Pygmalion and My Fair Lady: The Leading Ladies

         The 1938 film, Pygmalion, directed by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, and the 1956 musical, My Fair Lady, by Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, filmed in 1964 by George Cukor, were both good films with equally fine performing leading ladies. In the earlier film, Eliza Doolittle was played by Wendy Hiller; and, in the latter, Audrey Hepburn was the star. These actresses both added a unique twist to the Eliza I had imagined while reading the 1913 play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, upon which the two films are based.

         Hiller plays a rambunctious older version of Eliza. She is older than described in the book, but she still acts young at heart, so it does not interfere much with the viewer’s ideas of Eliza. The progression throughout the movie is slow and painful for Eliza. The directors are careful to show her progression as sluggish and upsetting. Her accent, both before and after, is extremely well done and adds to her flower-girl roots.

         In the 1964 version, Hepburn also does a powerful adaptation of Eliza. She seems very pretty from the beginning, so her “clean-up” is not quite as satisfying as that of Hiller, who seemed dirtier and more unkempt when taken in by Professor Higgins (Leslie Howard). Hepburn’s accent is powerful, and her continuous use of certain sayings, like “I’m a good girl, I am,” makes her character unforgettable and somewhat amusing to watch grow. Hepburn, unlike Hiller, begins speaking correctly in a more abrupt manner, after an unexpectedly kind pep talk from Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison), whom she secretly yearns for, especially in this version. This takes away some of the struggle that I think might be necessary to fully understand the hardship of changing classes in society.

         Hepburn’s version of Eliza keeps no secrets about her love for Professor Higgins. We note her sing negative songs about him; but it is obvious at other times, like after the two have finished dancing, that she cares a lot about what he thinks of her as a student and as a lady. Although some of Hepburn’s actions seems a little over the top, her brilliant acting, which enables her to mime Marni Nixon’s singing for many of the songs, enhance the well-written stor.

         The 1938 film offers a somewhat different version of the story, but the earlier movie is just as good for several other reasons. I could not really pinpoint the film I liked more. Although, I found the characters of this film be more accurate depictions of those in the original play, I found that Hepburn’s acting and unmistakable beauty made for quite a good film, as well.

Jessica Heacock

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