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My Fair Lady

(1964) **** G
170 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: George Cukor. Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Stanley Holloway, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Jeremy Brett, Theodore Bikel.

/content/films/4847/2.jpgIn her book Down from the Pedestal: Moving Beyond Idealized Images of Womanhood, Maxine Harris argues how "the images of [young] womanhood which tempt and ultimately trap women are images of male fantasies and desires." She names as one of the archetypal images of young womanhood the Free Spirit, "tamed, guided, and even remade by her experienced and powerful rescuer" and best emblematized in George Bernard Shaw's 1913 play Pygmalion. Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music) later adapted Pygmalion into the 1956 stage musical comedy My Fair Lady, starring Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins, the professor who, as per Harris, "falls in love with his own creation...fiesty working-class flower girl" Eliza Doolittle (Julie Andrews). Hollywood replaced Andrews with Audrey Hepburn for the well-nigh-irresistible 1964 film version of My Fair Lady, which comedically softens Shaw's ending but nevertheless nearly single-handedly transcends the material's sexist leaning through the sheer humanism of Hepburn's deeply felt performance.

While ostensibly inspired by the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (popularized by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses), both Pygmalion and its largely faithful musical adaptation share much in common with Shakespeare's social satire The Taming of the Shrew, in which a brutish man apparently (but not quite) refashions a free-spirited woman into a socially palatable feminine model and object of male desire, ultimately betting on his ability to do so (this plot preceded by a pre-postmodern Induction that predicts Harris by implicitly framing this "play within a play" as a male fantasy). In George Cukor's film of My Fair Lady, Harrison gives a stunningly honed performance as a psychologically hapless, self-awareness-lacking, but weirdly likeable "confirmed old bachelor," understood to appear civilized while actually being badly behaved. Hepburn's Doolittle, afflicted with brassy Cockney speech, succumbs to the literally patronizing higher-class promise of that cunning linguist Higgins, who insists that his dialect coaching and lessons in grammar, manner, and elocution will transform Eliza into a lady employable in a flower shop or, as he crows, "She's so deliciously low, so horribly dirty. I'll take it. I'll make a duchess of this draggle-tailed guttersnipe."

/content/films/4847/3.jpgLest we forget, My Fair Lady is a golden-age-of-Broadway musical entertainment, and it hums along with Lerner and Loewe's delightful songs (the music expertly supervised and conducted for the film by Andre Previn). Cukor's film still stands tall as one of the last great pageants of the golden age of Hollywood, boasting costumes, scenery, and production designed by Cecil Beaton, and choreography by Hermes Pan, all captured in widescreen, high-resolution Super Panavision 70. Yes, Harrison is notoriously talk-singing, but his razor-sharp delivery works like gangbusters for the role, the actor owning the screen in his peak performance. Every Higgins number (and all of his nasty dialogue) paints the character as a blithe, self-absorbed, sadistic jerk, though a consistently amusing one. To those willing consciously to parse a musical entertainment like this one, it's apparent that it's Harrison who's charming and that Higgins is more or less a monster. The professor nearly becomes worthy of his student as he begins, clumsily, to admit and articulate to himself ("I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face") and to Eliza that he likes her, though not aloud for the right reasons or confessing a shred of vulnerability.

By contrast, Eliza exhibits credible personal growth, albeit prodded by her reactions to Higgins. Though Eliza's singing voice is supplied mostly by the great Marni Nixon, Hepburn gives a master class in musical-theater acting with a turn characterized by rather astonishing emotional continuity, delineating Eliza's well-rounded arc by expressing humble dreams ("Wouldn't It Be Loverly?"), chastened defiance ("Just You Wait"), pride of accomplishment and wonder of possibility ("I Could Have Danced All Night," not necessarily a love song though certainly a "romantic" one), sexual—and male gender—frustration ("Show Me") and, climactically, prideful self-actualization ("Without You").

/content/films/4847/4.jpgGiven this dramatic throughline, it's all the more bothersome that My Fair Lady feels obligated—pre-Sexual Revolution, lest we forget—to jettison Shaw's partially corrective, if not outright feminist, ending. It's easier to see why Henry falls for Eliza than her for him, since Lerner expends less dramatic energy on the latter. Meeting Lerner halfway, we can infer Eliza's depth of gratitude for her teacher, easily transferrable in psychological terms to romantic attraction, and her weakness to the indefinable pull of the incorrigible Higgins' roguish, imperious, playfully insulting manner, which gives new meaning to "charm offensive." Lerner implies her true motivation is to teach Higgins what he so needs to learn about civility, especially between the sexes, but in the end, he still stands his ground and she succumbs, the story ending with a wink and a smile as the rascal winner takes it all. My Fair Lady risks being as insensitive as its male protagonist by playing for romance a woman's "boys will be boys" acceptance of male-dominant verbal abuse, even though the bark is most certainly worse than the bite.

And so the film's last thirty seconds diminish what's come before, but not enough to invalidate those two hours and 45 minutes of their classic status (last year, Time's Charlotte Alter argued that even those thirty seconds are permissible because 1912, but job applications or even a return to the streets would be more in keeping with Eliza's evolved pride of self). From the lush Overture to the brisk Finale, My Fair Lady entertains with grander-than-life musical-comedy finesse and vivid characters (lest we forget Wilfrid Hyde-White's dotty Colonel Hugh Pickering, pre-Sherlock Holmes Jeremy Brett's besotted Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Theodore Bikel's self-satisfied Zoltan Karpathy or, bless us, Stanley Holloway's prancing hustler Alfred P. Doolittle). With a little bit of luck, My Fair Lady will retain its power, undimmed in fifty years, to delight, making debate over its depictions of gender roles and the effect of class on identity not so much vexing as just two more of the classic musical's loverly fascinations.

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Aspect ratios: 2.20:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 Surround

Street date: 10/27/2015

Distributor: CBS Home Entertainment

CBS Home Entertainment has made My Fair Lady fans' dreams come true in this second-take Blu-ray special edition. A 2011 release was poorly received by home-theater-honed cinephiles who knew a better transfer was possible. With CBS' three-disc 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD combo pack, the fog has lifted. Within a swanky, shiny, fold-out Neo-Pack reside a flm-only Blu-ray, a bonus features Blu-ray upgrading many old SD features to HD while adding several substantial new ones, and a DVD copy of the film. Thanks to a "brand new 4K restoration from an 8K scan of the original negative, and other surviving 65mm elements, painstakingly restored by acclaimed film historian and preservationist Robert A. Harris," picture quality proves breathtaking this time around: the rain in spain falls mainly on the plain, but more importantly, the fog has lifted. Now tiny details (including shadow detail on dark streets) and textures are discretely perceptible, from beads of streaming rainwater in the opening scenes to finely resolved upholstery and wallpaper patterns in Higgins' home. Color is richly, beautifully vibrant and true, black level inky, contrast perfectly calibrated, and, crucially, fine film grain untouched. The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 surround presentation, derived from the original full-resolution mix not made available since 1964, couldn't be any better, maximizing the source material while delivering an authentic, unfussy presentation that engages the channels wisely without any undue distractions.

Bonus features new to this edition begin with vintage promotional film "British Premiere" (2:17, HD), a bite-sized "Rex Harrison Radio Interview" (1:06, HD), and 65mm Production Tests presented by Wilfrid Hyde-White's son Alex Hyde-White: "Lighting" (0:57), "Wilfred Hyde-White Make-Up" (0:47), "Rain/Set" (0:49), "Covent Garden Lighting Test" (0:44), and "Alt. Higgins/Pickering Screen Test" (3:48).

A new suite of Trailers (0:39 each, HD) includes "Teaser Trailer with City Tags" for Hollywood, New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., San Francisco, and Chicago; "With Pride Trailer" (1:11, HD); "Awards Trailer" (1:04, HD), "Theatrical Reissue: Poster Illustration" (0:58, HD), "Theatrical Reissue: Poster Illustration Reserved Seats Trailer" (1:25, HD), "Theatrical Reissue: Poster Illustration Awards" (1:25, HD), and (as seen on the previous release) "Theatrical Reissue" (3:48). Oddly, this release does not include the film's original trailer (found on the previous release).

New featurette "The Story of a Lady" (5:05, HD) covers the film's blockbuster status, Warner Brothers' purchase of the film rights, casting, and various trivia of the film's production.

New featurette "Design For a Lady" (8:22, HD) explores production design, wrapping in comments by the film's all-around designer Cecil Beaton.

Last among the new extras, "Rex Harrison BFI Honor" (2:08, HD) finds the actor, on set, briefly reflecting on his career.

Nearly all of the 2011 bonus features return, many upgraded to HD. Primary among them is the doc "More Loverly Than Ever: The Making of My Fair Lady Then & Now" (57:58, HD), hosted by Jeremy Brett and featuring interview clips of Gene Allen, James C. Katz, Robert A. Harris, Marni Nixon, Mirabella magazine founder Grace Mirabella, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, actor Stanley Holloway’s son Julian, Martin Scorsese, Variety senior columnist Army Archerd, Alan Jay Lerner’s former wife Nancy Olson-Livingston, assistant film editor John Burnett, digital artist Kevin Lingesfelder, re-recording mixer Bob Litt, Julie Andrews, Theodore Bikel, critic Rex Reed, costume designer Bob Mackie, restoration assistant editor Mike Hyatt, and former head of Warner Bros. production Rudy Fehr.

Also returning: "1963 Production Kick-Off Dinner" (23:20, HD), "Los Angeles Premiere 10/28/1964" (4:53, SD), "George Cukor Directs Baroness Bina Rothschild" (2:39, SD), fully restored clips of the Alternate Audrey Hepburn Vocals "Show Me" (2:48, HD) and "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" (4:26, HD,
Comments on a Lady by "Andrew Lloyd Webber" (1:04, SD) and "Martin Scorsese" (1:19, SD), Galleries (HD, though now minus the "Poster Cards with Rex Harrison Radio Interview"), "The Fairest Fair Lady (9:31, HD), "Rex Harrison Golden Globe Acceptance Speech" (:47, HD) and "Academy Awards Ceremony Highlights 4/5/65" (2:09, SD).

This is the Blu-ray of the year for classic-movie fans: re-gift the 2011 set and pick up this new one, a worthwhile double-dip if ever there were one.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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