or not Eliza had an effect on Professor Higgins if she had changed his mind about continuing to pursue that “forever-a-bachelor” lifestyle. Hiller and Howard’s depictions of Eliza and Professor Higgins’ relationship sparked chemistry on the screen, while not much chemistry was evident with Hepburn and Harrison. However, in My Fair Lady, when Hepburn left to be with Freddy (Jeremy Brett), the audience could feel the effects this had on the professor. The music really helped set the tone as well, with the abandoned Higgins singing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” It hit home there when the audience, including me, and the professor realized he needed and wanted Eliza in his life. Therefore, when Eliza returned, I was happier to see the reunion of Hepburn and Harrison than I was of Hiller and Howard, despite their chemistry because they had both come across as too independent for each other.

         After all said and done, both Wendy Hiller and Audrey Hepburn did a fine representation of Eliza Doolittle. Hiller was a better common flower girl, while Hepburn oozed of eloquence as a refined lady. Depending on which chapter in Eliza’s life was more impressionable, an individual can decide which actress achieved a more thorough rendition. I cannot choose, for both had their strengths and weaknesses, both became women other women envied, and both changed a man.

Alicia Cassady

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