I think it is fair to say I have no idea when I first saw My Fair Lady, and I have probably grown up with it to some extent. Of course, that is along with many other films, as my being such an avid lover of film is perhaps in some degree marked by my parent's and grandparent's love of film (my grandma owns over a thousand movies, and my own household is not slouching either). I have seen My Fair Lady, directed by George Cukor in 1964 and based on George Bernard Shaw's 1913 Pygmalion, plenty of times, though plenty of times have I wandered to the other room because of it. It is not because of the fast reaction of some in disliking musicals, as I have discovered I really do like musicals. Brigadoon, Moulin Rouge, Duck Soup, Fiddler on the Roof, and some of the films of Mel Brooks are quick examples of these films I do enjoy; it is just that I am not the most adamant musical fan. When I do not like them, it can be laborious to sit through them, and My Fair Lady is no exception to this.
However, my dislike is not blind hatred. One element of the films I can most readily point out is Audrey Hepburn (who plays Eliza Doolittle). I have been enlightened to the fact that some people do not appreciate her all that much, considering her just a pretty face; and this is a point made by little facts in her box office appeal and how the studio cast her as Eliza for that reason. Audrey Hepburn, though, simply cannot be so readily tossed aside. She is a multiple Academy Award nominee and two-time winner (one award was a posthumous Humanitarian Award, voted for before her passing in 1993). She has repeatedly worked with first-class directors like Steven Spielberg, Blake Edwards, Stanley Donen, John Huston, Terence Young, William Wyler, and even George Cukor. She has also worked alongside many great actors, which I feel no need to list. Suffice it to say, a simple pretty face could not be found so striking as to catch the eye of so many truly talented people.
Her charm and brilliance are even more eliminated by modern-day attempts to recreate some of that magic. In 2002, Jonathan Demme remade 1963's Charade with bad results and none of that sparkle. (Demme is next remaking 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, and star Mark Wahlberg has starred in several remakes lately, just as an aside curiosity- what perhaps are they smoking?) In 1995, Sydney Pollack remade Billy Wilder's 1954 film Sabrina, and even with Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear, everybody essentially was going through the motions with none of what made the original so good (plus, Wilder is one of the best). Watch the originals and then watch the remakes, and just maybe you will start to gain an appreciation for her.
Of course, you cannot be forced to appreciate someone; but I simply have a hard time believing that, even if you do not care for her, you can write her off as a no-talent pretty face. I just got through watching William Wyler's 1953 film Roman Holiday, for which Hepburn received an Academy Award. Alongside the great Gregory Peck, she gives another performance in a film that, if you were just brazenly sifting through her career, you could say that it is just another romantic comedy, la de da. Sometimes you can see too many of these films that are so quickly, formulaically laid out that you can miss the ones with real life. Even with the kind of fairy-tale elements of the story, Wyler does something he always could do: portray characters that feel real. Hepburn deserved the accolades she got for the role. We really get a sense of this princess from the first moment we meet her, so prim and proper; but obviously something is wrong. There is a real joy and a real undercurrent of sadness throughout, where we not only see her get the opportunity to have fun, but also to know the quiet truth of her life. The holiday in Rome really means something and has a resonance; and in good part it is due to Hepburn's ability to make this character so genuine. The final scene says it all in a film that plays all its cards just right.
Alec Guiness was impressed with Hepburn and arranged for her to have her first role in a major film in Charles Crichton's 1951 film The Lavender Hill Mob. Thank God he did. I have said all this in good part to accentuate that, in my opinion, My Fair Lady was simply a bad idea. It is not just because I like Pygmalion so much, because I had never seen the 1938 Pygmalion, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, till this year. No, it is the case because it labors through so many musical numbers and provides an epic scale to moments in a story that does not need it. There are a few inspired pure dialogue scenes, and a few good musical numbers, like "Just You Wait," which I found funny. It is a prime example, to me, of a musical where the breaking into song feels wrong. Seeing Pygmalion opened my eyes to the smaller, more personal story within that I missed through the unfocused musical. If it is your sort of thing, My Fair Lady is no slouch, but when it comes to this viewer, there are some things that the most fair of ladies cannot improve.