Silver Screen Standards: Eliza’s Voice in My Fair Lady (1964)
The socio-economic and geographical markers of dialect loom large in George Bernard Shaw’s influential play, Pygmalion, its 1938 film adaptation, and the splashy musical version that stars Audrey Hepburn as the fair lady of its title. If you’ve never had to think much about the way you talk, this theme might not be uppermost in your mind when you watch My Fair Lady (1964), but for me, it’s always at the heart of the story. When I went to college at 17, I found out that my rural Georgia twang led people to make a lot of assumptions about me, and I set to work to change it, or at least moderate it, which led to some bitter criticism from my mother. Nobody criticizes Eliza Doolittle for abandoning her Cockney accent, but she does eventually have to confront the ways in which changing her voice changes her identity. If she isn’t a Cockney flower girl, and she isn’t really a member of the idle aristocracy, then who is she? She certainly won’t get the answer from Professor Henry Higgins, who thoughtlessly sets Eliza on this journey without understanding or even being interested in its consequences.
The plot of My Fair Lady more or less follows Shaw’s original play and the 1938 film starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, and the story has been retold so many times that you already know it. Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison), a temperamental narcissist, bets his new friend Colonel Pickering (Wilfrid Hyde-White) that he can pass Eliza off as a lady in high society. The ruse involves a lot more than speech, of course, as Higgins realizes when he first takes Eliza out in public and she beautifully enunciates her belief that her aunt was “done in” by greedy relatives. With help from his mother (Gladys Cooper) and Colonel Pickering, Higgins completes his efforts to transform Eliza, but he fails to recognize her part in winning his bet. She leaves him, much to his puzzlement and dismay, only to return at the very end, thereby seemingly validating his insufferable egotism (Shaw flatly rejected the possibility of such an ending, and so do I, especially when Jeremy Brett makes such an attractive alternative in the 1964 version).
The musical had originated on Broadway with Julie Andrews as Harrison’s leading lady, and much has been said about Jack Warner’s rejection of Andrews, the casting of Hepburn, and the subsequent dubbing of most of Hepburn’s songs. Despite all of that, the movie turned out to be both a box office and Oscar hit, with 12 Academy Award nominations and 8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Harrison), Best Director (George Cukor), and Best Music (André Previn). Hepburn wasn’t nominated for Best Actress but is better known for her Eliza today than Wendy Hiller, who had played the role on stage and did earn an Oscar nomination for Pygmalion but lost to Bette Davis for Jezebel (1938).
My Fair Lady continues to be popular today, thanks in part to Hepburn’s radiance, the lively songs, and the gorgeous, Oscar-winning costume design by Cecil Beaton, but its themes also persist and repeatedly turn up in newer films that lead viewers back to it, if not to Shaw’s source material. Pretty Woman (1990) is probably the most famous of the modernizations, but more recently we’ve also seen She’s All That (1999) and the 2014 TV series Selfie as well as numerous movies that tap into the makeover as social ladder aspect of the story, including Can’t Buy Me Love (1987) and The DUFF (2015).
Ironically, though, the newer iterations all abandon the theme of dialect that Shaw builds on as the central issue of his play. In Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, Eliza’s speech betrays her lower-class origin more surely than her clothes or her manner; without the elocution lessons, she can never get a better job or ascend the social ladder no matter how good she looks. Higgins boasts at the opening that he can tell where someone is from within six miles or even two streets inside London, and although that might be an exaggeration, it hints at the connections between speech and place, both in terms of location and social status. Eliza’s speech communicates her place; once her speech changes, she loses the old place but doesn’t feel like she belongs in the new one, either. The newer movies, like many viewers, don’t register the importance of dialect and instead see the makeover as the key element; give the girl a dress, fix her hair and apply some makeup, and the rest takes care of itself, but that isn’t at all the point Shaw wants to make.
Even My Fair Lady undermines the importance of Eliza’s speech as key, by having Marni Nixon dub most of Hepburn’s songs; Jack Warner cast Eliza based on her looks and stardom, and rejected the more powerful singer Julie Andrews, but then denied Hepburn her own voice in the role even though the actress had prepared and expected to sing. Thus Warner played the Higgins/Pygmalion role in real life, taking Eliza’s voice away and replacing it to suit his expectations, and of course, that’s exactly how many powerful men in Hollywood have behaved to countless women. They, too, see themselves as the Pygmalion of Greek myth, molding formless clay into the perfect Galatea, but in Shaw’s telling, Eliza is already a fully-formed person with a raw but very real voice, and it is she who seeks out Higgins and tries to hire him as a dialect coach.
It gets lost in the forced romantic ending that both film versions adopt, but the real instigator of Eliza’s evolution is Eliza herself. Perhaps that’s one reason Shaw resisted the alteration to his play’s ending so fiercely; he even wrote a postscript to it called “What Happened Afterwards” in which he insisted that Eliza should never end up marrying Higgins. Unfortunately, Shaw had lost the battle over the ending for the 1938 film, and by 1964, the “happy” version was firmly ensconced and My Fair Lady repeated it. On the bright side, a 1994 restoration of the movie uncovered some of Hepburn’s vocal tracks, and the premiere screening of the restored film featured her version of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” during the end credits. Those tracks appear as bonus features on the 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, so Hepburn’s version of Eliza’s voice can finally be heard.
The popularity of My Fair Lady has led to numerous spoofs and homages in TV series like Moonlighting, The Andy Griffith Show, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, but for even more cinematic variations on the Pygmalion theme, try Educating Rita (1980), Trading Places (1983), Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004), and Ruby Sparks (2012). More unusual retellings can be found in One Touch of Venus (1948) and Mannequin (1987). If you’re interested in stories about people who change their speech to get ahead in life, learn more about the history of the mid-Atlantic accent in classic Hollywood or delve into the biographies of actors like Cary Grant and Claude Rains.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.