This sumptuous adaptation of the smash Broadway musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion won eight well-deserved Academy Awards in 1964 – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Rex Harrison), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Music.
Rex Harrison reprised his signature stage role as the egotistical and misogynistic phonetics expert, Professor Henry Higgins who makes a bet with a fellow academic that he can transform cockney flower-girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) from a gutter-dwelling flower girl into a refined lady – whose ‘common’ origins would not be spotted – in time for a prestigious society ball at the Embassy.
Higgins succeeds but omits to give Eliza any of the credit for their success. She storms off, threatening to accept the proposal from one of her new young beaux. Can Higgins undo the mistakes he has made?
This beautifully-staged musical was Warner Brothers most expensive film to date ($17 million). Hepburn’s casting as Eliza was also controversial, as she was picked over Julie Andrews, who had played the part on Broadway.
Hepburn was thrilled to get the role and was confident that she could learn to sing it, after singing in Funny Face (1957).
She set about voice lessons with dedication, only to be told after months of hard work – and her songs already recorded – that musical director Andre Previn had decided to hire Marni Nixon – who also did Natalie Wood’s vocals in West Side Story (1961) – to dub the famous numbers, thus inflicting a bitter blow to Hepburn’s professional pride.
Harrison is impeccable, as is Wilfrid Hyde-White as Colonel Pickering, with Jeremy Brett well-cast as luckless Freddy Eynsford Hill.
But the enterprise is marred by some obviously artificial ‘staginess’ and an occasional disjunction between the admirable Miss Nixon’s voice and Hepburn’s personality.
And even Hepburn’s most ardent fans had to concede that as a cockney flower seller her efforts at authenticity simply failed to convince.
However, from the moment of her transformation into a lady, all the Hepburn magic is intact: grace, dignity, charm and vulnerability. Her appearance at the top of the stair in the white Beaton ball gown must surely be one of the iconic images of female beauty in the modern cinema.
The movie includes such monumental musical numbers as The Rain in Spain, Wouldn’t It Be Luvverly?, I Could Have Danced All Night, All I Want Is A Room Somewhere and Get Me To The Church On Time.
Professor Henry Higgins
Freddy Eynsford Hill