My Fair Lady

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

14 January

Cecil Beaton born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Cecil Hardy Beaton was born, in Hampstead, London. This son of a timber merchant was only interested in art from a very early age. Young Beaton was taught to use a camera by his nanny, and went on to spend his life making photographs of one form or another. He studied art, history and architecture at Cambridge University though left without a degree and after a short time trying to work in his father’s business set himself up as a photographer, using his society connections to get him the sittings for photographs that he could sell on to magazines hungry for glimpses of the lives of the rich and well connected – Vogue, at first. He went to New York, where he slowly made his name, returning to the UK with a contract with Conde Nast.

Beaton’s name will always be associated with the higher echelons of British society – royalty, aristocracy, people of “breeding”. And no wonder they flocked to him, because Beaton’s photographs presented these people as they saw themselves. However, during the Second World War Beaton showed himself equally adept at taking striking portraits of everyday folk – girls serving soldiers in tearooms, a young Blitz victim clutching her teddy bear in hospital. Though some anti-Semitic remarks he had scrawled in the border of an illustration had got him fired from Conde Nast (“dirty kikes” – it might have been meant as a joke but didn’t go down well in New York), his work during the war restored his reputation, and he moved into theatre design. His stage designs for the Broadway run of My Fair Lady got him the gig doing similar for the film version and a new career in film design opened up, though he had been designing “gowns” for films as early as 1941’s Major Barbara. He was the production designer on only two films, My Fair Lady and Gigi, and won Oscars for both. A fey man who in his youth entered into the world of boisterous cross-dressing which the upper classes seem to embrace so whole-heartedly in their salad days, Beaton seems to have been bisexual as an older man, having notably had an affair with Greta Garbo. Though it is said that the love of his life was the art collector Peter Watson.

My Fair Lady (1964, dir: George Cukor)

The practice of a high-born individual stooping socially to regenerate the exhausted bloodline is cleaned up for fiction in this adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. And if you’re in the cleaning up business, then call in George Cukor, the “women’s director” whom generations of Hollywood actresses had leant on (even after he had been fired from Gone with the Wind Cukor was receiving nightly calls from the film’s female stars, hoping for help with their lines). Call in the effortlessly urbane Rex Harrison (a shit in real life, but there you go) as phonetics Professor Henry Higgins. Call in Audrey Hepburn as the Cockney flower girl he turns into a member of high society (she’d helped turn Holly Golightly from a prostitute to a dizzy gadabout in Breakfast at Tiffany’s after all). And call in Cecil Beaton, whose sets and costumes threaten at every turn to upstage everyone else involved in the film. Even the intermission card, all fragile floral beauty, is by Beaton. The themes of the film are darker than they at first appear: what use is a woman who can talk posh but who has no money? What use is a woman at all – or “why can’t a woman be more like a man” as Higgins puts it in his spoken-in-jest song. There’s even more to it than that, of course – Shaw wasn’t in the business of writing a play about people from different class strata without making a point about social mobility. But which one? That an English(wo)man is condemned to a social position depending on the accent they are born with? Or that it’s easy to change your circumstances: all you have to do is change the way you speak? Did I mention the costumes? Yes. The music? It’s by Lerner and Loewe and is notable for three reasons – because of Harrison’s spoken delivery, entirely appropriate for a phonetics professor; because Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon (Julie Andrews, a real singer, having been turned down for the role, even though she had made My Fair Lady a hit on Broadway); and because the songs seem to fit so well the purpose they are designed for. I Could Have Danced All Night, that’s the delightful waltzing, swept-off-my-feet number. I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, the tender love ballad. Get Me to the Church on Time, the Cockney knees up. Just You Wait, the spitfire riposte. It’s a great film, a lavish one, a long one too, nearly three hours. It flies by.

Why Watch?

  • Cecil Beaton’s sets, clothes, hats
  • Eight Oscars, none for the actors
  • The excellent support cast including Wilfrid Hyde White and Gladys Cooper
  • The restoration is a work of art in itself

My Fair Lady – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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