Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) is a working class flower vendor on the streets of London. She’s plucked from her meagre existence by Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), an arrogant phonetician who make a bet with his friend, à la Lord Daftwager, that he can pass her off as a lady at the ambassador’s ball. Think of it as Ladette to Lady the movie.
Higgins exemplifies everything that is bad about a certain kind of English intellectual at that time (and too often since). Set in the Edwardian era, he remains resolutely Victorian in his outlook. Proudly misogynistic (to the point of singing several songs about it), he treats Eliza as little more than a curiosity, approaching her speech lessons like teaching a chimp table manners. He shows less empathy towards her, indeed, than the deeply flawed Dr Treves shows to John Merrick in The Elephant Man.
He’s a deeply unlikable character thanks to his narrow views and obnoxious worldview, and his attitudes must surely have even curled a few toes when the film was released in 1964. It’s made worse by the relationship between the two, and the way the film ends, which I won’t disclose in case, like me, you’ve somehow avoided this film for the last 54 years. I’ll just say two words: Breakfast Club.
Hepburn is superb in the lead role, in both the loud cockney accent she has at the start and the refined upper class purr she adopts later on. But since attitudes about class and speech have moved on since the film was made, it mostly feels fairly low stakes. Who cares how she talks? Maybe they should do a remake where Higgins sees the error of his ways and learns to love her just the way she is.
Luckily it’s buoyed by the excellent lead performances and all-round quality of the production. The standout feature of the film is its stunning sets and costumes – constantly providing visual treats. The most expensive film ever made at the time, it’s easy to see where the money went. It looks absolutely gorgeous throughout, especially during the superbly staged musical numbers.
A film which is undeniably of the highest quality, like Gone With the Wind before it My Fair Lady transcends its more questionable moments, managing to be enjoyable nonetheless.