My Fair Lady

Wilfrid Hyde White and Audrey Hepburn, plus hat.

 

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

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

My Fair Lady – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's

 

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

 

 

18 September

 

 

Tiffany and Co founded, 1837

 

On this day in 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany and his partner Teddy Young opened a fancy goods and stationery shop in Lower Manhattan. Tiffany, Young and Lewis changed its name to Tiffany & Co when Charles Tiffany took sole control in 1853. At the same time he shifted its emphasis to jewellery. Growing fat on the revenue from its mail order operation, Tiffany also started to get a name as a provider of quality items – silverware, surgical instruments and swords. By the 1880s it had become closely associated with diamonds after buying the French crown jewels (no longer required in France since the country no longer had a monarch). Through the 20th century, Tiffany’s became a byword for opulence – Marilyn Monroe sings its name in Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend in the 1953 movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; James Bond’s love interest in the 1956 Ian Fleming novel Diamonds Are Forever is named Tiffany Case. So when Truman Capote wrote a novella in 1958 about a New York socialite called Holly Golightly who wanted the best of everything, the name Breakfast at Tiffany’s seemed entirely appropriate.

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, dir: Blake Edwards)

The film that made Audrey Hepburn in her little black dress, string of pearls and cigarette holder, an enduring icon, is actually a story about a woman not a million miles away in modus operandi from Truman Capote’s mother. Not a prostitute, exactly, more a good time girl from a good family who is using her extended sojourn in New York as a way of catching a rich husband. An “American geisha” as Capote put it in a 1968 Playboy interview. Not that there’s any hint of impropriety in Hepburn’s performance. Nor does George Peppard exhibit any of the characteristics that seemed to mark him out as a gay gigolo in Capote’s original story. In fact Peppard’s character has been so rinsed through that he has become pretty dull. But Breakfast at Tiffany’s, like a lot of Blake Edwards films of the 1960s, is at least as much an exercise in style as it is in plot – which is presumably why when it debuted critics almost unanimously didn’t dwell on the selling oneself for cash, child sex (Holly’s husband reveals she was 13 when they married), drugs, unwanted pregnancy and relentless deception. Nowadays we’d add appalling racial stereotyping (Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Japanese) and smoking (that cigarette holder) to its list of crimes. Though no one then or now really seems too concerned by any of those things, possibly because the entire film takes place in a milieu that’s a collision between Hollywood make-believe and Hepburn high style.

 

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Catch a glimpse of Mel Blanc – the voice of Bugs Bunny
  • The film that set Hepburn’s screen persona in stone
  • The iconic “little black dress” movie
  • The Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song Moon River, written specifically for Hepburn

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Charade

Cary Grant in Charade

 

 

 

It’s the early Sixties, and the high artifice of the Hollywood studio system is suddenly being challenged by the supposedly more believable movie-making styles of a younger, hipper generation, among them the French Nouvelle Vague. Does Stanley Donen, an arch exponent of pure Hollywood artifice (he directed Singin’ in the Rain, for proof), take this sort of thing lying down? He does not. Instead he heads right into the heart of enemy territory, Paris, and makes a romantic suspense film that is stylistically and thematically all about artifice. The plot is, or appears to be, about the hunt for stolen money. Audrey Hepburn may or may not be a doe-eyed grieving widow. Cary Grant, who she turns to for help, may be precisely the wrong man to save her – what sort of guy has four-plus identities? As for the other guys (among them Walter Matthau and James Coburn, his first movie role after half a career already in TV), all of whom seem to want Hepburn dead, we’re never quite sure what their motivation is.

Never mind Jean Luc Godard’s dictum – “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun” – with Charade you get a masterpiece of tight control, plus girl, plus gun. Every hair on Cary Grant’s head is iconic Hollywood make-believe, Hepburn’s clothes are by Givenchy, the colour is by Technicolor and the French bit-parts are try-outs for Inspector Clouseau. And as for Peter Stone’s script, it’s an arch invitation to watch the film with one eyebrow raised. An invitation entirely worth accepting.

 

Charade – Watch it/buy it at Amazon